Signing players who come to the attention of a club based on their performance at the world’s biggest football tournament can be a double-edged sword, above all things: it can either be a very good barometer for how a relatively lesser-known player can stack up to the best players football has to offer, or a very bad one. There’s been both of those outcomes in equal amounts for just about every club that’s taken a flyer on a player who impressed during the World Cup, hence why this list will focus on the five best and five worst transfers based on a player’s World Cup performance.
This list isn’t really based on how much the player made upon joining their new club or how much the transfer fee was (particularly since those numbers look quite different nowadays thanks to inflation), but how much – or how little – the transfer impacted the team and the individual’s performance at large. There are some players whose performances for their new club helped them win trophies – Zbigniew Boniek and Roberto Baggio come to mind here – and then there were others whose time at their new club was marked by controversy and a lack of offensive productivity. In this list, we’ll be looking at the players who defined both ends of that spectrum, proving that the World Cup is maybe not the greatest way to measure how good a player’s going to be on a full-time basis for a club bigger than anywhere they’ve played before.
Above all things, this goes to show that signing a player based on their World Cup performance is a risky decision to make, and the end result can either be really good or really bad. Here are the five best and five word post-World Cup transfers in football history.
5. BEST: Zbigniew Boniek – Juventus (1982)
Considered one of his country’s greatest-ever footballers, Zbigniew Boniek was a big part of Poland’s 1982 World Cup campaign, helping the White Eagles finish third at the tournament in Spain that year with four goals. After that, Boniek was rewarded with a transfer to Italian giants Juventus, where he won a Serie A title in 1984 and a European Cup the following year in a successful three-year stint with the Bianconeri before transferring again to Roma in 1985. He retired in 1988 before going into coaching, and Pele named him among the 100 greatest footballers of all time in 2004.
4. BEST: Angel di Maria – Real Madrid (2010)
He may have just recently moved from the Bernabeu to Old Trafford following a record-breaking transfer to Manchester United, but Angel di Maria’s performances at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa for Argentina – for whom he started four out of five matches in the tournament – earned him a move from Benfica to Real Madrid for an estimated $32.4 million. After his move, di Maria enjoyed four successful seasons with Los Merengues, winning a La Liga title in 2011-12 and a Champions League title two seasons later. His time with Real Madrid came to an end this summer following a move to Manchester United for about $96.1 million – a British record.
3. BEST: Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez – West Ham (2006)
In arguably one of the most bizarre transfer coups in Premier League history, let alone post-World Cup transfer history, the Hammers pulled off a double swoop of Argentine stars Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez – violating Premier League transfer regulations in the process – from Brazilian club Corinthians shortly after the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Surprising in the sense that West Ham beat out multiple big clubs for their signatures, the pair played 15 and 26 games respectively for the club before the team went on a nine-game winless streak. Mascherano signed with Liverpool that winter, and Tevez to Manchester United the following summer.
2. BEST: Roberto Baggio – Juventus (1990)
Already having established himself as one of the best players in the Serie A before the 1990 World Cup held in his homeland, Roberto Baggio made the most of his opportunities while being used mostly as a substitute during Italy’s campaign on home soil that year – scoring two goals and helping create other scoring chances at the tournament. His efforts saw him earn a transfer to Juventus from Fiorentina for $13.6 million after the World Cup had finished. There he spent five successful seasons in which he won both a UEFA Cup and a Serie A title. He would move again in 1995, this time to Milan.
1. BEST: Gheorghe Hagi – Real Madrid (1990) and Barcelona (1994)
It’s extremely rare for a star footballer to succeed after transferring to a new club following a solid World Cup performance twice, but for Romanian footballing legend Gheorghe Hagi, that’s what happened – to rival clubs on top of that. Following the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Hagi switched to Real Madrid from Steaua Bucharest for $4.3 million, where he played for two seasons. Following a move to Italian club Brescia (who were eventually relegated from the Serie A) and a solid performance at the 1994 World Cup in the United States, Hagi moved again to Barcelona for another two seasons.
5. WORST: Milan Jovanovic – Liverpool (2010)
Thanks to his four-goal tally in Serbia’s qualifying campaign, Milan Jovanovic was part of his country’s 23-man squad at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, in which he scored the lone goal in a shocking 1-0 victory against eventual semifinalists Germany. Following the tournament, he attracted the interest of Liverpool and signed with the Reds on a free transfer from Belgian club Standard Liege. His stay at Anfield only lasted one season and didn’t see him play very much, with only 10 Premier League appearances and no league goals to show for it. He moved back to Belgium with Anderlecht for the following season.
4. WORST: Kleberson – Manchester United (2002)
Although little known outside of Brazil prior to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Kleberson impressed during the tournament that his homeland would eventually win – manager Luiz Felipe Scolari called him the “driving force” of the team. Several major European clubs competed for his signature, with Manchester United eventually winning the sweepstakes. However, his stint at Old Trafford was a failure, thanks to a combination of injuries and a lack of playing time. He made 20 league appearances for the Red Devils over two seasons before moving to Turkish club Besiktas in 2005, where he would see more success.
3. WORST: Milenko Acimovic – Tottenham Hotspur (2002)
Despite Slovenia’s poor World Cup campaign in 2002, attacking midfielder Milenko Acimovic did score in their opening match against Paraguay, which they lost 3-1. His performances also caught the eye of Tottenham manager Glenn Hoddle, and he signed with Spurs after the World Cup had finished, amid interest from several other clubs as well. His stay with the club was limited to only 17 appearances and no goals scored, and he signed with French outfit Lille in 2004. He would then sign with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia before quickly leaving again to Austria Wien, where he would finish his playing career.
2. WORST: Stephane Guivarc’h – Newcastle United (1998)
Already a well-established player in his native France, Stephane Guivarc’h was selected by national team manager Aime Jacquet to play for his country in the 1998 World Cup on home soil. He wasn’t one of the more dazzling players on an excellent French team that would eventually capture the trophy in front of their home fans, but it did earn him a transfer to Newcastle United. Sadly for Guivarc’h, his transfer would prove to be extremely short-lived, as he scored one goal in only four matches before being sold again to Scottish club Rangers in November 1998 for roughly $5.6 million.
1. WORST: El Hadji Diouf – Liverpool (2002)
Senegal were one of the stories of the 2002 World Cup, as they not only shocked the entire world by beating defending champions France 1-0 in their opening match, but also went on to the quarterfinals thanks in part to great performances from forward El Hadji Diouf. Known for his playing days in France for Lens prior to the tournament, Diouf would sign with Liverpool after the tournament was over. However, thanks to attitude problems, controversies off the pitch (he spat at a Celtic fan during a UEFA Cup game), and a goalless season in 2003-04, Diouf would be sold to Bolton Wanderers after that season was over.