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Top 10 free transfers in football

Nick Miller
January 24, 2014
No, Robert, you came in at No. 10, not No. 4 © Getty Images

ESPN examines the joy and pain associated with the 10 greatest free transfers in the history of football...

10. Robert Lewandowski to Bayern Munich

This is cheating slightly, because the transfer hasn't technically happened yet. Lewandowski might turn out to be a disaster at Bayern Munich. He might flop in a spectacular fashion as Pep Guardiola finds he has no need for a big centre-forward when he has Thomas Muller, Mario Goetze, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thiago flitting around. However, if you wish to try something unlikely and pick holes in this Bayern side, the one place you might find a weakness is right up top. Mario Mandzukic is good, for sure, and he will likely find himself a good home should he decide not to compete with Lewandowski, but he is not in Lewandowski's class. Bayern are already the best club side in Europe, probably the world, and now they have a man who has scored 57 goals in 82 games over the past three seasons. It hardly seems fair.

9. Denis Law to Manchester City

"He's going through the motions." That was Tommy Docherty's assessment of Denis Law in 1973, around 18 months after he had taken over as Manchester United manager. In some ways it was remarkable that Law had lasted that long at Old Trafford, with injury concerns and assorted losses of form leading him to be transfer-listed as early as 1970, but there were no takers, a formerly great footballer left as the last, unwanted toy on the shelf. Docherty allowed Law to leave on a free transfer, and he was snapped up by Manchester City, where he scored a relatively modest 12 goals over the season, which nevertheless bettered his return in 1967/68, when he won the European Cup with Manchester United. Of course, it wasn't the quantity of goals that stuck in the memory, but the last one, his back-heel that he thought had relegated United at Old Trafford, his final touch in professional club football.

8. Ruud Gullit to Chelsea

It's pretty easy to be blasé about brilliant foreign players with world class reputations playing in the Premier League these days, because obviously it's so commonplace. It was anything but that in 1994, with players like Gullit retaining a mystique among English fans who were more used to seeing honest, hard-working types and treated skill with a degree of suspicion. In truth, Gullit was well past his best when he joined Chelsea from Sampdoria, but to English eyes relatively unused to such skill, watching him glide around the pitch, clearly five feet more talented than anyone else, was a pleasure.

7. Kevin Davies to Bolton

Davies looks a little incongruous on a list that contains some of the finest talent to have played the game, but his time at Bolton was a lesson in a player making the most of what (relatively little) talent he had. Davies was rescued from the unwanted bin like one of the Raggy Dolls by Bolton, after both Blackburn and Southampton had spent big money on him only for him to, shall we say, not exactly live up to expectations. Sam Allardyce then turned him into the sort of bruising, old-fashioned centre-forward who emotional and nostalgic old sorts go misty-eyed for, and who would have been right at home in an era when it was OK to barge the goalkeeper out of the way if he had the temerity to try catching the ball. And, lest we forget, he even managed to get himself an England cap. Remarkable, really.

Esteban Cambiasso left Real Madrid for Inter Milan © Getty Images

6. Esteban Cambiasso to Inter Milan

In 2003, Claude Makelele, the man described as the "engine" in the Real Madrid team by Zinedine Zidane no less (Zizou called the arriving David Beckham "another coat of gold paint"), left for Chelsea after a rather undignified transfer saga. You would think, therefore, Real would do as much as they could to keep hold of any other similar, quality players they had on their books. Not so, it seems - after all, they had to squeeze Zidane, Beckham and Luis Figo in their side, so keeping a balding, tenacious but unspectacular defensive midfielder wasn't at the top of their list of priorities. Cambiasso was thus allowed to leave on a free, and was gratefully snapped up by Inter Milan, where he still is, nearly a decade later, having played more than 400 games and won five Serie A titles and the 2010 Champions League.

5. Miroslav Klose to Lazio

How many times has it been assumed that Klose is done for, that he is finished, washed up and no longer a relevant player at the highest level? When his contract at Bayern Munich expired in 2011, he was 33 and Serie A may have seemed an odd choice, but Lazio gave him a three-year contract and boy has he repaid their faith. Klose has 36 goals in 87 games for the club so far, and is aiming toward Ronaldo's World Cup goals record in the summer, having already equalled Gerd Muller's Germany record. "I am still counting on Klose in the next two years," Jogi Loew said at the start of the qualification campaign. "When he is in his stride, he still ranks among the best attackers in the world."

4. Steve McManaman to Real Madrid

The first high-profile English player to take advantage of the Bosman ruling, McManaman nearly signed with Real's mortal enemies, Barcelona, a couple of years before. With Liverpool aware that McManaman could leave for nothing, they accepted a £12.5 million bid from Barca, and the player even flew out to Spain, only to discover that Barca decided to sign a chap called Rivaldo instead. A couple of years later he did move to Spain, signing for Real on a free, and the strange thing for English fans who regarded McManaman as something of a flighty, fancy sort is that he was Real's workhorse, the man who did Zidane and Figo's running for them. Indeed, it was impressive that he survived the myriad Galactico signings of Florentino Perez's first spell, playing a key role in two Champions League and two La Liga titles while in Spain.

Henrik Larsson won the Champions League with Barcelona © Getty Images

3. Henrik Larsson to Barcelona

"My time at the club was fantastic and the connection with the fans was spectacular." Henrik Larsson spent seven seasons at Celtic, scoring an astonishing 242 goals in 313 games, so he could well have been referring to them. However, he was talking about Barcelona, whom he joined after his Celtic contract expired in 2004, and where he spent two seasons in the first great Barca side of the modern era under Frank Rijkaard. Larsson was about to turn 33 when he signed a one-year contract at the Nou Camp, and damaged his cruciate ligaments in November of his first season, but so impressed were Barca they gave him a second year anyway.

Barca won the league both years he was in Cataluyna, and his final game for the club was the Champions League final, in which he came on and set up both goals as they beat Arsenal 2-1. "People always talk about Ronaldinho and everything, but I didn't see him today - I saw Henrik Larsson," said Thierry Henry, about to move to Barca himself, after the game. "He changed the game, that is what killed the game - sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and [Samuel] Eto'o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight, because I didn't see Ronaldinho or Eto'o."

2. Sol Campbell to Arsenal

It wasn't just that Sol Campbell left Spurs for their arch rivals, but that he left for nothing, a few months after promising he'd stay, and after further promising that he would never play for Arsenal. But play for Arsenal he did, turning down large piles of cash from the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan to do so. It was a crucial signing for Arsene Wenger in a number of ways, not least that in the summer of 2001 when Campbell signed, he was struggling to keep hold of Patrick Vieira, who had announced he was leaving with Manchester United and Juventus both lurking, and Tony Adams' career was winding down. Campbell replaced Adams superbly, and would win two league titles with Arsenal before leaving in 2006, apparently due to a desire to play abroad. He signed for Portsmouth.

1. Andrea Pirlo to Juventus

You might not know the name Dick Rowe, but you will have heard of him. He's the Decca A&R man who, upon hearing a one-hour audition by the Beatles, decided against signing them, claiming that "guitar groups are on their way out." While whoever decided at AC Milan that Andrea Pirlo was "on his way out" perhaps wasn't quite as bad as Rowe (Pirlo was only fit enough to play 17 games in his final season with the Rossoneri), they will presumably have poured themselves many a mournful glass of wine as Pirlo's sublime passing led Juventus to a couple of Scudettos, and is well on its way to doing so for a third year running. "I think Pirlo has been the best signing of my career," Juventus general director Giuseppe Marotta said in 2012. For nothing, he'd probably be the best signing of anyone's career.

Andrea Pirlo is closing in on a third Scudetto with Juventus since leaving AC Milan © Getty Images

Nick Miller is a freelance football writer for Football365, ESPNFC, the Guardian, Eurosport, Betfair and a number of other publications. You can follow him on twitter @NickMiller79

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