When the Vatican takes umbrage at a football transfer fee, you know you’ve done something right.
In terms of world-record transfer fees, 1992 was football’s watershed year. Within the space of two months, three players claimed the title of world’s most expensive player. It started with Jean-Pierre Papin, before Gianluca Vialla wrestled the crown from him just weeks later. Both are recognisable names; Gianluigi Lentini is not.
The winger impressed in six years at Torino from 1986, but the £13m fee Milan paid to sign him in 1992 certainly raised a few eyebrows. He had 16 goals in 111 Serie A games, and had six international caps for Italy. “An offence to the dignity of work,” was how the Vatican described the fee.
Yet it is little wonder why the Italian’s status has slipped from world renowned to anomaly. After helping Milan to a Serie A title, two Supercoppa Italianas and a Champions League final in his first year, disaster struck. In August 1993, at the age of 24, Lentini suffered a serious car crash while driving home from a pre-season tournament in Genoa. His injuries included a fractured skull and a damaged eye socket, while he spent two days in a light coma. He eventually recovered in terms of his health, but his footballing talent had been lost. It was a small price to pay, as he himself has admitted, considering he almost lost his life: “Sometimes I think about how it could have been, but then I say, in the end I’m fine and I have to be happy.”
As of Friday, July 29, 2016, 42 different individuals have been the subject of a world-record transfer. Of those, just three have been made the most expensive footballer in the world on two separate occasions. David Jack joined Bolton from Plymouth for a mammoth £3,500 in 1920, then moved to Arsenal eight years later for just under £11,000. Diego Maradona became a marquee signing for both Barcelona and Napoli within a two-year spell in the 1980s. The most recent of this eclectic world-record trio is the original, beautiful Ronaldo.
For a player who hardly courted controversy during a brilliant career which still could – and should – have been so much more, the Brazilian’s move to Inter Milan in 1997 was a tempestuous one. He had spent just one year at Barcelona after joining for £13.2m from PSV, breaking the four-year record of the aforementioned Lentini. The 19-year-old was a revelation in his 12 short months at the Nou Camp, scoring 47 goals in 49 games. Talks over a new contract had taken place throughout the season, and Barcelona were under the belief that they had agreed terms to keep the player until at least 2006. But the recently-crowned World Player of the Year turned his back on the club, paid his own buyo-ut clause, and joined Inter Milan for £19.5m, a second world-record fee in a year.
The first fee is often forgotten, of course. The £13.2m Barcelona paid PSV was only a world record for a matter of weeks in the summer of 1996, with Alan Shearer dethroning him upon his £15m move from Blackburn to Newcastle. By the time the buck-tooted one was signed by Real Madrid in 2002, his £20m fee was eclipsed by the £46m the same club paid to purchase Zinedine Zidane a year before.
No, not the brilliant midfielder once on Arsenal’s books, but the Brazilian winger whose world-record move to a middling Spanish side stunned the football world in 1998.
At a time when Ronaldo, Romario and Rivaldo were the recognisable faces behind the most dominant force in the sport, Denilson inexplicably emerged as its most expensive. The left winger made his debut for Sao Paulo in 1994, and made 50 appearances for his boyhood club before leaving. Lazio, Barcelona and Tottenham were interested in his services by 1998, but it was Betis who swooped.
For context, this was a side who had just finished eighth in La Liga, and had only earned promotion to the top flight four years prior. And this was a player with 50 first-team appearances and four goals to his name throughout his career by that point. He scored two goals in 35 games in his first season as Betis finished 11th. A season later, the club were relegated.
‘By the end of the World Cup, Betis will know better whether they have pulled off a bargain or been extravagantly conned,’ wrote Andrew Longmore for the Independent in June of 1998. The latter, if you were still wondering.
‘One of football’s true itinerants, a well-travelled striker with a wanderlust surpassed only by the likes of Rivaldo, Romario and Sebastian Abreu,’ was the rather curious description given to Christian Vieri by FIFA’s official website in 2014. It captures his status as an outlier of sorts – not quite at the standard of the true legends of the game, but one on a higher plane than most others.
As a result, you would be forgiven for not realising the Italian was once the world’s most expensive footballer. Vieri played for 13 clubs – two of them twice – in an 18-year career – a quality striker, but a nomad at heart. And that could soon become 14 sides at the tender age of 43.
It was the £32m move to Inter Milan in 1999 that earns him a place on this list. An £11m increase on the previous holder, Denilson, Vieri would finally find a home at the San Siro. The striker scored 236 goals in 476 career appearances, but only at Inter did he stay for longer than a year. In his first nine years as a professional footballer, he played for nine different sides.
In the 1920s, the world-record transfer fee was broken five times; same for the 1950s. The 1970s and 1980s saw it surpassed three times each. The boom of the 1990s saw nine world-record transfers. But since 2001, only three players have become the most expensive ever.
The most recent instantly spring to mind. Cristiano Ronaldo may not be too pleased with the fact, but his 2009 move from Manchester United to Real Madrid was narrowly beaten by Gareth Bale’s to the same club four years later. But the man Ronaldo dethroned is often forgotten. Of course, Kaka only held the title for a matter of weeks – 23 days to be exact – upon his £56m move to Real before the Portuguese eclipsed it just over three weeks later, becoming a bigger, better and more fitting Galactico than his Brazilian counterpart. To say Kaka struggled in Spain is an understatement – he scored 29 goals in 120 games before returning to Milan for free.