Football's best free transfers: Messi, Pirlo, Lewandowski & top 33 of all time

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Lionel Messi Robert Lewandowski Andrea PirloGetty
  • Robert Lewandowski Bayern 2019Getty Images

    Robert Lewandowski | Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich

    Borussia Dortmund have become a 'feeder club' of sorts to Bayern Munich over the years, though Robert Lewandowski’s transfer to the Allianz in 2014 might be the one they've ended up ruing the most.

    Lewandowski signed a pre-contractual agreement to leave Dortmund as early as November 2013 after running out his deal at Signal Iduna Park, joining Bayern a few months later, and he has since been their standout player.

    The Poland international netted 30 goals in his first full season with Bayern, winning consecutive Golden Boot awards from 2017-19 as well as five straight Bundesliga titles.

  • Andrea Pirlo Juventus Champions League

    Andrea Pirlo | AC Milan to Juventus

    That Juventus were able to sign Italy and AC Milan legend Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer in 2011 should be considered almost criminal. The Azzurri legend, who was one of the world’s best midfielders at AC Milan, had enjoyed a glittering and trophy-laden career.

    Following his move to the Old Lady, Italy team-mate 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 spent four seasons at Juventus, winning the Scudetto four consecutive times.

  • James Milner Liverpool Champions League 2019

    James Milner | Man City to Liverpool

    James Milner managed to turn his infamous 'Boring Milner' reputation on its axis when he emerged as a crucial figure in Jurgen Klopp’s side, following his move from Manchester City in 2016.

    With a wealth of experience under his belt, Milner took on the role as the side’s vice-captain and dedicated penalty-taker, earning the 'Mr Reliable' moniker.

    His professionalism has been an asset to the squad, and even as he nears his mid-30s, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down – and became the first player in Champions League history to register nine assists in a single season in 2017-18.

  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic Manchester United

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic | PSG to Man Utd

    The Zlatan Ibrahimovic? For free? Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho signed the former PSG, AC Milan and Barcelona star for absolutely nothing in 2016 on a one-year contract.

    He netted the winner for the Red Devils in the 2016 Community Shield, and went on to score 17 goals in the Premier League.

    A knee injury he picked up in the latter half of the season caused him to miss almost the whole 2017-18 campaign, and he eventually departed for LA Galaxy in 2018.

  • Raul Schalke 2012Getty

    Raul | Real Madrid to Schalke

    Raul established himself as one of the greatest Spanish centre-forward of all-time at Real Madrid, scoring 323 goals in 741 appearances and lifting three Champions League titles.

    After 16 years at the Santiago Bernabeu, Raul announced that he was to leave Madrid at the end of the season - and, amid tangible interest from a handful of elite European clubs, chose Schalke as his next destination.

    He moved to the German club on a free transfer in 2010, and qualms about his age - 33 - were swept aside. Raul scored 40 goals in 98 appearances for the Bundesliga team, before departing for Al Said in 2012.

  • Paul Pogba Juventus

    Paul Pogba | Man Utd to Juventus

    It’s the amount that Juventus ultimately sold Paul Pogba for that really takes the cake. The France international left Old Trafford after failing to impress Sir Alex Ferguson, moving to Juve where he eventually grew to excel in his role as the team’s main playmaker.

    He won the Golden Boy award in 2013, as well as four Serie A championships, which prompted a red-faced Man Utd to pay an astonishing £89 million in 2016 to re-secure his services.

  • Lionel Messi PSG 2021-22Getty

    Lionel Messi | Barcelona to PSG

    Lionel Messi may not have enjoyed the best of debut campaigns at Paris Saint-Germain in 2021-22, registering only 11 goals, but acquiring a player of his pedigree with no transfer fee involved remains quite some business.

    Career-long ties with Barcelona were severed when it became clear that La Liga giants did not boast the funds required to put a new contract in place with an all-time great.

    Their loss was PSG's gain and, with a seventh Ballon d'Or being collected within months of his arrival in Framce, Messi ended his first season at Parc des Princes with a Ligue 1 title to his name.

  • Sol Campbell ArsenalGetty Images

    Sol Campbell | Tottenham to Arsenal

    Sol Campbell did the unthinkable when he moved from Tottenham to north London rivals Arsenal in 2001, but after what he achieved at the Emirates, he probably won’t mind that he’s still something of a sore spot for some Lilywhites fans.

    After breaking through the Tottenham academy, the England international spent five years at Arsenal where he won two Premier League titles, one of which came through the epic Invincibles season.

  • Craig Bellamy Liverpool 2011-12

    Craig Bellamy | Manchester City to Liverpool

    Kenny Dalglish brought the Wales forward back to Liverpool at a time when the Reds were still deep in transition. Craig Bellamy might not have been one of the most obvious stars in a team that was occupied by Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, but he was instrumental in the Reds’ victorious Carling Cup win.

    He was a surprise success of a signing, scoring seven goals in 12 games and helping them reach the FA Cup final.

  • Teemu Pukki Norwich City 2019-20Getty

    Teemu Pukki | Brondby to Norwich City

    The Finland forward arrived at Norwich from Brondby on a free transfer ahead of the 2018-19 season to relatively quiet fanfare. His 29 Championship goals were, however, what catapulted the Canaries to Premier League promotion.

    He went on to settle into Premier League life with ease, scoring in the season opener against Liverpool and then netting a hat-trick against Newcastle. He racked up double figures for goals in his first top-flight season, despite the Canaries’ disappointing league form.

  • Steve McManaman Real MadridGetty

    Steve McManaman | Liverpool to Real Madrid

    Steve McManaman initially agreed to join Barcelona in a £12 million move in 1997, but the deal fell apart and, with the midfielder heading towards the end of his contract with Liverpool, the Reds couldn’t compete with the financial lure of other clubs.

    McManaman signed a pre-contract to join Real Madrid in 1999 when there were still five months left on his contract at Anfield, and he went on to become the first English player to win the Champions League with a foreign club. He repeated the feat again two years later with his second Champions League victory.

  • Michael Ballack | ChelseaGetty

    Michael Ballack | Bayern Munich to Chelsea

    Michael Ballack was an eye-catching free transfer in 2006, and it’s not hard to see why Chelsea made the swoop. The Bayern Munich midfielder was a three-time Bundesliga winner at Bayern, and was named German Footballer of the Year for three straight seasons.

    Over the next four years at Chelsea, Ballack enjoyed a trophy-laden time at Stamford Bridge, winning two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and the League Cup.

  • Joel Matip Liverpool 2019-20

    Joel Matip | Schalke to Liverpool

    For all the attention that the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino have received for Liverpool’s stellar form, Joel Matip might perhaps be the most underrated Reds player.

    The Cameroon international arrived at Anfield for free from Schalke in 2016, and gradually became one of the first names on Jurgen Klopp’s team sheet in the following seasons.

    Matip formed a solid centre-back partnership with Van Dijk, which was integral to the Reds’ Champions League success and their second-placed Premier League finish in 2019.

  • Klose Lazio Serie AGetty

    Miroslav Klose | Bayern Munich to Lazio

    Germany’s record goalscorer Miroslav Klose might have a reputation for being more productive at international level than at club level, but that didn’t sway Lazio from making a swoop for him once his Bayern contract ran out in 2011.

    He had a strong spell at the Serie A side where he finished his career, netting 63 times in 170 appearances and clinching the Coppa Italia.

  • Jay-Jay Okocha Bolton

    Jay-Jay Okocha | PSG to Bolton

    Jay-Jay Okocha became Nigeria’s most expensive footballer at £10 million when he made the switch from Eintracht Frankfurt to PSG, so Bolton signing him for peanuts was incredible business.

    He was known for his show-pony tricks that sent defenders flying, but he was a skilled midfielder as well – turning out 14 goals in 124 appearances for the side.

  • Gary McAllister Liverpool 2000-01Getty

    Gary McAllister | Coventry City to Liverpool

    Liverpool supporters might have been underwhelmed by the signing of 35-year-old Gary McAllister under Gerard Houllier in 2000, but a trophy-laden debut season will have quelled initial doubts.

    'Macca' played an important role in Reds’ treble-winning glory, scoring the decisive penalty against Barcelona in the UEFA Cup semi-final.

  • Thiago Silva Chelsea Tottenham 2021-22Getty

    Thiago Silva | PSG to Chelsea

    Questions were asked of what Chelsea were getting when moving to snap up a 35-year-old Thiago Silva at the end of his contract at Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2020.

    What they ended up with was a born leader who inspired those around him and helped to deliver Champions League glory at the end of his first season at Stamford Bridge.

    The Brazil international centre-half has never relied on pace to get him through, and his football brain remains as sharp as ever after earning an extended stay in west London.

  • David Alaba Real MadridGetty Images

    David Alaba | Bayern Munich to Real Madrid

    After spending 12 trophy-laden years at Bayern Munich, David Alaba decided in the summer of 2021 that the time had come for a change.

    He joined a Real Madrid side as a free agent that had been treading water following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo a few years earlier, but the Blancos burst back into life with an Austrian defender at the heart of their plans.

    Alaba’s first season in Spain could not have gone much better, with a La Liga title and another Champions League crown added to his enviable collection of major honours.

  • Joshua King BournemouthGetty

    Joshua King | Blackburn to Bournemouth

    Joshua King caught the attention of Man Utd in the 2020 January transfer window when they were seeking out attacking reinforcements, and it’s not hard to see why. The Bournemouth forward came up in the Man Utd academy before leaving for Blackburn Rovers in 2013 (initially on loan) after failing to rack up enough game time.

    He then moved to the Cherries at the end of his contract with Rovers in 2015, where he has been the star player for Eddie Howe's side.

  • Gus Poyet Dennis Wise Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink John Terry

    Gus Poyet | Real Zaragoza to Chelsea

    Before the riches of Roman Abramovich flooded into Chelsea, an eclectic band of footballers had already been assembled and Gus Poyet was one of their notable free transfer successes.

    The Uruguayan midfielder was part of the Blues team which won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1998 and the FA Cup in 2000, earning a special place in the hearts of fans with his goalscoring prowess from midfield.

  • Demba Ba NewcastleGetty

    Demba Ba | West Ham to Newcastle

    Newcastle made the swoop for the Senegal forward once West Ham were relegated from the Premier League. He netted 29 goals in 54 appearances for the Hammers, which eventually caught the attention of Chelsea.

    Demba Ba was infamously involved in the infamous Steven Gerrard slip. Maybe if West Ham hadn’t signed Ba, he would never have scored that Chelsea goal that cost Liverpool the 2013-14 Premier League title.

  • Joshua King Leicester 2016Getty

    Marc Albrighton | Aston Villa to Leicester City

    Marc Albrighton secured a first-team spot under Claudio Ranieri during Leicester City's victorious 2015-16 title-winning season, following his move to the King Power on a free from Aston Villa in 2014.

    The winger featured in every league match that campaign, and was an integral cog in Leicester’s tactical prowess with his superior technical ability.

  • Esteban Cambiasso InterGetty

    Esteban Cambiasso | Real Madrid to Inter

    Leicester City signed Esteban Cambiasso on a free transfer in 2014, and though he was unlucky to miss out on their Premier League success just a season later, played a crucial role in their top-flight survival.

    He won Leicester’s Player of the Year award that season following his contributions, and left later that summer for Olympiacos.

    The Argentine's value was at its most impressive, however, when he moved from Real Madrid to Inter for free in 2004, scoring 41 times across 315 appearances.

  • Paul Lambert Borussia Dortmund 1996-97Getty

    Paul Lambert | Motherwell to Borussia Dortmund

    Borussia Dortmund signed Paul Lambert on a free transfer after the midfielder's contract with Motherwell expired and, despite the fact he was up against big-money signing Paulo Sousa for a place in the team, he became a key player in the BVB's Champions League triumph in the 1996-97 season.

    Lambert's stay at Dortmund was brief - one and a half seasons - and he soon returned to Scotland to play for Celtic, but he reflects fondly on his time in Germany.

    "Dortmund had given all their German players who won Euro 96 time off but they were back... Jurgen Kohler, Steffen Freund, Andreas Moller, Stefan Reuter, Matthias Sammer," the former Scotland international said in a 2013 interview with the Guardian.

    "I remember thinking: 'No. You're never going to do it.' There was unbelievable self-doubt, that I couldn't handle that company because when I saw the players ... He'd won Serie A, someone had won the World Cup, someone had won the European Championship, the Bundesliga titles ... and I'm coming from Motherwell on a free transfer. I was worth a bottle of Coke. Jesus!"

  • Henrik Larsson Barcelona 2006Getty Images

    Henrik Larsson | Celtic to Barcelona

    Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson was the undisputed great of Swedish strikers and was admired across Europe for his goalscoring exploits with Celtic.

    Having resisted offers to leave the Scottish club for a number of years, Larsson eventually left on a free transfer to join Barcelona in 2004-05. His first season in Catalunya was hampered by injury, but he made his presence felt in 2005-06, where he shone alongside Ronaldinho, Deco and company.

    Larsson's most decisive impact came in the 2006 Champions League final, when he set up both of Barca's goals as they came from behind to defeat Arsenal.

  • Cafu AC Milan Champions League trophy 2006-07Getty Images

    Cafu | Roma to AC Milan

    By the time Cafu arrived at AC Milan on a free transfer in 2003 he was in the latter stages of his career, having starred for clubs such as Roma and Sao Paulo, as well as winning two World Cups with Brazil.

    The flying full-back spent five fruitful years at San Siro, helping the Rossoneri to the Serie A title in his first season before securing Champions League glory with them in 2007. Cafu ended his playing days with the Italian giants when he retired in 2008.

  • Luis Enrique Barcelona 1999Getty

    Luis Enrique | Real Madrid to Barcelona

    If you make the switch from Real Madrid to Barcelona (or vice versa), you'd better prove your worth and Luis Enrique did just that when he signed for the Blaugrana on a free in 1996.

    The attacking midfielder struck double figures in his first season at Camp Nou and bettered his haul the following campaign as they won La Liga and the Copa del Rey.

    Enrique became Barca captain and, of course, later went on to manage the club, winning two Liga titles, three Copas del Rey and the Champions League.

  • Glen Hoddle Ruud Gullit Chelsea 1995Getty

    Ruud Gullit | Sampdoria to Chelsea

    A star for AC Milan and the Netherlands in the late 1980s, Ruud Gullit became a cult Premier League icon when he joined Chelsea in 1995.

    The towering Dutch midfielder had an instant impact at Stamford Bridge, earning a place in the PFA Team of the Year and being crowned the club's Player of the Year in his first season.

    He would later go on to manage the club, steering them to FA Cup glory in 1997.

  • Dani Alves Juventus

    Dani Alves | Barcelona to Juventus

    Having conquered football with Barcelona, Dani Alves made the move to Juventus on a free transfer in 2016-17 and, while he spent just one season in Italy, it was impactful.

    The feisty Brazilian wing-back may not have played much in Serie A, but he was instrumental in the Bianconeri's run to the Champions League final, with his most decisive influence coming in both legs of the semi-final win over Monaco, where he had a hand in three of Juve's four goals.

  • Phillip Cocu Barcelona 1998Getty

    Phillip Cocu | PSV to Barcelona

    Barcelona beat competition from Real Madrid, Juventus and Inter among others for the signature of free agent Phillip Cocu in 1998 and the Dutch midfielder became a mainstay.

    Cocu made a total of 291 appearances of the Catalan club, which was a record until Lionel Messi surpassed it in 2012. 

    Unfortunately for the Netherlands international, his time at Camp Nou coincided with a lean period at the club as he collected just one Liga title in six seasons.

  • Gianluca Vialli Chelsea

    Gianluca Vialli | Juventus to Chelsea

    Gianluca Vialli arrived at Chelsea on a free transfer from Juventus a Champions League and Serie A winner, and ushered in a period of success at Stamford Bridge.

    The striker took over from Ruud Gullit as player-manager and clinched a number of trophies, including the FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners Cup.

  • Leon Goretzka Bayern Munich 2019-20Getty Images

    Leon Goretzka | Schalke to Bayern Munich

    Widely considered as one of Germany's brightest talents, Leon Goretzka caused heartache at Schalke when he left the club for Bayern Munich on a free transfer in 2018.

    A goalscoring creative midfielder, Goretzka's first season at Bayern was quietly impressive as he struck nine goals in all competitions and helped the club to a Bundesliga and Pokal double.

  • Fernando Llorente Juventus Fiorentina Serie AGetty Images

    Fernando Llorente | Athletic Club to Juventus

    'El Rey Leon' Fernando Llorente joined Juventus on a free transfer from Athletic Club in 2013 and his first season at the club was a resounding success as he scored 16 goals en route to Serie A glory.

    Llorente spent three seasons in Turin and left with three Serie A winners' medals. He played in the 2015 Champions League final before leaving for Sevilla.