In soccer, loyalty is everything. Fans are loyal to the teams they were brought up to support; they don’t pick and choose based on who’s sitting on top of the league at the time. Fandom can be defined on regional, religious, or cultural grounds, but they’re always fiercely defended and proudly displayed. Because soccer fans around the world are brought up to be incredibly loyal to their teams, it can be quite disillusioning for many of them when the players they’ve been supporting for years don’t display the same sense of pride and passion with regards to the club that they’re playing for. In the past, players lived and died without ever leaving their clubs – the idea of a transfer just wasn’t an acceptable part of the game’s culture. You were brought up in one club, you played for them until you retired, and then you continued to support the club you played your heart out for. These were the values of classic, turn of the century soccer, particularly in England.
As the game evolved and became more business than sport, transfers became an acceptable part of the culture. Nowadays finding a ‘one-club’ player is tremendously rare, and those who do it are celebrated and practically canonized by their clubs (e.g. Steven Gerrard for Liverpool and Ryan Giggs for Manchester United). Practically all players will transfer clubs at least once in their career, and most will do so multiple times, but there’s still one kind of transfer that’s vilified even in this day and age of rotating rosters. When players transfer from their club to a rival club, all understanding goes out the window. Fans practically foam at the mouth with rage, and the player in question becomes the devil to a fanbase that may have venerated him only months prior. These men are mercenaries who disrespected their former clubs by signing on to play for their rival squads, and for that they’ve forever tarnished their legacies in the minds of fans from the cities they once called home.
#10 Cesc Fabregas
Oh, Cesc; Arsenal’s boy wonder, Arsene Wenger’s star pupil. When he left for Barcelona in 2011, the hearts of Arsenal fans everywhere were crushed. He was the captain, and considered to be the long-term future of the team. Most forgave him based solely on the fact that Barcelona was his boyhood club – and soccer fans can sympathize with those kinds of feelings. All that goodwill was permanently undone earlier this year when he joined Arsenal’s bitter cross-town rivals Chelsea. Arsenal reportedly turned him down when he came knocking because they had a glut of talent in attacking midfield, but Arsenal fans will never be able to forgive him for going to José Mourihno’s Chelsea when he practically had his pick of any top club in the world.
#9 Wayne Rooney
Wait, what? Why is Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney on a list of disloyal players? Sure, Rooney may have hid his fair share of public contract disputes, but he stayed; he’s a red devil through and through! Well, yes and no. Rooney may have joined Manchester United at a very young age (18), but he had trained with Everton since he was 11 years old. Talented players at smaller clubs get poached all the time, but what makes his initial transfer a decade ago so traitorous was the numerous declarations of love he made for Everton immediately before his transfer. He grew up an Everton fan, came through their ranks, and revealed a shirt saying “Once a blue, always a blue” after he scored in a fixture for Everton. A few weeks later he was a Manchester United player – kissing the United crest in front of Everton fans no less – proving two things; Alex Ferguson is a scary man that you don’t refuse, and that sometimes money will talk louder than loyalty.
#8 Mo Johnston
Mo Johnston isn’t a name that younger fans of the game will be particularly familiar with, but his name’s been etched in history amongst the biggest traitors in sport. The Old Firm is the name of the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Scotland’s two biggest clubs. Traditionally Celtic and its fans were all Catholic, while Rangers and theirs were all Protestant. This gave the rivalry a distinctly ugly and sectarian aspect. Crossing the divide in the Old Firm is something a professional player just doesn’t do, like making yourself look delicious in front of Luis Suarez. In 1989, Mo Johnston was setting himself up to return to his former club Celtic. He held a press conference proclaiming his love for the club while Celtic sold the player in Johnston’s position to make room for him. A few days later, Johnston was a Rangers player – and the very first Catholic to play for the club in the modern era. Rangers approached him with a bigger contract, which is all that it took for the former Celtic man to join a very small list of players who have crossed the Old Firm.
#7 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
As his Nike campaign slogan goes; ‘Dare to Zlatan’, although in this context that might mean telling your employer to go screw themselves. Zlatan is one of the best players in the world today – maybe top 5, but undoubtedly top 10 – but he hasn’t always endeared himself to fans wherever he goes. That’s because everyone is fully aware of his history as a mercenary, so fans are hesitant to get too attached. After beginning his career with Malmo FF in his native Sweden, he made the move to Ajax in Amsterdam. He received his big break when he was picked up by Juventus, where he stayed for 2 years, but after they were relegated due to a match-fixing scandal he immediately declared his intention to leave, planning to sue the club if they tried to block his departure. He signed to Inter Milan in 2006, but then moved to Barcelona in 2009…still with me? We’re not done. He later went back to Milan, but not the same Milanese team he had played for. He joined rivals AC Milan, where he stayed for 2 years before joining his current club Paris Saint-Germain. Not much more needs to be said; Zlatan is world-class talent but he’s a traitorous mercenary who won’t hesitate to follow the money when he gets the chance – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
#6 Robin Van Persie
Robin Van Persie is another one of Arsenal’s star players and former captains who would go on to stab them in the back. After spending 8 seasons at Arsenal, he transferred to rival club Manchester United in the summer of 2012. When asked for his reasons, he referred to listening to “the little boy inside me. The boy was screaming for Manchester United.” He would elaborate on that by stating in later interviews that he came to Manchester United to win trophies – which he did. In his first season at United he was instrumental in their campaign to win their 20th Premier League title. Whether you consider him a villain or not, there’s no doubt that on his day RVP is among the best in the world.
#5 Ashley Cole
This isn’t meant to be an Arsenal-centric list, it’s just that for the past decade they have a nasty streak of their star players leave for rival clubs. Although he has company, the nature of Ashley Cole’s departure from Arsenal makes it a particularly villainous affair. In 2005 he was fined after he was caught meeting with Chelsea manager José Mourinho to discuss a possible transfer without informing Arsenal. Also known as ‘tapping-up’, this process of negotiating with other clubs without informing the club you’re contracted to is forbidden in virtually all major leagues. He stayed at Arsenal for another year, but would eventually join Chelsea in 2006.
#4 Kenny Miller
Kenny Miller is the rare breed of footballer that had no problem crossing the Old Firm not once, but twice. He first played for Rangers for 2 seasons from 2000-2002 before transferring out of the Scottish league. When he returned, he signed for Celtic in a move that created quite the uproar. He stayed there for 2 years before moving to Derby County in a transfer that would only end up lasting a few months. In 2008, not even a year after leaving Celtic, he returned to Rangers in transfer that showed blatant disregard for the century long, time-honored tradition of hatred between the two clubs.
The original Ronaldo – aka Brazilian Ronaldo – was undoubtedly one of the best players to ever step onto the pitch. That being said, he’ll not be remembered fondly as a loyal servant of any one particular club. Ronaldo joined Barcelona for a single season in 96-97, and then transferred to Inter Milan, which he called home for 5 years. In 2002, in what almost feels like a preconceived plot to piss off the fans he had made since arriving in Europe in ’96, he joined Real Madrid. After 4 years there he left to go back to Milan – AC Milan that is. That’s right; Ronaldo is probably the only player to play on both sides of what may be the two fiercest rivalries in European football, and in doing so he managed to alienate 4 groups of fans. The man may have been a professional mercenary, but there was a time when he was the undisputed best in the world.
#2 Sol Campbell
In this tale of treacherous players, Arsenal actually come out on top for once. Sol Campbell was a longtime Tottenham Hotspur player, joining the club at 15 years old in 1989. In 2001, he was one of their star players and was approaching the end of his contract. Tottenham Hotspur offered him a deal that would have made him their highest-paid player in history – but he refused. Instead, he ran his contract out and joined north London rivals Arsenal on a free transfer. That’s right, a player who was considered a club’s future captain turned down the biggest contract they’d ever offered anyone to go join their arch-rivals on a free transfer. Tottenham Hotspur received nothing to compensate them for the loss of one of their best players, and Arsenal fans have never let Spurs fans hear the end of the Sol Campbell saga.
#1 Luis Figo
Figo may be one of the best players of all time, but he also set in motion an entire new era in soccer history through a seriously scandalous transfer. In 1995 he joined Barcelona from his childhood club Sporting CP. From 1995 to 2000, Figo emerged as one of the world’s top players, helping Barcelona win numerous La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup in 96-97. He would have gone down as an all-time Barcelona legend had he stayed, but it was not meant to be. In 2000 – in a shock transfer – Figo joined Real Madrid for a then world-record fee of $60.1 million. The reaction from his former fans was swift and merciless. His next appearance at Barcelona’s stadium, Camp Nou, was in the all-white jersey of their archrivals Real Madrid. The crowd pelted him with garbage, with one fan even throwing a severed pig’s head onto the pitch. Figo was the first of the Galacticos, a Real Madrid transfer policy that used their vast wealth to buy the world’s best players no matter the cost. Figo’s transfer is seen by some as a symbolic end to the 20th century of European soccer, with its rigid divides between teams and passionate fan bases, into an enterprise dominated by money above all else.