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The Best FREE Transfers in Football History

Best Free Transfers in Football

Last Updated on September 13, 2021

It is not unfair to say that free transfers do not create, or stir up the same levels of excitement for football fans that big money signings do. 

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However, in both very recent times and in years gone by, some of the best additions to squads throughout world football have been free transfers.

Here, we’ll look back, from the least to the most, to showcase and share thoughts on the fifteen best free transfers in football history. The overall achievements of these players; including major trophies won are critical factors in ranking these players.

15. JAY JAY OKOCHA – Paris Saint Germain to Bolton Wanderers, 2002

In June 2002, Bolton signed Okocha. One of the most talented African footballers ever, it was obvious to all that Jay-Jay Okocha and his trickery would be constantly coveted by the elite European clubs. 

So, it was no surprise that he turned up in the English Premier League, after the 2002 World Cup.

That he would be playing for Bolton Wanderers was a shock though, and represented a magnificent coup by Sam Allardyce and the Bolton owners.

In total, Okocha played 144 matches for Bolton, scored 18 goals, laid 3 assists, and some jaw-dropping dribbles that modern stats today do not account for.

Okocha’s dazzling display earns him the right to be one of the best free transfers in football.

Major Honours Won With Manchester Bolton Wanderers:
NONE

Read Also: Who Is The Most Decorated African Footballers Ever?

14. RUUD GULLIT – Sampdoria to Chelsea, 1995

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The summer of 1995 saw Dutch great and all-round superstar, Ruud Gullit, arrive at Chelsea, as the Premier League became ever more glamorous and attractive to genuine global superstars.

Signed by Glenn Hoddle, Gullit would be utilized in a “sweeper” role at Stamford Bridge, dictating the play and thrilling fans across the UK with his locker of sublime skill and abilities to control the game from the back.

Gullit played 65 times for Chelsea and scored 6 goals in total.

Major Honours Won With Chelsea:
English FA Cup: 1

Read Also: The Best Chelsea Players Ever

13. ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC – Paris Saint Germain to Manchester United, 2016

Eyebrows were certainly raised in the summer of 2016, when Jose Mourinho bought his trusted lieutenant, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to Manchester United. 

The duo had tasted success together before in Serie A with Inter Milan, but Mourinho could not have expected the huge impact made by the super Swede when he rocked up at Old Trafford, with 17 Premier League goals and a massive impact made over two years by “Zlatan” at Old Trafford. 

Major Honours Won With Manchester United:
League Cup: 1
Europa League: 1

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Read Also: How Many Nigerians Have Played For Manchester United?

12. GIANLUCA VIALLI – Juventus to Chelsea, 1996

There was huge excitement and anticipation on both these shores and at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1996, when it was announced that the Italian great, Gianluca Vialli, was coming to the Premier League. 

Known for his friendly nature, spectacular volleys, and sublime forward play, the extremely decorated striker had nothing left to win in club football when he signed for Chelsea. 

Vialli played 81 times for Chelsea and scored a moderate 38 goals.

Major Honours Won With Chelsea:
FA Cup: 1
League Cup: 1
European Cup Winners Cup: 1

Read Also: The Evolution of Chelsea Under Abramovich

11. JAMES MILNER – Manchester City to Liverpool, 2015

Some footballers are never truly appreciated by their fans, and I think it’s very safe to say that James Milner falls into this category too. 

Yet Milner’s tireless, selfless displays in the red of Liverpool over the last six seasons have certainly been a huge contributory factor to their continued success under Jurgen Klopp. 

Versatile, combative, and an excellent penalty taker, Milner remains key to the Reds. 

Milner has been so important for Liverpool that he has made over 200 appearances so far for the Reds.

Given Milner’s achievements with Liverpool, it is no surprise that he is one of the best free transfers in football.

Major Honours Won With Liverpool:
Premier League: 1
UEFA Champions League: 1
UEFA Super Cup: 1
FIFA World Club Cup: 1

Read Also: Best Manchester City Players of All Time

10. HENRIK LARSSON – Celtic to Barcelona, 2004

Known for his supreme poaching skills, Henrik Larsson certainly was the epitome of the classic “box in the box” center-forward all fans adore to watch. 

However, there was far more to the Swede’s game than that and after years of trophies and success in Scotland, Larsson finally got his opportunity on one of the greatest stages of all at Camp Nou, playing his part in yet more glory for Barcelona.

Major Honours Won With Barcelona:
La Liga: 2
UEFA Champions League: 1
Supercopa de Espana: 1

Read Also: Best Barcelona Players of All Time

9. MICHAEL BALLACK – Bayern Munich to Chelsea, 2006

Chelsea’s signing of Ballack is one of the best free transfers in the Premier League.

The arrival at Stamford Bridge of German international Michael Ballack in 2006 was a testament to Chelsea’s rise to the summit of the European game at this time, as the Blues’ defeated all rival European heavyweights to the classy midfielder’s signature. 

Capable of long-distance passing and possessing a bite to the tackle, Ballack starred for the West Londoners during a 4-year spell in West London.

Major Honours Won With Chelsea:
Premier League: 1
FA Cup: 3
League Cup: 1
FA Community Shield: 1

8. STEVE McMANAMAN – Liverpool to Real Madrid, 1999

A Premier League icon of the 1990s, Steve McManaman certainly ruffled the feathers of his employers at Liverpool in 1998 when he openly refused to sign a new contract at Anfield. 

Despite a cash offer from Barcelona then being agreed, the deal never came to fruition and McManaman would sit out his contract, leaving for Real Madrid on a free transfer in 1999, where he became a huge favorite of Los Blancos.  

Major Honours Won With Real Madrid:
La Liga: 2
Champions League: 2
Supercopa de Espana: 1
UEFA Super Cup: 1

Read Also: Real Madrid’s Highest Goal Scorers of All Time

7. SOL CAMPBELL – Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal, 2001

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Trading one half of North London for the other is difficult enough for any player, let alone for an actual fan of the team he left behind. Yet this is what Campbell did, way back in the summer of 2001 when he stunned the football world by leaving Tottenham for Arsenal, in search of major honors.

The move was a huge success, with Campbell leaving Arsenal five years later as an “invincible”, and legendary status assured.

Major Honours Won With Arsenal:
Premier League: 2
FA Cup: 3
FA Community Shield: 1

Consider Reading: Worst Arsenal Signings of All Time

6. ANDREA PIRLO – AC Milan to Juventus, 2011

Andrea Pirlo’s move from AC Milan to Juventus is not one of the best free transfers in football, it is one of the most shocking.

Swapping AC Milan for Juventus requires both bravery and guile, attributes that the Italian footballing legend Andrea Pirlo clearly possesses. 

Already a World Cup and double Champions League winner for Milan, the midfield maestro could have just wound down his career at the expiry of that Milan contract in 2011, yet instead went on to win 4 consecutive Serie A titles for Juve, becoming recognized as a genuine, brilliant winner.

Although Pirlo is one of the best Midfielders of all time, he is also one of the top players who don’t have a great coaching career success.

Major Honours Won With Juventus:
Serie A: 4
Coppa Italia: 1
Supercoppa Italiana: 2

5. LUIS ENRIQUE – Real Madrid to Barcelona, 1996

Operating as either a midfielder or forward, the versatile Luis Enrique will go down as one of the most controversial Spanish players of the last 30 years or so. 

Admittedly never feeling “at home” at the Santiago Bernabeu, Enrique would go on to become a fan favorite for Barcelona at Camp Nou, regularly contributing to the cause with many important goals whilst becoming “one of their own” too.

Major Honours Won With Barcelona:
La Liga: 2
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup: 1
UEFA Super Cup: 1
Copa del Rey: 2
Supercopa de Espana: 1 

Read Also: Best Africans To Play in The MLS

4. PAUL POGBA – Manchester United to Juventus, 2012

Now widely respected as one of the greatest technicians of his generation, things were not always that straightforward for Paul Pogba. 

A product of the famed Manchester United Academy, the mercurial Frenchman would stun his employers by signing for Italian giants Juventus, in the summer of 2012. 

Pogba went on to star for “I Bianconeiri” over a four-year trophy-laden spell before returning to United for a world-record fee. 

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Major Honours Won With Juventus:
Serie A: 4
Coppa Italia: 2
Supercoppa Italiana: 2

Read Also: The Premier League Top Scorers Prediction

3. LEON GORETZKA – Schalke to Bayern Munich, 2018

A wonderfully skilled, complete midfielder, it can still definitely be argued that the best years of Leon Goretzka’s career are still ahead of him. 

Now a mainstay of both the Bayern Munich and German national midfield, there really isn’t much Goretzka cannot do, with long-range passing and shooting the main attributes to his game. So, it was no surprise that in 2018 he ended up at the Allianz Arena.

Goretzka has been a mainstay in Bayern Munich Midfield ever since his arrival and has every right to be named one of the best free transfers in football.

Major Honours Won With Bayern Munich:
Bundesliga: 3
UEFA Champions League: 1
UEFA Super Cup: 1
FIFA Club World Cup: 1
DFB-Pokal: 2
DFL-Supercup: 2

2. ESTEBAN CAMBIASSO – Real Madrid to Inter Milan, 2004

Partnering compatriot Juan Sebastian Veron in a fearsome midfield, Esteban Cambiasso was definitely the “legs” of the “I Nerazzurri” engine room during a glorious 10 year, trophy-laden period of domestic Inter Milan dominance. 

Versatile in offering lots of different positions to operate in, Cambiasso owned grit, flair, and footballing intelligence – a glorious combination of skills for any manager.

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Major Honours Won With Inter Milan:
Serie A: 5
UEFA Champions League: 1
Coppa Italia: 4
Supercoppa Italiana: 4
FIFA Club World Cup: 1

1. ROBERT LEWANDOWSKI – Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich, 2014

Whilst moves between the two biggest hitters of the Bundesliga are not a completely alien concept, Bayern Munich’s capture of Polish superstar Robert Lewandowski back in 2014 would have hugely stung their fierce rivals, Borussia Dortmund. 

The free-scoring center-forward was prolific for Dortmund but has gone on to become a world star in Munich, having now netted over 200 times for Der FCB, and winning it all in the process.

Without any doubt, Lewandowski’s move to Bayern Munich is the best free transfer ever.

Major Honours Won With Bayern Munich:
Bundesliga: 7
Champions League: 1 title
DFB-Pokal: 3
DFL-Supercup: 4
UEFA Super Cup: 1
FIFA Club World Cup: 1

Final Thought

Lewandowski’s transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich is the best Free transfer in football history.

So, whilst the sound of a “free transfer” to any football fan is not always the most glamorous option, we can see here that there are many great examples of players moving for no fee, and being of a huge benefit to their new clubs. 

Who would be your choice of the “greatest free transfer” for either your own club or in football generally? These are my very own personal choices though. 

From this piece, it is clear that sometimes in football, you don’t have to pay a ridiculous amount to get the perfect player. Also, signing a player for a hefty price is no guarantee of the player’s success.

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