Alaba, Mbappe next? Five stars who moved for free in their prime…

Andrea Pirlo
Milan thought Pirlo was past his prime when he clocked up 10 seasons of service at the San Siro in 2011. The midfielder played only 17 times in their Serie A title-winning campaign and, aged 31, it was felt he wasn’t worthy of a new contract. Which, in hindsight, seems one of the daftest decisions of the last decade.

Juventus certainly thought so and when it emerged Pirlo might be available, they leapt into action. Having played Alberto Aquilani in their midfield for a season, Juve’s need was great, but still they expected Pirlo to take a pay cut. Having earned around £58,000 a week at Milan, the Old Lady was offering just over £40,000 a week.

As we know now, it was an inspired move. The Scudetto followed Pirlo from Milan to Turin where it has remained ever since.

Pirlo’s presence reinforced Gianluigi Buffon’s belief in a higher power. “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.”

Everybody loves…the effortlessly brilliant Andrea Pirlo

Robert Lewandowski
It came as no surprise when Lewandowski signed a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in January 2014. The move had been mooted for months, despite the striker’s denials, and Bayern pillage of Borussia Dortmund for their best players was becoming an annual event.

Lewandowski was 25 then but his goal machine credentials were already well established. He netted 103 goals in 187 appearances for Dortmund and said farewell to the club by finishing as the Bundesliga’s highest scorer in his final season before defecting to Bayern.

There he took it up another notch. Lewandowski has scored 30-plus goals in the Bundesliga in three of his six campaigns in Bavaria, finishing last season with a ridiculous 55 goals in all competitions while Bayern won the lot.

Real Madrid also wanted Lewandowski but it seems they made their move too late. The offer of £166,000 a week plus a £10million signing-on fee didn’t arrive until December 2013, by which time the Poland star was Bayern-bound.

Did you know that Lewandowski almost signed for Blackburn but Big Sam was foiled by a volcanic ash cloud. Oh, you do. Everyone does. Remote tribes in the Amazon have made contact to say they’re sick of hearing about it, have they? Righto.

Hero of the week: The criminally-underappreciated Robert Lewandowski

Sol Campbell
Losing their captain, a player who’d come through the ranks to skipper them in a Wembley final, was bad enough. But to see Campbell walk out of Tottenham and go straight to Arsenal saw Spurs fans’ p*ss reach boiling point. Twenty years later, it hasn’t cooled.

You can understand why they had the hump. “It would be hard for me to sign for Arsenal,” Campbell said during his final year at Spurs, at which time he was still giving everyone the impression that he might still recommit, despite interest from Manchester United and Barcelona. Indeed, United failed with an £18million bid in 2000, not because Alan Sugar wouldn’t accept it, but because he recognised that Campbell was intent on running down his contract to become a free agent, despite what was being said in public.

Barcelona and Inter Milan considered themselves among the front runners. Campbell met with both and Inter president Massimo Moratti proclaimed: “He will join us… he is ours.” The talk at the time was that Inter were offering Campbell £200,000 a week, which would have put him on a higher salary than Ronaldo.

But Arsenal convinced Campbell to cross the north London divide. At a press conference called, it was assumed, to announce the signing of Richard Wright, instead Campbell emerged with Arsene Wenger and David Dein.

For Campbell and Arsenal, the move brought great success. But two decades on, Wenger isn’t sure he would do it all again.

‘The situa­tion was really stressful for Sol and he told me after­wards how severe it became,” Wenger told 11 Freunde last month. “He couldn’t go to cer­tain places for dinner or walk freely in London because of the anger of the Tot­tenham fans. In hind­sight, I’m not sure if I would sign him again bea­ring in mind the dif­fi­cul­ties he faced.”

Sol Campbell: ‘I’m one of the greatest minds in football’

Steve McManaman
I chose Real above the other top European clubs that came in for me because I’ve always thought they were an excellent club,” said McManaman, offering his now customary insight, after signing a pre-contract agreement with the Madrid giants in 1999. But he almost joined Barcelona prior to leaving Liverpool as a free agent.

The Reds had agreed a £12million fee with Barca in 1997 but the move collapsed. ‘McManaman is asking for a huge amount of money,” said Barca vice-president Joan Gaspart. “It is just impossible for us to pay that much to just one player.”

McManaman was said to be asking for around £50,000 a week for six years and his agent Simon Fuller, the Spice Girls’ manager, countered Barca’s stance. “We asked for what we considered to be a reasonable wage in terms of European football. If Barca a prepared to pay the £12million transfer fee then they must also be prepared to pay a comparable amount in wages.”

Other sources suggested that Barca’s reluctance was due to McManaman’s poor goalscoring record. They preferred a winger with an eye for goal and quickly moved on to Rivaldo, who cost a higher transfer fee but the Brazilian accepted ‘only’ £16,000 a week to move to the Nou Camp.

Real were more willing to meet McManaman’s personal demands when he ran down his Liverpool deal. He got his £50,000 a week at the Bernabeu, where he moved as a 27-year-old on a five-year contract. It worked out quite well.


Luis Enrique

Enrique too had a choice between Real and Barca. He swapped the former for the latter.

After five seasons at the Bernabeu, Enrique had still not managed to establish himself in the Real XI. He won a La Liga title in 1994-95 and celebrated wildly after scoring against Barca in a 5-0 win. But as his contract wound down a year later, he was still a fleeting presence in Jorge Valdano’s side.

“I don’t play and I don’t play,” he said after being left out of one squad in late 1995. “This is clarifying my future and I’ll talk to my agent. Rest? At this rate, I’ll be rested so much that I’ll be able to play until I’m 60 or 70.”

With Valdano gone a few months later, Enrique’s agent asked for improved terms which Real initially refused to offer. But their stance changed when Fabio Capello was appointed and he wanted the player to be part of his rebuild.

By then it was too late. Barcelona had agreed a deal with Enrique and he was off to the Nou Camp in 1996. For Barca, he scored five times in Classicos and rarely missed an opportunity to antagonise the supporters who used to boo him at the Bernabeu.

“My time at Real Madrid doesn’t bring me good memories,” he said later. “It wasn’t hard to leave. It was easy.”


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