Ronaldo-Liverpool, Maradona-Sheffield United & Zidane-Blackburn - the deals that never were

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After Lokomotiv Moscow revealed they could have signed Neymar in 2008 for €10 million, Goal looks at other failed bids to sign budding superstars

  1. Franco Baresi (Inter)

    All Franco Baresi wanted to do was follow in his brother's footsteps. However, when he had a trial with Giuseppe's club, Inter, he was rejected for being too small.

    "They said, 'Well, come back next year.' But my coach took me to Milan, and there I was accepted, although it took a couple of trials. 

    "They were worried about my size, that I wouldn't grow much, or toughen up. I was only 14 at the time."

    Milan nonetheless decided to sign Baresi and they were rewarded for doing so. 

    He both grew up and toughened up as he developed into arguably the most ruthless and intelligent defender the game has ever seen, the cornerstone of the great Milan side of Arrigo Sacchi.

  2. Gianluigi Buffon (AC Milan)

    Just months after deciding to try his luck in goal, the 13-year-old Gianluigi Buffon was being courted by three Serie A sides: Bologna, AC Milan and Parma. 

    All three invited the Carrara native for a trial. Bologna were unconvinced despite taking two separate looks at him. Milan, meanwhile, had no doubts and even sent Buffon's parents a contract to sign.

    However, after visiting the Rossoneri's academy accommodation, they decided against sending their son so far away from home.

    As a result, when Parma goalkeeping coach Ermes Fulgoni immediately pushed the club to sign Buffon, his parents were only too happy to allow him to move to the Tardini, where he would break into the first team at just 17.

    His first opponents as a professional? Milan, of course. Buffon kept a clean sheet, denying Roberto Baggio & Co. with one spectacular save after another. A star had been born.

  3. Didier Drogba (Arsenal)

    No list of missed opportunities in the transfer market would be complete without Arsene Wenger, who has claimed to have pursued nearly every top player over the past two decades.

    From Lionel Messi to Kylian Mbappe — the Arsenal boss had a look at them all. Wenger's biggest regret, though, is probably Didier Drogba, for three reasons. 

    Firstly, the Frenchman had a clear run at the powerful Ivorian attacker. Secondly, he could have signed him for a pittance.

    "We watched Drogba very carefully when he was at Le Mans and his value was just £100,000," the Gunners manager explained.

    "But we felt at the time he might not be completely ready. Looking back now, of course it was a mistake."

    A colossal one at that, because the third reason why Drogba ranks as Wenger's biggest regret is that the striker went on to spend a significant chunk of his time at Chelsea tormenting one Arsenal centre-half after another.

  4. Paul Gascoigne (Manchester United)

    While every other entry in our list left the club wondering about what might have been, in the case of Paul Gascoigne, it was the player who was left racked by regret.

    The gifted English midfielder had agreed to leave his beloved Newcastle for Manchester United in the summer of 1988 and Alex Ferguson went off on holiday to Malta a happy manager, only for Tottenham to change everything by offering to buy his parents a house.

    "What are you waiting for?!" his dad exclaimed. Then, his sister requested a sunbed before his father asked for a car to go in his new home's garage.

    Spurs ceded to all of the family's demands and 'Gazza' ended up at White Hart Lane rather than Old Trafford. 

    "I think it was a bad mistake," Alex Ferguson later mused, "and Paul admits it. We had a structure of players who could have helped him and it could have given him some discipline."

    Instead, Gascoigne achieved a level of fame at Italia 90 which he never managed to deal with, leading to a career and life blighted by behavioural and alcohol problems.

  5. Ruud Gullit (Arsenal)

    In the early 1980s, HFC Haarlem were going through some serious financial difficulties, so manager Barry Hughes decided to get in touch with some of his old pals at Highbury to see if Arsenal might be interested in signing their teenage sensation Ruud Gullit.

    Gunners boss Terry Neill and Don Howe flew to Netherlands to watch the forward in action but weren't impressed by what they saw.

    "He could obviously play a bit but was lazy and ill-disciplined, played when he wanted to and wouldn't track back," Neill explained.

    As a result, Arsenal balked at the £200,000 asking price for a player who subsequently starred for Feyenoord and PSV before joining AC Milan for a world-record £6m in 1987.

  6. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Arsenal)

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed, in typically self-aggrandising fashion, that when Arsenal offered him a trial during a meeting with Arsene Wenger at the club's training facility at St Alban's in 2001, he replied: "Zlatan doesn't do auditions."

    As always with the outspoken Swede, that statement was a mix of truth and fiction. 

    In truth, while Ibrahimovic had indeed been incensed by the notion that he needed to prove something to Wenger, he was actually willing to show the Gunners boss what he could do there and then.

    "Give me a pair of boots. I'll have a trial. I'll do it right now." However, the forward's representative, Hasse Borg, intervened: "You're not going to have a trial, not at all."

    So, Zlatan didn't, and after telling Wenger thanks but no thanks, he went on to sign for Ajax, which put him on the path to superstardom.

  7. Robert Lewandowski (Blackburn Rovers)

    When it comes to missing out on players, some things are just beyond a club's control, like 'an act of God', for instance.

    Indeed, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Blackburn Rovers, who had hoped to steal a march on Borussia Dortmund in the race to sign Robert Lewandowski by inviting the then-Lech Poznan hotshot to Ewood Park in April 2010.

    However, then fate intervened, with the ash-cloud caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull resulting in the cancellation of numerous flights across Europe, including Lewandowski's to England.

    "It makes no sense to drive," the Pole's agent, Cezary Kucharski, argued.

    Two months later, Lewandowski instead signed for BVB, where he quickly established himself as one of the best strikers in Europe.

  8. Diego Maradona (Sheffield United)

    In 1978, Harry Haslam travelled to Argentina to watch the World Cup and cast his eye over the country's top talent.

    The Sheffield United boss was particularly taken with the performances of a 17-year-old plying his trade at Argentinos Juniors that nobody in England had ever heard of.

    The Blades were still in the second division at the time, but they trusted Haslam, who was renowned as an excellent judge of players, and gave him the green light to broker a £200,000 deal with the Argentine outfit for their diminutive attacking midfielder.

    When the financial terms of the proposed transfer changed, though, United withdrew their interest and instead signed the more established Alex Sabella for £160,000.

    Sabella proved unable to prevent the Blades from dropping into the third tier. Perhaps his teenage compatriot would have fared better. After all, his name was Diego Armando Maradona.

  9. Lionel Messi (Newell's Old Boys)

    Lionel Messi has always been enthusiastic about the idea of ending his career at Newell's Old Boys, but if he never plays a competitive game for the Argentine outfit, sadly, they will only have themselves to blame.

    The Barcelona star began his career at Newell's as a six-year-old. He had always been small, but when he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency aged 10, his family were distraught, as their insurance plan would only cover two years of treatment. Newell's promised to help them out financially but did not keep their word.

    As a result, Messi's parents arranged a trial for their son in Catalunya, where they had family, and Charly Rexach wasn't about to let the opportunity to sign a true footballing prodigy pass him by, famously using a napkin for a contract to get the then 13-year-old to commit his future to the Blaugrana.

    At Barcelona, the kid known as 'El Enano' (The Dwarf) would go to become a giant of the game.

  10. Neymar (Lokomotiv Moscow)

    Lokomotiv Moscow had the chance to sign the 16-year-old Neymar in 2008. The Russian outfit had been impressed by the Santos starlet's performances in the Mediterranean Cup youth tournament but were put off by the €10 million asking price.

    "First, he was too young," former Lokomotiv president Nikolai Naumov revealed on Thursday. "Second, it was unclear how he'd adapt to Russia... so we decided against getting him.

    "You understand, paying so much for a youngster from another continent... you have to be careful with this sort of thing.

    "Yes, we did lose [to Santos] in the final, but I didn't notice that Neymar played any better than the others. Alan Gatagov looked just as good."

    It didn't quite turn out that way, though. Neymar is now the most expensive player of all time, having joined PSG from Barcelona last summer for €222. 

    Poor Gatagov, meanwhile, has been without a club for a year.

  11. Raul (Atletico Madrid)

    "Look over there," Atletico Madrid president Jesus Gil enthused, pointing at a skinny 14-year-old kid clad in red and white.

    "My captain, Raul. Remember that name – he's going to be a phenomenon." And he was. Just not at Atletico.

    The eccentric Gil made a lot of terrible decisions in his life; he was the subject of over 70 court cases. However, the worst, from a sporting perspective at least, was to scale back the club's youth sector in 1992 to just two teams.

    Numerous promising talents suddenly found themselves without a club, chief among them, Raul Gonzalez Blanco.

    The prodigiously gifted striker was promptly snapped up by Atleti's city rivals Real at the age of 15, broke into the senior squad at 17 and had become the darling of the Santiago Bernabeu before he had even turned 20.

  12. Ronaldinho (St Mirren)

    Ronaldinho freely admits that a lot of clubs tried to sign him before he left Gremio for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001.

    "There were a lot of offers," the Brazilian says. "I can't remember where they were all from."

    Certainly, several top teams were interested but, if Tom Hendrie is to be believed, it was St Mirren who very nearly signed him – albeit on a temporary basis.

    "We spoke to Ronaldinho but there was a legal problem at [Gremio]," the former Saints boss claimed. "He was willing to come and play for us before going on to PSG."

    Indeed, Ronaldinho's representatives had apparently thought that a spell in Scotland would be the perfect way for the attacker to acclimatised to European football.

    Paisley, Paris – what's the difference?

  13. Cristiano Ronaldo (Liverpool)

    Manchester United's players famously begged manager Alex Ferguson to sign Cristiano Ronaldo after being given the run-around by the twinkle-towed Sporting winger during a pre-season friendly in 2003. 

    The Scot did not need much convincing, of course. He knew that the Portuguese was worth buying whatever the cost. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Gerard Houllier did not.

    "I saw him in the Toulon Under-21 tournament [in June 2003] and we went for him, but we had a wage scale and we weren't paying the sort of salary he wanted," the Frenchman later explained.

    "But I agreed with not breaking the wage structure. I thought it would cause problems in our dressing room."

    It did, anyway, as Liverpool's players would spend the next six years wondering whether they would have won a title with Ronaldo in their team rather than that of bitter rivals United.

  14. Andriy Shevchenko (West Ham)

    There are two sides to any juicy transfer story.

    Andriy Shevchenko insists that he never played for anyone else bar Dynamo Kyiv before departing in 1999 to become a legend at AC Milan. 

    Harry Redknapp, though, insists that that the Ukrainian striker turned out for West Ham in a trial match as a teenager.

    "I was offered him [in 1995] when he was only 19," the Englishman explained. "We had him over for training for three or four days and I remember watching him play for us in a game against Barnet reserves at Chadwell Heath. 

    "He didn't pull up any trees but looked decent enough. But this was just after I had had all those problems with the Romanian lads (Florin Raducioiu and Ilie Dumitrescu) and I thought the last thing I needed was a Ukrainian. 

    "Besides, they were asking around £1 million for him and I didn't have the money at the time."

    Xenophobia, though, he clearly had in abundance.

  15. Javier Zanetti (Independiente)

    Javier Zanetti is an Inter legend. He should have been an Independiente legend, though. 

    The Argentine icon had grown up supporting the Avellaneda outfit and spent seven years progressing through the port city's youth teams.

    "But I wasn't chosen [to continue]," he later lamented, "because I wasn't considered strong enough physically, as happens to many players."

    Not every player had Zanetti's engine, though, and the boy who would go on to become renowned as 'The Tractor' for the way in which he covered the field moved on to Talleres.

    The versatile full-back was then picked up by Banfield and later Inter, where he spent 19 years gracing every blade of grass at San Siro.

  16. Zinedine Zidane (Blackburn Rovers)

    In 1995, Blackburn Rovers manager Kenny Dalglish had his heart set on signing Zinedine Zidane and Christophe Dugarry, and the pair were even invited over to spend a few days at Ewood Park. 

    However, club owner Jack Walker was particularly perturbed by the prospect of replacing his Premier League title-winning captain, infamously asking Dalglish, "Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have [Tim] Sherwood?" 

    As a result, he blocked the double deal. Zidane joined Juventus instead a year later, led France to World Cup glory in 1998, became the most expensive player in the world when moving to Real Madrid in 2001 and went on to prove himself the finest footballers the game has ever seen.

    Sherwood, meanwhile, was capped three times by England.