11 of the best free transfers since 2000: Milner, Campbell, Pirlo, Raul…

Quick Reads

Juventus are known for enjoying a bargain hunt when it comes to signing players, while Liverpool and Arsenal have also pulled off some of the best free transfers in recent years.

Football clubs now spend astronomical transfer fees on players, but there are still good-value deals to be sought.

Amid the chaos of the hundreds of millions, occasionally some of the best signings cost absolutely nothing at all. Here is a selection but certainly not all of the best free transfers of recent times.

Andrea Pirlo 

One of the most bizarre transfer decisions of all time occurred in 2011 when AC Milan allowed Pirlo to join rivals Juventus.

The legendary Italian midfielder went on to play 164 games for Juve, winning the league in each of his four seasons in Turin, while Milan, who had just won Serie A, have failed to win a single major title since he left.

READ: 16 of the best quotes on Andrea Pirlo: ‘He speaks with his feet’

Sol Campbell 

It takes a brave man to make the move across north London, but that’s exactly what Campbell did when he swapped Tottenham for Arsenal in 2001.

It made him a hate figure among Spurs fans, but two Premier Leagues and two FA Cups to show for his time at Arsenal, he probably doesn’t care.

The former England international made 211 appearances across two spells for the Gunners in total and was an integral part of the famous ‘Invincibles’ side of 03-04.

Robert Lewandowski

Bayern must be a pain in the backside for Borussia Dortmund fans. They take all their best players year after year and sometimes even have the cheek to do it on a free.

It was the stubbornness of Dortmund that allowed this 2014 free transfer to happen in the first place, but you can’t really blame them.

Bayern had picked up Mario Gotze the previous summer, which led to Dortmund refusing to let Lewandowski leave, even though he only had a year left on his contract.

Despite interest from the Premier League, the Polish forward opted to join his Bundesliga rivals – as has become a recurring theme.

Five straight Bundesliga titles, two German Cups and a f*ck load of goals since would suggest he probably made the right decision.

James Milner

Milner was viewed as a sensible freebie when Liverpool picked him up from Manchester City in 2015, but few would have expected him to make quite as much impact as he has at Anfield.

He’s been consistently good in several positions, which we expected, but him breaking the record for the most assists in a single Champions League campaign in 2017-18 is something we certainly didn’t.

But perhaps even more important than his performances on the pitch has been the winning mentality he has helped instil in his team-mates as Liverpool have overtaken his former club as the Premier League’s oustanding team.

As Jurgen Klopp said ahead of the 2019 Champions League final: “He can be quite intense because he is demanding, but a proper leader. My meetings maybe are not bad but without Milly before the game in the dressing room, I don’t think it would work.”

Milner has even managed to shake his ‘Boring James Milner’ tag as one of the funniest footballers on social media.

READ: The best of Boring James Milner – and the times the real one played up to it

Miroslav Klose 

Bayern would have been forgiven by most for not pulling out all the stops to get a 33-year-old striker to sign a new deal back in 2011, but Klose would go on to play for another five seasons for Lazio in Serie A.

And, of course, he continued to score goals at a pretty handy rate, racking up 64 in 170 appearances, including five in one game in 2013.

He finally hung up his boots in 2016, finishing as Lazio’s joint-highest foreign goalscorer of all time.

Esteban Cambiasso

The Argentine midfielder could actually appear in this list as two separate entities having moved on free transfers to Inter in 2004 and then Leicester City a decade later.

Although he must rue his decision to leave Leicester after a year and so miss out on their incredible title win, he’ll still go down in Foxes folklore for the huge role he played in helping them avoid the drop in 2015, earning their Player of the Season award.

Arguably more impressive, however, was his move to Inter from Real Madrid in 2004. He would go on to make 431 appearances for the Nerazzurri during a period of dominance in Italy which saw Cambiasso win five league titles, four Italian Cups and a Champions League.

Jay-Jay Okocha

Okocha had become Nigeria’s most expensive footballer in history when he joined PSG from Eintracht Frankfurt in 1998 so it’s fair to say it was seen as a bit of a coup when Bolton picked him up for nothing four years later.

Signed by Sam Allardyce, as Sean Cole wrote on these pages, it was a transfer which made very little sense. But it worked: ‘A sitcom-worthy odd couple riding glorious roughshod over traditional notions of how to compete in the Premier League, together the pair danced to their own magnificently incongruous tune, establishing Bolton in the top half and taking them into Europe.’

And we bloody loved it.

READ: A tribute to the amazing Jay-Jay Okocha & that brilliant Bolton team

Paul Pogba

Signed after letting his contract run down at Manchester United in 2012, Pogba certainly proved value for money in his four years at Juventus, winning four league titles, two Italian Cups and two Italian Super Cups.

Juve would have paid a small compensation fee to sign the then-19-year-old, but considering they sold him back to United for a world-record £89million four years later, it was probably worth it.

Pogba established himself as one of the best midfielders in the world during his time in Turin, and the financial gain Juventus made from the Frenchman’s image off the pitch undoubtedly makes this one of the greatest free transfers of all time.

Michael Ballack

Ballack was Germany captain and had just won his third Bundesliga title in four seasons as Bayern when he chose to join Chelsea in 2006 having rejected the offer of a new contract and reported rival interest from Manchester United.

He was 29 at the time, but having been crowned German Footballer of the Year in 2002, 2003 and 2005, there was little doubt he was going to improve a Chelsea team that had just won back-to-back Premier League titles – even with Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien for competition.

And so it proved: Ballack made 46 appearances in his first season at Stamford Bridge and 166 in total across four years, leaving with two FA Cups, the League Cup and, most importantly, the Premier League title to show for his efforts.

Raul 

The legendary Spanish striker ended an 18-year spell with Real Madrid to join Schalke on a free transfer in 2010, and even at 33 he had no problem adapting to a new team and new league for the first time in his career.

Indeed, Raul scored 40 goals in 98 appearances for Schalke, proving he could very much still perform at the highest level, before winding down his career with Al Sadd and then New York Cosmos.

READ: A tribute to Raúl, a man who made top-level games look like exhibitions

Henrik Larsson

Larsson had scored goals at a frankly alarming rate for Celtic, but it still came as something as a surprise to a lot of people when Barcelona decided to sign him on the back of an impressive Euro 2004 campaign.

He described the move as “a dream come true”, and though he was never a regular and scored only 19 goals in his two seasons in Spain, he made a telling contribution in his final game for the club in the 2006 Champions League final when he stepped off the bench to set up both goals in the 2-1 comeback against Arsenal.


More from Planet Football

17 Prem ‘flops’ who proved themselves elsewhere: Memphis, Suso, Stuani…

Can you name the top Premier League goalscorer for every nationality?

25 of the best ‘utility players’ of the 21st century: Milner, Young, Zanetti…

Revisiting World Soccer’s ‘50 most exciting teenagers’ list of 2007