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Eight of the best free transfers of all time
Simon Winter
Simon Winter
May 12, 2021
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Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.

Manchester United supporters everywhere were overjoyed this week when Edinson Cavani agreed a contract extension to stay at Old Trafford for another year.

The Uruguayan striker – who was snatched on a free transfer from PSG last year – has notched 15 goals for United this season despite starting just 18 times in all competitions.

The 34-year-old poacher has been one of the game’s best value signings in recent seasons, but where does Cavani rank on the list football’s best-ever free transfers?

Let’s take a look at some of the other candidates.

Robert Lewandowski

Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich (2014)

Bayern Munich’s stranglehold over the Bundesliga extends to the transfer market in Germany and the Bavarians have made a habit of nabbing their domestic rival’s best players on free transfers over the past decade.

In November 2013, Robert Lewandowski – then the star striker of Bayern’s main antagonists Borussia Dortmund – announced that he intended to run down his contract so that he could move to Munich on a free transfer the following summer.

The rest as they say is history, and over 200 goals, seven Bundesliga titles and one Champions League trophy later, Lewandowski is a legend in Bavaria.

Andrea Pirlo

AC Milan to Juventus (2011)

Pass master Andrea Pirlo swapped the red and black of AC Milan for the white and black of Juventus in 2011 when his contract with the Rossoneri ran out, in a switch that understandably caused quite a furore in Italy.

Following his move to Juventus, their keeper Gianluigi Buffon said: “When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: God exists. A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century!”

Pirlo was already a decorated and seasoned campaigner before his move, and his winner’s mentality certainly rubbed off on his new teammates in Turin where the midfielder won the Scudetto four times in a row.

Sol Campbell

Tottenham to Arsenal (2001)

Sol Campbell became public enemy number one in North London when he opted to join Arsenal from Tottenham in the summer of 2001, though the defender’s decision was vindicated by his incredible success with the Gunners.

The Spurs’ academy graduate won two Premier League titles with Arsenal and Campbell was a key member of the Invincibles team that went through the entire campaign unbeaten in 2003/04.

Campbell was also a Champions League runner-up and final goalscorer with Arsenal when they were edged out by Barcelona in 2006.

Henrik Larsson

Celtic to Barcelona (2004)

In the early 00’s, Henrik Larsson was one of Europe’s most coveted strikers thanks to his incredible goal-scoring exploits for Scottish giants Celtic, and having turned down numerous opportunities to leave the Hoops, the Swedish icon finally jumped ship in 2004 to Barcelona when his contract expired.

Larsson had to endure an injury-hit start to his career in Catalonia, though he shot to prominence in 2005/06, where he dovetailed beautifully with some of Barca’s other stars at the time, including Ronaldinho.

In the 2006 Champions League final, Larsson made his biggest impact however, when he came off the bench to set up both of Barcelona’s goals in their spectacular comeback triumph against Arsenal.


Roma to AC Milan (2003)

Widely considered as one of football’s best ever right backs, Cafu was an already an established and highly-decorated star before he moved on a free transfer from Roma to AC Milan in 2003.

The Brazilian had already won two World Cups and starred in a Serie A title-winning team for Roma, however, his thirst for glory hadn’t diminished and Cafu went on to win another Scudetto with Milan along with a Champions League in 2007.

Cafu was one of the most influential figures in what was arguably the last great Rossoneri team, that contained Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and Filippo Inzaghi.

Michael Ballack

Bayern Munich to Chelsea (2006)

Three-time Bundesliga winner and three-time German Footballer of the Year Michael Ballack was Europe’s most in-demand player when he announced his plans to leave Bayern Munich on a free transfer in 2006.

Chelsea – who enjoyed unrivalled financial clout at the time – beat off a lengthy list of competitors for Ballack’s signature, and over the next four years in London, the prolific midfielder enjoyed enormous success.

Ballack won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup with the Blues, though he couldn’t help Chelsea’s pursuit of silverware on the continent and he was part of the side that lost the 2008 Champions League final to Manchester United.

Esteban Cambiasso

Real Madrid to Inter (2004)

Cambiasso will always be fondly remembered by Leicester City supporters after his short spell with the Foxes following a free transfer switch in 2014, though his Bosman move to Italian heavyweights Inter a decade earlier proved a great deal more significant.

After starting just a handful of matches for Real Madrid in 2003/04, the Argentinean midfielder moved to Italy for nothing, where he became an integral part of Roberto Mancini’s team at San Siro.

Cambiasso won ten trophies during a sparkling stint with Inter, including five Serie A titles and a Champions League under Jose Mourinho, before he tried his hand at life in the Premier League with Leicester.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

PSG to Man Utd (2016)

Jose Mourinho went big in the transfer market summer of 2016 ahead of his first season with Manchester United, sanctioning moves for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, though his efforts to convince free agent Zlatan Ibrahimovic to move to Old Trafford reaped the biggest dividends.

The ex-Juventus, AC Milan and Barcelona star had been hitting incredible numbers in France with PSG despite his advancing years, and Zlatan picked up where he left off in England, netting 17 times during his maiden campaign.

Two of his goals landed pieces of silverware for United in the 2016 Community Shield and 2017 EFL Cup Final, though an injury kept Ibrahimovic out of the Europa League Final the same year.

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