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Five Most Expensive Transfers Of All Time Which Ended In Free Transfers

Expensive transfers are no exception anymore in football, especially since Neymar’s move to PSG in 2017 for £200 million.

Fees have inflated on a scale never seen before and even typically smaller clubs in the past are splashing the cash on players such as Newcastle United’s £63 million deal for Alexander Isak and Al Hilal’s deal for Neymar which was around £77 million.

The best case for any club is to have a player stay for years and years, becoming an icon and a hero to their fans, and the second-best scenario is to turn a healthy profit on their signing.

The worst-case scenario is for the player to leave on a free transfer after spending literal millions of pounds on them, and after careful research, we’ve collated the five biggest transfers that ended up leaving for free.

All five of these deals rank in the top 30 most expensive transfers of all time, reflecting a growing trend of overpaying and perhaps careless spending, and the most expensive on this list sits just outside the top 10.

For reference, all fees reported are the initial fees for the players and do not take into account potential add-ons (which are not widely reported).

5. Nicolas Pepe (£72 million to Arsenal in 2019)
Credit: Arsenal FC

Nicolas Pepe was meant to be a blockbuster signing for Arsenal, showing that they are here to compete under Unai Emery with their club-record signing.

However, problems started to amount very quickly as Emery did not want the winger and wanted to sign Wilfried Zaha as Pepe would not be able to fit into Emery’s system, becoming an easy target for criticism.

DubSport’s Sean Ryan wrote an excellent article on Pepe and why he didn’t perform to his high standards at Arsenal which you can find here.

His three proper years at Arsenal (he was on loan in his fourth season) saw him make 112 appearances and score 27 times, but the main issue was a lack of balance within his team, and earlier this month, he left Arsenal on a free transfer to join Trabzonspor in Turkey.

Was he a flop? If numbers were to be looked at in solitude, the answer is no. For many fans though, he wasn’t worth the money and his overall performance with the price tag was a huge pill to swallow.

4. Gonzalo Higuain (£75.3 million to Juventus in 2016)
Credit: Getty Images

Not every signing on this list was a flop at their clubs and Gonzalo Higuain was a genuine success in Turin and is one of two players on this list who did succeed.

The former Real Madrid and Napoli striker was in huge demand and attracted interest from many of the biggest clubs in Europe, and due to a breakdown in his relationship with the Napoli chairman, he joined rivals Juventus.

He would score 66 goals in 146 games for the Italian giants over three seasons, including important goals against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League in 2018.

He was the second player to score over 100 goals in two of the top leagues in Europe in the last 20 years after Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but his time would be cut short due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in 2018.

Loan spells followed for the Argentine to rivals AC Milan and Chelsea and he agreed to terminate his contract in September 2020 to join Inter Miami for free, playing 70 games and retiring in 2022.

Higuain won three Serie A titles at Juventus, adding to his three La Liga wins at Real Madrid.

3. Gareth Bale (£86 million to Real Madrid in 2013)
Credit: Football.ua

Gareth Bale held the world record for a transfer fee when he moved to Real Madrid back in 2013 and the divisive Welshman created a legacy for himself in the Spanish capital, winning the Champions League five times and La Liga three times.

Bale made over 250 appearances for Madrid, scoring 106 goals in the process, and was part of a formidable attack force featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

The winger drew criticism from fans and journalists in Spain for his lack of consistency and commitment to the club, but at the same time, scored the winner against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final and would later score two fantastic goals in the final of the 2018 Champions League.

His reputation was tainted by injuries and poor form in the second half of his Madrid career and came close to a move to China in 2019.

He would make a return to Tottenham Hotspur on loan in 2020, seven years after leaving the English club, and left Madrid in 2022 when his contract expired.

Bale joined Los Angeles FC after leaving Madrid but would spend just six months in America, retiring after the 2022 World Cup following Wales’ exit.

2. Eden Hazard (£89 million to Real Madrid in 2019)
Credit: Football Espana

The second Real Madrid transfer on the list and an absolute stinker at the same time.

Eden Hazard is second as the transfer cost €100 million in 2019 and his time in Madrid was plagued by injuries and poor form. If it weren’t for the price tag, he would have been forgettable.

The Belgian was a star for Chelsea over seven years and his 352 appearances coincided with two Premier League medals and two Europa League crowns.

Hazard earned his dream move to the Bernabeu, but arrived overweight and a microfracture to his ankle in November 2019 would seal his fate.

Seven goals and 12 assists was a disappointing return for Hazard and he left Madrid when his contract was terminated in July 2023.

Many labeled him as the biggest flop in Real Madrid history and is still without a club today. He also never appeared in any El Clasico matches in his four years at the club.

1. Paul Pogba (£89 million to Manchester United in 2016)
Credit: Getty Images

From one major flop to another, Paul Pogba’s return to Manchester United was a disaster from start to finish as the then-world record transfer signing stumbled to England once again.

Signed from Juventus for €105 million, after leaving United for free in 2012, Pogba was seen as an answer to inspire United towards league titles and European trophies.

His Europa League win in his first season back would be the highlight though and the Frenchman was largely criticised for a lack of discipline and effort.

His fallout with then manager Jose Mourinho, who called him ‘a virus’, was a sign for worse to come as injuries and continued problems with his ego saw his time at United branded as a failure.

In 2022, he would leave United for a second time, on a free transfer for the second time, to Juventus for the second time, where injuries have wrecked his return to Italy, making just 12 appearances.

A recent failed drug test has also left his career hanging by a thread with the possibility of the Italians terminating his contract.

Who do you think was the worst transfer of the lot? Were they worth their initial gigantic fees?

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