The most controversial signings in the history of football

Football, often referred to as “the beautiful game”, has witnessed its fair share of incredible moments and stories that have captured the world’s attention. However, amidst the glitz and glamour of the sport, there have been signings that sent shockwaves through the footballing world due to their controversies. From surprise transfers to high-stakes drama, let’s delve into the most controversial signings in the history of football.

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The most controversial signings in the history of football

The players are listed in chronological order.

Johan Cruyff – Feyenoord (1983)

However, his transition from Ajax Amsterdam to Feyenoord Rotterdam wasn’t without its share of tumultuous controversy. The former striker’s connection with Ajax ran deep – not only was it his youth club, but also the platform that launched his illustrious professional journey. This connection spanned his first nine formative years, during which he took the pitch 239 times and found the back of the net an astounding 190 times.

Following a period spent playing for foreign clubs, Cruyff’s return to his hometown club in 1981 was an anticipated homecoming. Astonishingly, his first year back at Ajax bore fruits beyond expectations, guiding the team to a championship title. Just a year later, the trophy cabinet welcomed the addition of a double, affirming Cruyff’s influence.

Nonetheless, the narrative took an unexpected turn as the then 36-year-old found himself without a renewed contract, causing frustration to boil over. This frustration acted as the catalyst for a swift move to arch-rivals Rotterdam, joining Feyenoord. In the Feyenoord jersey, the Dutch maestro scripted another remarkable chapter, steering the team to both championship and cup glory, snatched from the very clutches of his former club. To cap off this triumphant resurgence, he was crowned the Footballer of the Year in the Netherlands, cementing his status as a legend in Dutch football.


Luis Figo – Real Madrid (2000)

Luis Figo’s shock move from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 remains one of the most contentious transfers. The transfer fee of €60 million and Figo’s choice to join Barcelona’s arch-rivals strained diplomatic relations between the two clubs and ignited fury among supporters. The sight of Figo donning the white jersey still evokes strong emotions. While Luis Enrique and Samuel Eto’o moved in one direction, Portuguese sensation Luis Figo charted a course in the opposite way. Donning the iconic Barcelona colours at the Camp Nou, he basked in the adoration of the crowd. However, the narrative took a sharp turn when he embraced the white Real Madrid jersey. In an instant, the cherished darling of the fans transformed into an unwelcome traitor, bearing the brunt of fan fury from the stands.


Sol Campbell – Arsenal (2001)

Sol Campbell’s transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal in 2001 rocked the North London football scene. The move of a beloved Spurs captain to their bitter rivals led to an outpouring of anger and accusations of betrayal. Campbell’s decision to wear the red jersey of Arsenal remains etched in the annals of football controversy. Nonetheless, the move to local rivals Arsenal on a free transfer didn’t sit well with Tottenham fans. This sentiment was amplified by his prior rejection of the most lucrative contract ever offered by Tottenham, adding salt to the wound. In the aftermath, Campbell became a target for vengeful Tottenham fans during every derby. Remarkably, these vehement reactions failed to affect him. Demonstrating his resilience, the centre-back excelled at Arsenal FC, securing two English league titles and three English cups.


Andrea Pirlo – Juventus (2001 & 2011)

In 2001, Pirlo had already made a controversial signing when he chose to sign for the rivals of his current employer Inter; Milan was his new home in 2001. The biggest advantage for Pirlo was maybe that he didn’t need to get used to playing in a new stadium. San Siro, or after 1980 ‘Giuseppe Meazza’ is the home for both rivals: Inter and Milan. Andrea Pirlo’s move to Juventus in 2011 raised eyebrows as AC Milan chose not to renew his contract. Critics doubted Pirlo’s ability to perform at the highest level due to his age, but the move proved a masterstroke, with Pirlo becoming a key figure in Juventus’ resurgence and capturing the Serie A title multiple times. 


Alessandro Nesta – AC Milan (2002)

The transfer of Alessandro Nesta from Lazio to AC Milan remains etched in the memory of football aficionados. Nesta’s move to their Milanese rivals (for €31 million) invited heated discussions, especially given his status as a beloved figure at Lazio. This shift across the city’s footballing divide generated debates that echoed the age-old rivalry between AC Milan and Lazio.


Ronaldo Lima – Real Madrid (2002) and AC Milan (2007).

Ronaldo’s journey from Barcelona to Inter Milan in 1997 is etched in football’s annals as a transfer shrouded in intrigue. The Brazilian’s sudden shift, after an electrifying spell with Barcelona, sent shockwaves across the footballing world. While financial issues played a role, the swift transition garnered fervent discussions about loyalty, ambition, and the intricacies of player contracts. Ronaldo’s move added a layer of mystique to his storied career.

The former Brazilian international showcased an unusual trend, not merely donning the jersey of rival teams once but twice over! His football journey led him to grace the fields of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, while also featuring prominently for Inter Milan and AC Milan in Italy. While the Spanish supporters displayed relatively muted reactions, their Italian counterparts were far more vocal.

The contentious labels of “ingrate” and “traitor” adorned posters during the derby clashes. Even the president of Inter Milan expressed his profound disappointment with Ronaldo in a public proclamation, underscoring the emotions that such transfers can evoke within the world of football.


Samuel Eto’o – FC Barcelona (2004)

Cameroon’s goal machine, Samuel Eto’o, ignited a fiery controversy that transcended mere club loyalties. His transition from Real Madrid to Barcelona marked a seismic shift that exacerbated the intense rivalry between the two Spanish giants. Eto’o’s journey across El Clásico lines incited passionate reactions, particularly due to his poignant remarks that rubbed salt into the wounds of the club where he was groomed to shine. Although the Cameroon international striker, Samuel Eto’o, did not transition directly from Real to Barcelona, he managed to garner significant disdain from the San Bernabeu faithful. This animosity stemmed largely from the toxic comments he directed towards the club where he had once been nurtured to become a formidable player.


Zlatan Ibrahimovic – FC Barcelona (2009) and AC Milan (2010)

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s transfers to Barcelona and, later, AC Milan were marred by conflicts with managers. His contentious relationship with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona led to his swift departure, while his loan move to AC Milan, eventually made permanent, raised questions about his loyalty to the Rossoneri. When it comes to mastering the art of ruffling feathers, few can rival Sweden’s own Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He shifted between European clubs with a frequency akin to changing socks, consistently sowing seeds of animosity in his wake. His unapologetic approach largely stemmed from his unabashed motivation: the lure of hefty paychecks. Famously known for his revolving club doors, Zlatan Ibrahimovic rarely settled into a home for more than a span of four seasons. This transient pattern held true for his stints at Ajax and Paris Saint-Germain – the two clubs where he briefly anchored his career. The illustrious Swedish sensation graced numerous clubs across diverse nations. His journey commenced from Malmö, progressing through Ajax Amsterdam, and then to Juventus Turin. Subsequently, his path led him to Inter Milan, FC Barcelona, and AC Milan. Plying his trade at Paris Saint-Germain until the 2015/16 season, he then embraced another audacious undertaking by transitioning to Manchester United. Intriguingly, an alliance forged on mutual antipathy with Jose Mourinho against their common rival, Pep Guardiola, shaped his stint at Manchester United. Guardiola was at the helm of the formidable city adversary. Amidst these various transfers, one that captivated the most attention unfolded at AC Milan, capturing the spotlight with its magnitude and significance.


Fernando Torres – Chelsea (2011)

Fernando Torres’ British transfer record move from Liverpool to Chelsea in 2011 shocked the football world. Torres’ diminished form at Chelsea led to debates about whether the move was worth the price tag of €58 million. His eventual resurgence couldn’t completely erase the controversies surrounding his transfer. The once fervent adoration for the Spanish goal machine in Liverpool had transformed into a frigid indifference. The astronomical sum garnered by the club through Fernando Torres’ transfer to Chelsea hardly mattered to the fans; he was now seen as nothing short of a turncoat. Renowned as one of Spain’s finest prodigies and a globally acclaimed forward during his tenure at Liverpool FC, Fernando Torres’ journey began in 2007 when he left Atletico Madrid to join the Reds in the Premier League.


Manuel Neuer – Bayern Munich (2011)

Manuel Neuer’s move from Schalke 04 to Bayern Munich in 2011 stirred controversy due to his status as a Schalke icon. Neuer’s decision to join their arch-rivals was met with mixed reactions, with debates about loyalty and ambition. During his early years, Neuer donned the gloves for FC Schalke, spending a substantial five years in the Bundesliga with the Blue and Whites before making the switch to the German record champions. As the goalkeeper embarked on his transfer journey, he encountered accusations of disloyalty and faced a barrage of resentment from Schalke fans who voiced their grievances about his departure. Curiously, even Bayern Munich fans exhibited initial reluctance towards Neuer, expressing their sentiments through posters bearing the phrase “Koan Neuer” during a cup match against their rival.


Samir Nasri – Manchester City (2011)

Samir Nasri’s transfer to Manchester City in 2011 from Arsenal ignited fury among Gunners fans. Nasri’s comments about City’s ambition and his subsequent success with the club left a sour taste in the mouths of Arsenal supporters, deepening the rift between player and fans. The French talent Samir Nasri enjoyed an unstoppable reign at Arsenal spanning three seasons, with fans passionately serenading his name in chants. However, in 2011, the same French international left them in the lurch. Departing without a farewell wave, he swiftly traded his place at Arsenal for a significantly more lucrative salary at Manchester City.


Cesc Fabregas – FC Barcelona (2011)

Cesc Fabregas’ return to Barcelona from Arsenal was not just a transfer; it was a saga that divided fanbases and sparked fervent debates. Arsenal supporters felt betrayed by their captain’s move back to his boyhood club. Meanwhile, Barcelona fans celebrated his homecoming, adding a layer of complexity to the transfer that resonates to this day. In recent times, Arsenal supporters have become well-acquainted with the sight of their brightest stars departing the team’s ranks. When the Spanish midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, departed for Barcelona in 2011—his place of origin—fans could empathize and stand by him from a distance. However, after three seasons, his return to the English shores carried an astonishing twist for Gunners faithful: he didn’t reunite with Arsenal but instead chose their cross-town rivals, Chelsea. His proclamation that his chances of clinching a title were higher at Stamford Bridge than donning the red jersey of his former club only added an unexpected layer of intrigue to the narrative.


Robin van Persie – Manchester United (2012)

Robin van Persie’s switch from Arsenal to Manchester United in 2012 left many Arsenal fans disillusioned. Van Persie’s decision to leave for a rival club ignited debates about loyalty and ambition. His goal-scoring prowess at United only heightened the emotions surrounding this controversial move. During his time at Arsenal, Robin van Persie achieved victory in the FA Cup during the 2004-05 season, claimed the FA Community Shield in 2004, and secured second place in both the 2005-06 UEFA Champions League and the Football League Cup in the 2010-11 season. In stark contrast, upon joining the Red Devils, van Persie swiftly clinched the English Premier League title in his inaugural season, further adding the FA Community Shield to his collection in 2013.


Mario Götze – Bayern Munich (2013) and Borussia Dortmund (2016)

Mario Götze’s transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich in 2013 (€37 million) was viewed as a betrayal by Dortmund fans. His return to Dortmund in 2016 sparked further debates about his motives and whether he could recapture his previous form, leading to mixed emotions among fans. In April 2013, when the news first leaked, Dortmund fans found themselves grappling with a sensation akin to a belated and humorless April Fool’s prank. However, the reality struck hard – the reports were indeed accurate. Just ahead of the Champions League semi-final clashes, the media prematurely unveiled a seismic shift: Mario Götze, the budding German prodigy, was destined to make the leap to their arch-nemesis, Bayern Munich, come summer.


Robert Lewandowski – Bayern Munich (2014)

Robert Lewandowski’s free transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich in 2014 incited discussions about competitive balance in the Bundesliga. The move of a star player from one rival to another further solidified Bayern’s dominance, leaving fans divided over the impact on the league’s competitiveness. A mere year following Mario Götze’s departure, Borussia Dortmund loyalists were confronted with another heart-wrenching episode of disloyalty. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish goal-scorer who had etched his place among the most cherished figures at the Westfalen Stadium, made an unexpected move to their arch-nemesis, all without a transfer fee. However, the aftermath witnessed a remarkable shift in perception as he morphed into the most reviled figure in the Bundesliga. With every return to Dortmund’s turf, now clad in the attire of an unrelenting adversary, Lewandowski faces a torrent of resentment from the stands.



These controversial signings have left a lasting impact on football’s narrative, challenging our perceptions of loyalty, ambition, and the dynamics of the sport. While some have proven successful and even iconic, others remain entrenched in debates and discussions, a testament to the enduring power of the controversies they sparked.

Written by Jordy Post

Jordy Post is a seasoned football data and marketing expert with over 3 years of industry experience. With an in-depth understanding of Football Data, he stands out as a leading authority in delivering comprehensive insights. Jordy specializes in uncovering new stats, tracking market trends, and identifying emerging patterns, consistently providing innovative analyses that offer invaluable insights to Sports Data lovers.

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