The most expensive football transfers usually define a window.
Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 shocked the world, Gareth Bale waited all summer to switch Tottenham for Real Madrid in 2013, and Cristiano Ronaldo swapped England for Spain to incredible effect.
It is a sign of great faith to spend such a huge amount of money on one player, but it carries with it the expectation that the player will reward that faith with performances – and if they do not, fans will not be forgiving.
Many great players have risen to the pressure of their transfer fee, but others have been crushed under the burden of expectations placed upon them.
Let’s take a look at the 50 most expensive transfers of all time.
From: Napoli to PSG, 2013
Arriving at Paris Saint-Germain after they had just won their first league title in two decades, Edinson Cavani helped to establish the Parisiens as the dominant force in French football.
He was never the poster boy in Paris, instead being overshadowed by any combination of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, and he was unceremoniously allowed to leave on a free transfer in 2020.
From: Juventus to Man City, 2019
The specifics of Manchester City’s purchase of Joao Cancelo are unclear. He joined in a deal which saw Danilo move to Juventus in exchange, and both sides agreed that the value of the deal was €65m.
Cancelo has been predictably brilliant in England and is one of the first players on the City team sheet these days.
From: Athletic Club to Man City, 2018
In the 18 months after his €65m move to Man City, Aymeric Laporte looked like an overwhelming success. He was excellent as City won the 2018/19 title, but a nasty knee injury flipped the narrative on its head.
He spent a season on the bench behind John Stones and Ruben Dias, but received regular game time in 2021/22 and re-established himself as one of the best defenders in England.
From: Monaco to Atletico Madrid, 2018
Atletico Madrid paid big to beat Arsenal to the signing of Thomas Lemar in 2018, but they’ll really be wishing they hadn’t.
In his four seasons so far with the club, Lemar has offered up just nine goals and barely resembles the exciting talent who shot to fame with Monaco.
From: AC Milan to Real Madrid, 2009
The Ballon d’Or winner in 2007, a world record move to Real Madrid seemed like the natural step for Kaka when AC Milan’s status in European football began to slip in the late 2000s.
However, injuries disrupted his first two seasons at the Bernabeu, with Mesut Ozil taking his place in the side, and he also had a troubled relationship with Jose Mourinho.
He turned to Milan four years later on a free transfer, handing Real one of their most painful losses ever.
From: Chelsea to Atletico Madrid, 2018
Beloved by everyone at Chelsea apart from Antonio Conte, Diego Costa was unceremoniously kicked out of Stamford Bridge with a less-than-pleasant text message from the boss.
It sparked a six-month exile from the first team which ended in a lucrative move to Atletico, who paid nearly twice as much to re-sign him as they received when they sold him a few years earlier.
To make Atleti’s business even worse, Costa was largely rubbish in his second spell at the club and saw his contract terminated in January 2021.
From: Leicester to Man City, 2018
Riyad Mahrez went on temporary strike at Leicester to force through a move to Man City in 2018.
While he may fall victim to Pep Roulette as most City stars do, the Algerian has proven himself as an incredibly reliable forward at the Etihad, becoming a bigger and greater goal threat each season.
From: Lille to Napoli, 2019
Compared to a young Didier Drogba, Victor Osimhen is seen by many as the next great African striker.
He shone in Ligue 1 with Lille, earning himself a blockbuster move to Napoli in 2019. He’s been brilliant there, scoring consistently as I Partenopei continue to tease with the occasional title challenge.
From: Benfica to Man City, 2020
Fee: €68m + €3.6m
After growing a little worried by his shaky defence in 2019/20, Guardiola went big with the blockbuster signing of Ruben Dias.
The Portugal international had an immediate impact, leading City back to the Premier League title and winning the Player of the Year award in the process.
From: Liverpool to Man City, 2015
After a pretty ugly contract dispute with Liverpool, Raheem Sterling made the controversial switch to Man City. At the time, he was both the most expensive English player ever and the most expensive teenager ever.
Guardiola turned the winger into a goalscoring machine, although the 2021/22 season ended with rumours that Sterling was looking for a new challenge, so he might end up on this list again soon.
From: Inter to Barcelona, 2009
Just three weeks after watching Real Madrid splash out on Kaka, Barcelona tried to one-up their rivals with a €69.5m move for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
He netted 22 goals in 46 games in his only season at Camp Nou, but Ibrahimovic grew tired of being pushed out of position for Lionel Messi.
“You bought a Ferrari, but you drive it like a Fiat,” he famously told Pep Guardiola before being offloaded to AC Milan.
From: Eintracht Frankfurt to Real Madrid, 2019
2018/19: Luka Jovic scores 27 goals and earns a €70m move to Real.
2019/20: Luka Jovic scores two goals and earns a loan back to Frankfurt.
No prizes for guessing who won this deal.
From: Atletico Madrid to Man City, 2019
Man City broke their transfer record to land Spanish midfielder Rodri in 2019.
Billed as a replacement for the indefatigable Fernandinho, Rodri made the position his own in 2020/21 and 2021/22, shining as City lifted the Premier League trophy in both seasons.
From: Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea, 2020
Fee: €70m + €9m
As one of the few sides that remained in a healthy financial state after the COVID-19 shutdown, Chelsea took advantage and swooped in to land German starlet Kai Havertz.
He didn’t have the easiest debut season, but he did score the winning goal in the Champions League final. He’s improved steadily, so expect the attacker to start bossing Premier League games more regularly.
From: Barcelona to Juventus, 2020
Fee: €72m + €10m
Juventus couldn’t believe their luck when they were offered the chance to send an ageing Miralem Pjanic to Barcelona in exchange for Brazilian Arthur in a deal which technically wasn’t a swap deal (but definitely was).
Despite getting the best side of the deal, Juventus still haven’t been totally impressed with Arthur, but at least things have gone better than Pjanic’s time with Barcelona.
From: Roma to Liverpool, 2018
Loris Karius’ disastrous performance in the 2018 Champions League final forced Jurgen Klopp to swallow his pride and dip into the transfer market for a world class goalkeeper in the form of Alisson.
It was money well spent as Alisson quickly glued Liverpool’s defence together, shining en route to Champions League and Premier League glory.
From: Real Madrid to Man Utd, 2014
Di Maria had been named Man of the Match in the Champions League final as Real Madrid finally clinched La Decima in 2014, so it looked like United had struck gold broke their transfer record to sign the Argentine a few months later.
*Narrator voice*: They would not strike gold.
A failure to settle in England saw Di Maria’s form crumble and he was shipped out to PSG for a loss 12 months later.
From: Fiorentina to Juventus, 2022
Fiorentina fans don’t like Juventus, mainly because their club is always selling its best players to the Italian giants.
Juan Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa are among those who have recently switched from purple to black and white, but Vlahovic became the latest when he joined Juve for €75m.
His goalscoring feats at I Viola were terrific and he’s made an excellent start at Juve, too.
From: Ajax to Barcelona, 2019
After months of speculation, the Frenkie de Jong transfer saga finally came to an end in January 2019 when the Dutch midfielder agreed to join Barcelona at the end of the season.
However, that move has coincided with a downfall in Barça’s fortunes and De Jong hasn’t kicked on. Club officials have publically said they want him to stay, but Manchester United are close to taking him to Old Trafford.
De Jong was meant to dominate Barça’s midfield for a decade, but instead the romance looks to be done just three years in.
From: Wolfsburg to Man City, 2015
Two years after Jose Mourinho decided Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t good enough for the Premier League, Manuel Pellegrini brought him back to England, paying a hefty sum to sign the Belgian from Wolfsburg.
The Belgian maestro has been one of the world’s best creators since returning to England in 2015 and has turned City into one of the scariest sides around.
From: Ajax to Juventus, 2019
Fee: €75m + €10.5m
Six months after seeing team-mate De Jong agree his blockbuster move away from Ajax, Matthijs de Ligt made the headlines himself by agreeing a switch to Juventus which could be worth in excess of €85m.
Learning from Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci has clearly worked wonders for De Ligt, who has been very impressive since his move to Italy.
From: Benfica to Liverpool, 2022
Fee: €75m + €25m
Liverpool don’t always spend bucket-loads on one player in particular, but broke that trend in 2022 to bring in Benfica hot-shot Darwin Nunez.
The Uruguayan impressed in Champions League fixtures against the Reds in 2021/22, also ending the season with 34 club goals in all competitions.
He’s likely to spearhead the attack as the central striker with help from the likes of Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota.
From: Juventus to Real Madrid, 2001
That volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final was almost worth the entirety of the €77.5m Real spent on Zinedine Zidane, although the Spanish side did feel a little short-changed when he retired from playing after just five years at the club.
Nevertheless, he remained close with Los Blancos and eventually enjoyed two successful spells as manager of the club, the most recent of which came to an end in 2021.
From: Real Madrid to Chelsea, 2017
Conte’s Chelsea downfall began when he decided to replace Diego Costa with Alvaro Morata in the summer of 2017. Costa had just scored 20 goals to help Chelsea win the Premier League title in 2016/17; Morata had never scored more than 15 in a league campaign.
After a bright start, Morata’s form fell off a cliff and he was loaned out to Atletico Madrid just 18 months after arriving, having managed just 24 goals in 72 appearances for the Blues.
From: Lille to Arsenal, 2019
Arsenal’s lack of transfer funds was being mocked in 2019, but then the Gunners came out and dropped €79m on one of the most in-demand players around at the time, Nicolas Pepe.
Unfortunately, we’re yet to see anything from Pepe that suggests he was worth that spend. His form has been so inconsistent and he has struggled to hold down a permanent starting spot.
From: Man Utd to Inter, 2019
Romelu Lukaku managed just two seasons at Old Trafford and found himself struggling to break into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team towards the end of the 2018/19 season. As a result, he began pushing for an exit.
An €80m move to Inter followed, and the Serie A side quickly determined that an undiagnosed digestive issue had been behind his slump in form in England.
That was sorted out, and Lukaku quickly turned back into one of the world’s best strikers, winning the Serie A title in 2020/21. He left for Chelsea soon after but was back at the club on loan just a season later.
From: Atletico Madrid to Bayern Munich, 2019
After shining at the 2018 World Cup, Lucas Hernandez spent the next season proving he was one of the best defenders around, and Bayern Munich were so impressed that they shelled out a cool €80m to sign him.
Injuries have prevented Lucas from matching that form in Germany, and the jury’s still out on whether this was actually a good deal.
From: Athletic Club to Chelsea, 2018
Chelsea were scrambling to replace Thibaut Courtois in 2018 and ended up triggering Kepa Arrizabalaga’s sky-high release clause.
His debut season was solid, but Kepa’s form soon fell off a cliff. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper put up some historically poor statistics and was benched by Edouard Mendy in 2020.
That’s a lot of money for a backup…
From: Monaco to Real Madrid, 2014
James Rodriguez rode the wave of the 2014 World Cup right to the Santiago Bernabeu.
He dominated in his debut season but was soon bitten by the injury bug, and Rodriguez eventually lost his place in the squad.
He spent two years on loan with Bayern Munich before joining Everton in 2020. That didn’t go well and he’s since been lost to football limbo. So sad, especially if you’re one of those who watch his stunning volley against Uruguay daily.
From: Monaco to Real Madrid, 2022
Fee: €80m + €20m
Real Madrid’s incredible midfield core of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will have to pass to torch on one day, and Aurelien Tchouameni is one such player ready to take up the mantle.
A breakout few years with Monaco saw the midfielder receive senior international honours before a move to the Bernabeu in 2022.
It’s a six-year deal, so he’s clearly one for the future despite being so massively talented and experienced already.
From: Liverpool to Barcelona, 2014
No price tag would have been enough for Liverpool to happily part with Luis Suarez, but they couldn’t stand in the way of his dream move to Barcelona when the Catalans came calling in 2014.
Suarez bagged a whopping 195 goals in 283 appearances for Barcelona, who inexplicably decided he would be useless in 2020/21, despite having just scored 16 goals in the previous season.
He was booted out the door to Atletico Madrid for pennies but ended up having the last laugh as he bagged 21 goals in 32 games to fire Atleti to the league title.
From: Southampton to Liverpool, 2018
Some people were sceptical when Liverpool smashed their transfer record to make Virgil van Dijk the world’s most expensive defender in January 2018, but it quickly became apparent why they had done that.
Van Dijk transformed Liverpool’s defence and led them to the Champions League final, and he went from strength to strength after that, winning both European and English titles soon after.
From: Everton to Man Utd, 2017
Romelu Lukaku can count himself unfortunate to have attracted so much criticism after joining United in 2017. He averaged nearly a goal every other game in his debut season, but was accused of not being mobile enough and only scoring against lesser sides.
With 27 goals in all competitions, his debut season was actually the most prolific of Lukaku’s career up until 2019/20. His form didn’t last, and United ended up selling him to Inter in the summer of 2019.
From: Borussia Dortmund to Man Utd, 2021
It took United well over a year, but they finally landed Jadon Sancho in the summer of 2021.
The €85.3m fee was considerably lower than the €120m quoted by Dortmund 12 months earlier, so if you ignore the circus that was this entire transfer saga, this has probably worked out alright for United.
From: Santos to Barcelona, 2013
Barcelona initially claimed their acquisition of Neymar was worth just €57.1m, but an investigation into the deal revealed the truth.
It turned out that the Blaugrana had shelled out a cool €86.2m to land the Brazilian, who would eventually make them their money back and then some.
From: Leicester to Man Utd, 2019
The most expensive defender of all time, and maybe one of history’s patchiest players ever, too.
In spells it can look like Harry Maguire has done enough to convince most of his talent, but rocky spells at Old Trafford have been dogged by defensive uncertainty and calamity, with the England star attracting plenty of criticism.
Erik ten Hag could revitalise the former Leicester star, but right now the jury is still out.
From: Napoli to Juventus, 2016
In their efforts to finally win that elusive Champions League title, Juventus raided Serie A rivals Napoli for Gonzalo Higuain in 2016. It was a fair price for a striker whose 36 goals the previous season was the highest total in Serie A since 1928/29.
Higuain didn’t quite scale to those heights in Turin, though he did score 40 goals in 73 league appearances before loan spells with both AC Milan and Chelsea led to a permanent exit in 2020.
From: Man Utd to Real Madrid, 2009
Nothing that costs €94m can be described as a bargain, but this will go down as one of the greatest transfers ever despite the extortionate price. Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Real as one of the best players in the world and left having established himself as one of the best players of all time.
In nine seasons at the Bernabeu, Ronaldo scored a staggering 450 goals in 438 appearances, won the Ballon d’Or four times, and won every possible trophy at least twice, including four Champions League titles.
From: Real Madrid to Juventus, 2018
Guess who’s back?
Juventus watched Real Madrid win three consecutive Champions League titles and decided they wouldn’t mind a piece of the action, and they were prepared to spend big to get it.
Goals flooded in with Ronaldo but at the detriment of the team. A rebuild in Turin was needed and the Portugal legend returned to Manchester United in 2021. They too have learned that having Ronaldo on the books is not always as fun as it sounds.
From: Chelsea to Real Madrid, 2019
Fee: €100m + €45m
Real weren’t prepared to wait an extra 12 months to sign Eden Hazard on a free and instead agreed to pay what could end up being €145m for the Belgian winger.
Now, they really wish they hadn’t.
Injuries have plagued the ageing winger and prevented him from coming anywhere close to the elite form which convinced them to make the move, and this one now feels like it could be the worst transfer in history.
From: Tottenham to Real Madrid, 2013
Speaking of bad transfers…
Gareth Bale popped up with some huge goals for Real and played his part in some all-time great moments, but injury struggles and the media storm that followed him have turned this one into a comedy skit.
He left in 2022 for Major League Soccer with LAFC. At least now no one will bother him about his love of golf.
From: Juventus to Man Utd, 2016
Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t make many mistakes in his illustrious career, but allowing Paul Pogba to leave United for nothing in 2012 may be one of his biggest. Pogba’s attitude was called into question, but that did not seem to be a problem at Juventus as he became one of the best midfielders in Serie A.
Four years after letting him leave, United brought Pogba back to Old Trafford for a then-world record sum. He was amazing in spells, but never truly lived up to the billing in a poor era for the Red Devils.
He left for free again in 2022 and looks set to return to Juventus, who are no doubt laughing over the fact they’ve signed the World Cup winner twice for a combined fee of absolutely nothing.
From: Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona, 2017
Fee: €105m + €45m
Barcelona took a leap of faith when they spent over €100m to sign Ousmane Dembele from Dortmund in 2017. The Frenchman had only had one season in the Bundesliga, but Barça scouts were convinced that this was a player who could become one of the world’s best.
On the whole, it hasn’t gone that well. However, Dembele was brilliant in the second half of the 2021/22 season and Barça are attempting to keep him, despite his contract running out.
Either way, it looks like they’ll be making a net loss on the forward.
From: Inter to Chelsea, 2021
Chelsea decided they were sick of struggling without a star striker, so they splashed a whopping €115m to bring Lukaku back from Inter.
He returned as one of the game’s deadliest forwards, but talk of his unhappiness in England and desire to return to Italy was rife in his first season back at Stamford Bridge.
A badly timed interview with Sky Italia did him no favours and he soon dropped out of favour with manager Thomas Tuchel.
Chelsea forked out €115m for the Belgian, but he managed only 15 goals in 44 appearances during the 2021/22 campaign and has since returned to Inter on loan.
From: Aston Villa to Manchester City, 2021
Manchester City broke the bank in the summer of 2021 to sign England cult hero and Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, adding even more quality to their already unbelievable senior squad.
He won the Premier League title in his first season with the Citizens, but bigger and better things are in the pipeline.
From: Atletico Madrid to Barcelona, 2019
The Antoine Griezmann transfer saga had literally everything.
He rejected Barcelona in 2018 using a documentary produced by Gerard Pique’s company, only to sign for the club 12 months later amid a tapping-up scandal that led to a formal complaint from Atletico.
All of that for a transfer that was pretty rubbish from start to finish. He’s now back at Atletico.
From: Liverpool to Barcelona, 2018
Fee: €120m* + €40m
Philippe Coutinho joined Barcelona from Liverpool in January 2018 in search of trophies and acclaim, and he got what he desired – winning two league titles in a row. But he could only watch on as former club Liverpool lifted the big one in 2019, smashing Coutinho’s Barcelona en route to the Champions League final itself.
Coutinho has struggled. So much so, in fact, that if you were to label this one of the worst transfers of all time, you’d actually have a strong case (he’s 90min’s number 3).
Never before has so much money been put up and such disappointment followed. He’s now at Aston Villa trying to make up for lost time under Steve Gerrard, his old Reds teammate.
That money*, you ask? Barça are reported to have paid an initial €120m to Liverpool, with a series of add-ons paid down the line – coming after sealing Champions League qualification, winning the tournament itself and in blocks of appearances. The total could reach €160m if all add-ons are triggered.
From: Benfica to Atletico Madrid, 2019
One of the world’s most exciting prospects, Joao Felix sealed a move to Atletico in 2019 despite being courted by almost all of Europe’s biggest clubs in the months before the move was made official.
Felix burst onto the scene at Benfica, and Atletico fancied him so much that they decided on paying his entire €126m release clause as they attempted to replace the outgoing Antoine Griezmann.
30 goals and three seasons later, it’s fair to say results have been mixed.
From: Monaco to PSG, 2018
Fee: €145m + €35m
Their heir to the throne shared by Messi and Ronaldo (or just Messi, tbh) as the best player on the planet is Kylian Mbappe.
He’s won the World Cup already, and PSG made a big effort to sign him from Monaco in 2018…so much so that they made him the second most expensive player of all time.
He recently shunned interest from Real Madrid to stay, but can he help PSG finally win the Champions League?
From: Barcelona to PSG, 2017
Neymar’s move from Barcelona to PSG in 2017 didn’t so much break the world transfer record as smash it into a million pieces. He became the first player to command a nine-figure sum, with the £198m fee being more than double the previous record of Pogba.
Was it worth it? Neymar has been prolific in front of goal and PSG won the domestic treble in his first season. League titles have been a breeze (except for last season) but the Champions League is still missing.
Neymar did sign a new contract in 2021, though there have been rumours of a potential departure. Watch this space.
As you can see, the most expensive football transfers ever have not always turned out to be the best ones. Such obscene amounts of money can crank the pressure up on new arrivals and affect their performances, but there have been a fair few who have thrived when becoming one of the most costliest players ever.