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Football’s 10 Most Controversial Signings Ever

With the January transfer circus in full flow, the rumours continue to spread, talks are under way, contracts are being negotiated, and the past, as it always does, makes its way to the forefront as clubs reflect back to the one that got away.

There were some transfers, however, that rocked the footballing world; names that are still on the tip of our tongues — beloved heroes who turned in one second into bitter traitors.

Luis Figo (Barcelona to Real Madrid)

It would be no hyperbole to call Luis Figo’s transfer to the Santiago Bernabeu THE great betrayal, the mother of all controversial signings. Figo’s record £37million transfer to Real Madrid in 2000 after five years with the Catalans left Barcelona supporters in a frenzy of hate. The Portuguese had been the darling of Camp Nou, the greatest jewel in its glittering crown. But then along came Florentino Perez and convinced Figo to leave the Catalonian giants for their bitterest rivals.

It was ironic and almost cruel that Figo had earlier quashed rumours of his move saying, “I’m not mad enough to do something like that.”

The move, however, did go through and served to sour the already bitter relation between the two El Clasico rivals and was on the end of constant boos and hisses by the Barcelona fans.

Even two years after that move, Figo continued to be a hated figure in Catalan circles and at Camp Nou in 2002 on a Monday night, amidst all the hostility, the fans performed one final act of condemnation.

When the Portuguese went to take a corner, a butchered pig’s head was thrown his way as a strong statement against his betrayal.

Carlos Tevez (Manchester United to Manchester City)

Manchester City, backed by Arab billionaires, were rapidly ascertaining their presence in the Premier League in 2009, giving Manchester United a reason to be wary, a reason to make Carlos Tevez’s move a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things than it would have been say 10 years prior to the date.

The Red Devils’ fans wanted Alex Ferguson to give the striker, who had been brought to Old Trafford on a two-year loan from West Ham, a permanent contract. The voices failed to make an impact till the very end, but by then it was too late.

The Argentine, despite having won back-to-back Premier League titles at United, became a symbol of the emerging financial muscle at the Etihad Stadium. ‘Welcome to Manchester’ said a billboard located at the top of Deansgate in Manchester — a tongue-in-cheek sign to rub salt into the wounds of the bitter fans of Manchester’s red side.

If this was bad, it got worse in 2012 when City won the Premier League title. During the celebrations, Tevez held up a banner that said ‘RIP Ferguson’, making a mockery of his former boss, a dig at Ferguson’s remark of  ‘not in my lifetime’ when asked if United would ever be underdogs against City.

Alfredo di Stefano  (Millonarios to Real Madrid)

It all began when a commentator during the Millonarios’ game said ‘Este tio huele a buen futbol [This kid smells of good football]’. For Barcelona, Alfredo di Stefano was the one that got away in 1953; a tale of a fistful of what ifs for the Catalans who to this day believe that La Saeta Rubia [The Blond Arrow] was the reason that it was Real, and not them, that won five consecutive European Cups.

Barcelona had come close to signing the Argentine, who had left River Plate in his native Buenos Aires for Millonarios in Colombia in 1949. However, his former club still claimed he was their player so there went Barça, striking a deal with them but were unable to do the same with the Colombian side. That’s when Millonarios sold their rights to the player to Real. There are many conspiracy theories about what exactly happened after, as many believe pressure from dictator Francisco Franco’s authorities forced Barça into selling the full rights of the player to their rivals. And thus, Real, who had been suffering prior to the Argentine’s move went on to reach unprecedented heights: Di Stefano’s first El Clasico saw him become an instant hero as he netted twice in his side’s 5-0 win against the team he almost joined.

Ashley Cole (Arsenal to Chelsea)

Cole’s unflattering moniker describes the hatred the former England left-back garnered for his move to Chelsea: Cashley Hole. Cole was one of the first in what is now a growing trend of players swapping clubs for a bigger pay check, and in doing so, he lost his place among Arsenal folklore and sparked one of the biggest controversies in Premier League’s history.

In June 2005, the Gunners academy graduate was fined £100,000 by the FA for having talks with Chelsea; talks he denied had anything to do with a move to the Stamford Bridge. “The chit-chat never strayed anywhere near what could be considered an approach by Chelsea,” he later claimed.  And although Cole had begun doubling his £27,000-a-week wage salary at Arsenal, the defender was absolutely furious when he asked for £60,000 and was offered £55,000.

“‘I nearly swerved off the road.  ‘He [Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein] is taking the piss, Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on.”

After a year or more of battling, with Jose Mourinho refusing to pay Arsene Wenger ‘one single pound more’ than their £16.5 million opening offer, the deal was finally sealed in the 11th hour of the 2006 summer transfer window.

Arsenal got £5 million and Chelsea’s France international centre-back William Gallas in exchange for Cole, who signed a much-improved £90,000-a-week contract.

John Obi Mikel (Lyn to Chelsea)

Two heavyweight managers going head-to-head and a Nigerian midfielder caught in the middle, is bound to provoke controversy if not an ultimate explosion.

Manchester United manager Alex Fergusion had his eye on Norwegian side Lyn’s John Obi Mikel in the 2005 summer transfer window. In a bid to snap up the youngster, United were reported to have allegedly pressurised Mikel into signing a four-year deal for an estimated £4 million, set to join in 2006, in the absence of his agents.

However, when Ferguson thought things had settled, it was soon disclosed that Mikel had signed multiple deals with a number of sports agents in England. Here entered Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, who claimed to have reached an agreement with Mikel as well.

Things began to get ugly when the Nigerian was pictured in a Red Devils jersey at a United press conference and Mikel started receiving threats. Chelsea were put in the line of fire when Mikel went missing and were blamed for kidnapping him. However, when he finally surfaced in London, FIFA complaints were lodged by Lyn and United, and the drama was soon put to an end. Chelsea ended up paying £16 million for the Nigerian, £12m of which went to United.

Johan Cruyff (Ajax to Feyenoord)

This is a story of petty revenge, of a legendary Dutchman who acted on spite and bitterness. Considered one of the finest footballers, Johan Cruyff had already had a glittering career before he, in 1980, decided to return to his boyhood club Ajax.

However, Cruyff was not offered a new contract deal at the end of the 1982-83 season, despite having led them to the Eredivisie title. Discarded by his club, Cruyff decided to do the unthinkable; join arch-rivals Feyenoord.

Ajax went on to defeat Cruyff’s new club 8-2 but Cruyff was to have the final laugh as he led Feyenoord to the league title despite the demotivating loss.

The damage, however, was not done as Cruyff still maintained amicable relations with Ajax, and is back at the club, having left Barcelona. He has also managed the Amsterdam giants and led them to the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987. 

Roberto Baggio  (Fiorentina to Juventus)

On the final day of the 1982 Serie A season, Fiorentina played out a goalless draw with Cagliari to give the title into Juventus’ hands, who needed a win to claim the league. The Old Lady did so to start what was to soon become a bitter rivalry.

In the 1989-90 season, the two sides faced off in a two-legged UEFA Cup final. Even before the match, Viola darling Roberto Baggio was being linked with Juventus, who won the tie 3-1 on aggregate.

But what was more damaging for the fans was that, along with the trophy, Fiorentina also lost Baggio, who was soon announced as a Juventus player thereafter. The move resulted in riots across Florence but it was not the end of the saga.

A year later, when the two teams clashed and Baggio came up against his former side, Baggio refused to take a penalty. The decision infuriated his coach, who substituted him instantly.

Trotting off the pitch, a Fiorentina scarf was hurled in Baggio’s direction, who lifted it up and kissed it to highlight his connection with his former club.

  Sol Campbell  (Tottenham to Arsenal)

“I am ambitious. I want to play on a big stage, I dream about playing at the top level and this is why I am here,” said Sol Campbell to permanently earn the ire of Tottenham fans after moving to Highbury.

Campbell moved across North London to bitter rivals Arsenal on a free transfer on July 1, 2001. White Hart Lane was left stunned, the Tottenham Hotspur faithful devastated after Campbell, who had made his debut there in 1992 and recorded 315 appearances in the first team with 15 goals in all competitions, explored all avenues with a possible European move before announcing a shift to Arsene Wenger’s side.

Although the supporters knew they were going to lose his services as there had been no sign of him signing an extension to his contract given his wage demands, little did they know that the centre-back would move to the club’s sworn enemies, especially considering Campbell’s Tottenham roots.

Following the move, Spurs fans labelled him ‘Judas’, a brand that was to forever stick with the Englishman throughout his career.

Neymar  (Santos to Barcelona)

It wasn’t an act of disloyalty that caused controversy in Neymar’s move to Barcelona but rather its lack of transparency, leading to a case in the Spanish High Court that is yet to be resolved.

The Catalans claimed to have paid Santos €57 million in May 2013 to sign Neymar, divided between the Brazilian club and the various other ‘stakeholders’ involved in the transfer. But wrapped in folds, nothing is clear: where did the money go? Who actually got it? What was left out of the transfer fee? According to Santos, they received only €17.1m, and it was believed at first that third-party owners, supermarket chain DIS who had paid for 40% of Neymar’s rights, had claimed the rest. They, however, later came out to claim that they did not receive the amount.

Then there’s the matter of first-option payments for three Brazilian starlets, plus a couple of friendly fixtures between Barça and the Brazilian club which implies that the total deal was more than the stipulated €57 million. During the investigation, it was found that Neymar’s father had been tipped the rest of the amount which was assumed to have been given to the stakeholders. “The fee included ‘coffee money’ – a tip – for Neymar’s father,” said former Santos chief Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro in an interview with ESPN Brazil. “I thought Neymar’s father was my friend, but he’s a liar and only after money. Today, if I saw him in front of my car, I might step on the accelerator.” With the allegations of misappropriation of funds and attacks on his reign, Barça president Sandro Rosell tendered his resignation once the investigation opened up.

Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez (Corinthians to West Ham)

More than a few eyebrows were raised when in 2006 lowly English club West Ham announced the signings of coveted Argentine pair Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez, who were being linked with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. The duo, both of whom were just 22 at the time, arrived from Corinthians for a reported combined fee in excess of £30 million.

It was later found out that the duo had been under third-party ownership with the London-based Media Sports Investment group, which was in direct breach of Premier League rules.

To make matters worse, West Ham were caught lying to the Premier League when the issue was brought up.

The Hammers were fined a whopping £5.5 million but got the better end of the bargain as Tevez scored the goal that saved them from relegation. The team relegated in their stead, Sheffield United, wanted the FA to dock points for the breach but the tribunal hearing the case decided against it.

The two were later to move on to bigger things, with both enjoying stints with European giants such as Barcelona, Juventus, United and Liverpool. 

Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th,  2015.

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