When Trevor Francis became the first soccer player in history to command a fee of over a million pounds in 1979 after signing for Nottingham Forest, it must’ve been difficult to foresee a time when paying a million of any currency for a footballer would be seen as pocket change. Francis went on to score the lone goal in Forest’s first-ever European Cup championship, a 1-0 win over Malmö FF in the final, and form part of the team that also beat Hamburg 1-0 in the 1980 decisive match for glory. Buying Francis definitely paid off for the late and great manager Brian Clough, but that is not always the case.
However, even during the pandemic, extraordinary fees continue to be paid for the world's most in-demand footballers. Splashing over $100 million for a single player used to be considered madness but now seems to be the norm, with 20 of the most expensive signings in history exceeding that amount.
A trend that started with Cristiano Ronaldo moving to Real Madrid in 2010, clubs continue to out-muscle each other financially to achieve sporting success. Some have done so successfully and some have failed monumentally; just ask Barcelona. Now, let’s take a walk down memory lane to see whether splashing the cash pans out or if teams would do better off with a frugal approach, using numbers via Transfermarkt.
25. Nicolás Pépé, from LOSC Lille to Arsenal, $94.6 million, 2019.
Brought in by Unai Emery before his dismissal barely three months into his second season as ‘Gunners’ manager, the speedy left-footed attacker is the London club’s record-signing. Two years after his arrival, Pépé hasn’t fully settled into what seems like a declining team under Mikel Arteta, amassing 25 goals and 16 assists in 92 games for Arsenal. The Cote d’Ivoire international can play on both sides of the pitch and is occasionally in charge of set pieces, but needs consistency to prove himself as an important figure in the Premier League.
24. Lucas Hernández, from Atlético de Madrid to FC Bayern, $94.6 million, 2019.
In spite of being only 23 years old when the German giants activated his release clause, Hernández left boyhood club ‘Atleti’ to try his luck over in the Bundesliga under manager Niko Kovač, who was quickly replaced by Hansi Flick. Ever since the switch, Hernández’s versatility has proven useful for ‘Die Bayern’, in spite of missing important games in the team’s run to the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain, by playing over 60 games in two years. The French national team player can be deployed as a left-back or a center-back, and is a reliable utility player when not injured- which unfortunately is pretty often.
23. Kai Havertz, from Bayer Leverkusen to Chelsea, $94.6 million, 2020.
Chelsea raised many eyebrows when they signed then-21 year-old Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen last year. Yes, the London-based club reportedly beat other European giants, but there was always a question mark whether or not the German could perform in the Premier League. A year after the transfer, Havertz has managed a total of 10 goals and 10 assists in all competitions. Albeit the number might not seem over the top, important strikes such as the one in the UEFA Champions League final against Manchester City have earned the attacker much deserved credit in Stamford Bridge.
22. Luis Suárez, from Liverpool to Barcelona, $96.7 million, 2014.
El ‘Pistolero’ arrived at the Camp Nou after nearly winning the Premier League with Liverpool, with the ‘Reds’’ season crashing down after Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea. Suárez’s life in Spain had a delayed four-month start after biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup, but once the Uruguayan dressed up in ‘Blaugrana’ colors, LaLiga was never the same. After all was said and done, Suárez managed the 198 goals and 97 assists in 283 games that solidified him as Barcelona’s third-highest scorer ever, forming one of the most impressive offensives in recent memory along Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr., and winning the 2014/15 UEFA Champions League.
21. Virgil van Dijk, from Southampton to Liverpool, $100 million, 2018.
After three years with mixed results at Southampton, Liverpool finally got the piece they needed to get back to winning ways after spending what seemed an exorbitant amount for a central defender. It wasn’t. A mere six months after arriving, the ‘Reds’ reached the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid. One year later, they won the prestigious European competition by beating Tottenham in the decisive match. Two PFA Team of the Year selections, three times a part of the UEFA Team of the Year and runner-up for the 2019 The Best FIFA Men’s Player, Van Dijk quickly established himself as one of the world’s elite defenders.
20. Romelu Lukaku, from Everton to Manchester United, $100.2 million, 2017.
Four years at Everton turned Lukaku into a striker to be reckoned with in the Premier League. After not receiving enough opportunities at current club Chelsea, the Belgian attacker scored 87 goals in 166 games for the ‘Toffees’ and then tried his luck in Manchester for Lukaku’s form varied between managers, as he scored 27 goals in all competitions under José Mourinho in the 2017/18 season but was mostly unused by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2018/19, only managing to find the back of the net nine times. That was more than enough for the ‘Red Devils’ to offload the Anderlecht youth product to Inter Milan.
19. Jadon Sancho, from Borussia Dortmund to Manchester United, $100.58 million, 2021.
Yet another appearance on the list by the American-owned club, Manchester City youth product Sancho never played a first team game for the ‘Cityzens’, following a contractual dispute during the 2017 preseason. The attacking midfielder then set the Bundesliga ablaze in his over 130 appearances for Borussia Dortmund, establishing himself as one Europe’s main targets in spite of being only 21 years of age. United paid a hefty fee to their German counterparts after chasing Sanchos’ signature for what seemed to be an eternity. The young Englishman is yet to become a solid starter for Solskjaer’s side, but his 50 goals and 64 assists with ‘Die Borussen’ prove he can be one in the near future.
18. Matthijs de Ligt, from Ajax to Juventus, $101 million, 2019.
An Ajax fairytale run in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League that ended with a heartbreaking defeat to Tottenham in the semifinal had several protagonists, one of which was De Ligt. Then a mere 20-year old, the central defender demonstrated a level of serenity and experience at the back far beyond his years. Despite rumors placing the ‘Oranje’ member close to Barcelona, De Ligt moved to Juventus in 2019, where he has taken over a starting position in the center of defense alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. A shoulder injury in his second season kept him out for over three months, but there is still plenty of room for growth.
17. Frenkie de Jong, from Ajax to Barcelona, $102 million, 2019.
A young Dutch starlet that left Ajax after the team’s spectacular 2018/19 season to join a European giant looking to explode on the worldwide stage. Sound familiar? Similar to De Ligt, De Jong left the Eredivisie side after achieving the domestic double and being chosen to the Champions League Squad of the Season and as the season’s top midfielder by a wide margin. The central midfielder didn’t choose Italy though, and decided to try his luck at Barcelona, where he has already been managed by three different head coaches in the space of two years. Said instability has added to an overall uncertainty of where De Jong can develop best on the pitch, which has aided to him providing lukewarm and inconsistent performances thus far for ‘Los Blaugrana’.
16. Harry Maguire, from Leicester City to Manchester United, $103 million, 2019.
When United paid Leicester a world-record fee for a central defender two years ago, many people compared the signing to that of Virgil van Dijk and laughed at the notion of the Carrington club paying more than the ‘Reds’ did for their man in defense. They aren’t laughing now. After a stellar performance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup for England that included a momentous goal against Sweden in the quarterfinals, Maguire has only gotten better, in spite of a few high-profile errors. After recovering from a tumultuous offseason last year, the Englishman - and now club captain- lead the ‘Red Devils’ backline to the UEFA Europa League final and second place in the Premier League. The defender’s contract runs until 2025, but United will surely jump at the chance of renewing it.
15. Neymar Jr., from Santos to Barcelona, $104.3 million, 2013.
Even though Neymar Jr. was only 21 years old when he joined Barcelona, he left behind a legacy at Santos, winning the Campeonato Paulista three times, the Copa do Brasil, the Copa Libertadores and the Recopa Sudamericana. When the ‘Blaugrana’ opened the checkbook to sign the ‘Seleção’ star a year before the 2014 World Cup, hesitation echoed since changing clubs on the eve of a major tournament was seen as risky. But, if you know anything about Neymar, he is all about doing the unexpected. 105 goals and 76 assists in 186 games later, having won two league titles, three Copas del Rey and a UEFA Champions League in four years, it’s safe to say Barcelona’s bet was more than successful. The alliance he formed with Messi and Suárez will forever remain in the hearts of the Catalan team's faithful.
14. Gonzalo Higuaín, from Napoli to Juventus, $106 million, 2016.
Nowadays, Higuaín plies his trade in Major League Soccer with Inter Miami, but not that long ago, the Argentine was one of the globe’s most-feared strikers. In 2015/16 ‘Pipita’ joined Gino Rosetti as the footballer with most goals scored in a single Serie A season, finding the back of the net 36 times for Napoli. In spite of club president Aurelio De Laurentiis offering Higuaín a juicy contract renewal, the ‘Albiceleste’ number nine switched allegiances and joined the ‘Vecchia Signora’. The forward produced 55 goals in his first two seasons at the Turin club, winning the league title twice and reaching the UEFA Champions League final, before being shipped out on loan to Milan and Chelsea. Higuaín won a third Serie A after coming back for the 2019/20, but played second fiddle to Cristiano Ronaldo up top.
13. Cristiano Ronaldo, from Manchester United to Real Madrid, $111 million, 2009.
A record-breaking transfer fee at the time, Madrid pried away United’s prized possession in a spectacular window that also included the arrival of Karim Benzema, Kaká and Xabi Alonso. Ronaldo’s numbers at the Santiago Bernabéu speak for themselves, establishing himself as the team’s top scorer in history with 450 goals, and winning four UEFA Champions League titles, two Spanish leagues and three Club World Cups, amongst other accolades. Arguably Real Madrid’s best-ever player, the Portuguese attacker helped return ‘Los Blancos’ to the heights of world soccer.
12. Gareth Bale, from Tottenham to Real Madrid, $119 million, 2013.
The speedy Welshman was Tottenham’s best player without a shadow of a doubt by the time the Spanish giant turned to the Premier League once again to feed its hunger for titles and glory. Six years in ‘Lilywhite’ colors properly prepared Bale to star for one of the world’s most prestigious clubs, and star he did. After a rocky start to his first season, the ‘Cardiff Express’ scored a magnificent goal in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, and then another in the 2014 UEFA Champions League final against Atlético de Madrid. Three more Champions Leagues and two more LaLiga titles later -amongst other silverware- meant the ‘Merengues’ got their investment back.
11. Paul Pogba, from Juventus to Manchester United, $124 million, 2016.
A bittersweet return to England for the silky Frenchman after four years in Italy, once Sir Alex Ferguson was no longer at the helm and José Mourinho had taken over, was official after United paid a then-world record fee to sign a player they had among their ranks only four years prior. In spite of Pogba’s crystal clear vision and the potential to change matches in the blink of an eye, the debate of whether the 2018 FIFA World Cup champion can provide consistency for the ‘Red Devils’ after 200+ matches is very much still latent. Both Mourinho and Solskjaer have changed Pogba’s position in midfield multiple times, with varying levels of success. The 2016/17 UEFA Europa League, EFL Cup and Community Shield wins are the number 6’s only trophies at United.
10. Eden Hazard, from Chelsea to Real Madrid, $136 million, 2019.
When Hazard destroyed Arsenal in the final of the 2018/19 UEFA Europa League by scoring two goals and providing an assist, Real Madrid were surely licking their lips at the prospect of signing one of the world’s most in-form players, and who could blame them. The Belgian’s production at Chelsea of 110 goals and 92 assists during his seven-year stint granted him near-legendary status in England; a status he has yet to replicate in Spain. Hazard has missed nearly 60 games because of injury since first putting the ‘Merengue’ jersey on, but has only managed five goals and nine assists in 46 games. The talent is there but the fitness is yet to arrive.
9. Romelu Lukaku, from Inter Milan to Chelsea, $136 million, 2021.
Lukaku’s second appearance on this top 25 list, the powerful Belgian is once again donning the Chelsea colors, after his team during the 2011/12 season presented Inter Milan an offer they couldn’t refuse. The striker’s time in Italy was highly successful, scoring 64 times and assisting on 16 occasions, helping former manager Antonio Conte conquer last season’s Serie A title. A passionate Chelsea fan himself, Lukaku has seemingly turned into a world beater, and is able to change entire games using his physicality and intelligence, something ‘Blues’ followers have already witnessed this season. However, we need more time to see whether the expensive operation has been worth it.
8. Cristiano Ronaldo, from Real Madrid to Juventus, $138.3 million, 2018.
After Ronaldo scored a spectacular bicycle kick goal against Juventus in the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League and received a standing ovation, you could tell an instant connection was formed between the player and the ‘Bianconeri’ faithful. A few months after the memorable strike, ‘CR7’ left the Santiago Bernabéu as Real Madrid’s top scorer in its history and with a multitude of trophies to his name. Even though Ronaldo was nine years older than when the ‘Merengues’ signed him, Juventus paid a hefty fee to secure the services of the Portuguese star with the main objective of winning the UEFA Champions League. Three years later, Ronaldo returned to England after achieving two league titles and a ‘Capocannoniere’ title but no continental glory.
7. Jack Grealish, from Aston Villa to Manchester City, $139 million, 2021.
One of the summer’s most drawn out sagas involved Grealish, a player that spent his entire youth and playing career at Aston Villa, and was seeking a post-Euro 2020 challenge at 25 years of age. The talented Englishman left his boyhood club to play Champions League football under Pep Guardiola, who signed the attacker to play in an area of the pitch where Manchester City are more than well covered with the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Ferrán Torres. After a fruitless Premier League debut against Tottenham where he was deployed in center midfield, Grealish has shown bursts of brilliance that bode well for his future at the Etihad Stadium.
6. Antoine Griezmann, from Atlético de Madrid to Barcelona, $142 million, 2019.
A year after a long and drawn-out transfer saga seemingly ended with Griezmann starring in a Lebron James-esque ‘The Decision’ program, announcing he would not leave ‘Atleti’ for Barcelona, the French striker backpedaled and joined the ‘Blaugrana’ in 2019. 'Barça' decided to sign ‘Grizou’ for an exorbitant amount of money before they finalized the much-rumored return of Neymar to the Camp Nou that same summer, which didn't end up coming to fruition.Two years later, Griezmann left Barcelona to go back to Atlético, backpedaling once again after an unsuccessful stint where he scored 35 goals and managed 17 assists in 102 games, all while allegedly commanding a weekly salary of over $700,000 from the financially ruined club.
5. João Félix, from Benfica to Atlético de Madrid, $150 million, 2019.
Approximately a week before Griezmann’s departure to Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid announced the signing of a young Portuguese star that would eventually become the French striker’s replacement. Félix, who only had one entire season of first team soccer under his belt before his arrival in Spain, had a rough time adapting to LaLiga during the 2019/20 campaign. Compared to his 20 goals and 11 assists during his last season in Portugal, ‘Atleti’s new number seven scored only nine times and assisted on three occasions in his maiden campaign. Félix slightly improved during his second year, scoring 10 goals and assisting six times, but is yet to pay off his price tag with performances on the pitch. Perhaps Griezmann’s return to the ‘Colchoneros’ will boost the performance of 2019 Golden Boy.
4. Ousmane Dembélé, from Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona, $160 million, 2017.
Yet another appearance on this top 25 list by Barcelona. A few weeks after Neymar Jr.’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, the ‘Blaugrana’ put some of that transfer money to use by signing Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund. The pacy winger managed 24 appearances during his first season, but missed over 27 games due to injury. 2018/2019 presented more of the same problems. Even though Dembélé played 42 games for Barcelona that year, he only scored 14 times and assisted on 8 occasions, and again missed 13 games due to injury. The Frenchman only played nine times during the 2019/20 campaign, missing 40 games due to injury. And then again during 2020/21, 11 goals and five assists in 44 appearances but missing 18 games due to injury. Inconsistency and Dembélé, an unfortunate synonym for Barça.
3. Philippe Coutinho, from Liverpool to Barcelona, $160 million, 2018.
Guess what club is back, back again? Coutinho’s outstanding four and a half years at Liverpool ended spectacularly during the 2018 winter transfer window after Barcelona came knocking at Anfield with an alleged fourth offer for the Brazilian, one the ‘Reds’ couldn’t refuse. In spite of captaining Liverpool on occasion during his final weeks at the Premier League side, Coutinho left for the Camp Nou after 201 appearances, 54 goals and 45 assists in England. The Rio de Janeiro has played 90 times for Barcelona in nearly four years, including a successful year-long loan at Bayern Munich, but has only managed 23 goals and 14 assists. Even though life under manager Ronald Koeman seemed to be the fresh start Coutinho needed, a knee injury forced him to miss the second half of the 2020/21 season. The attacking midfielder hasn’t played for the ‘Blaugrana’ since December 2020.
2. Kylian Mbappé, from AS Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain, $171 million, 2018.
Mbappé’s first season as a PSG player was the 2017/18 campaign, when he arrived on loan from Monaco, but ‘Les Parisiens’ completed the purchase a year later. The reported figure paid for the 2018 FIFA World Cup champion could rise to over $212 million with bonuses included, a fee the French giants will certainly have no problem with. Mbappé’s time at PSG has been tremendously successful, not just because of the 135 goals and 63 assists in 175 games.The 22-year old has also conquered Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France three times, has been the French league’s top goalscorer thrice, has reached a UEFA Champions League final and has already cemented himself as PSG’s third-highest goalscorer ever.
1. Neymar Jr., from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, $262 million.
Neymar’s transfer to PSG was highly controversial, with LaLiga first rejecting the French club’s payment for the Brazilian due to alleged Financial Fair Play regulations, and with Barcelona then getting embroiled in a legal battle with the player’s camp due to an accused contract breach. Legalities aside, Neymar has transformed PSG into one of the globe’s most-feared teams, paying back the highest fee in history with more than adequate on-field performances. ‘Ney’s achievements in France include 87 goals and 52 assists in 117 games, three Ligue 1 titles, three Coupes de France, two Coupes de la Ligue, two Trophées de Champions and a UEFA Champions League final.