The offseason for European soccer, or football for those across the pond, is the time of year when coaches and managers look to add talent to their rosters. This is often done by transferring in players from other teams.
In European leagues, a transfer is usually simply an exchange of a sum of money for a player. Different from North American style player-for-player trades, with no salary caps in place, wealthy teams can simply buy whichever players they want, without losing the talents of another player in exchange.
This leads to owners dreaming big and spending bigger to sign any players they want. Sometimes this works out well, other times, not so much.
Big, popular teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan are often willing to spend the most, but that also leaves them vulnerable to making bad purchases.
Often, a player will have an excellent run of form during a summer tournament, such as a World Cup, Euro Cup or Copa America. That will drive their market value sky high, and result in one team making a purchase based on three weeks of results. Of course, those results usually are disproportionately higher than that player’s normal skill level.
With the 2015 summer transfer window about to open, here is a look back at some of the dumbest soccer transfers of all time.
10. Andriy Shevchenko – AC Milan to Chelsea, 2006
The Ukrainian star was a darling in Milan, a sure bet for at least 20 goals a season between 1996 and 2006. Then, Chelsea’s millionaire owner Roman Abramovich offered the highest-ever transfer fee for an English club, 30.8 million pounds, to bring the Ukrainian to London.
It probably also helped that Shevchenko’s wife was an American model, as Sheva was looking to learn English to communicate more easily with his wife. The move seemed like it had the makings of a grand success.
Except, stubborn Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho had no interest in playing Shevchenko as a regular starter, and injuries further interrupted the Ukrainian’s playing time. In total, he managed to appear in 51 games, scoring 14 goals. The next season, Shevchenko found himself even lower on the depth chart, only appearing in 25 games, scoring 8 goals.
He never played consistently enough to find his true form, and was sent back on loan to Milan. Finally, after spending 30 million pounds to buy him in 2006, Chelsea let Shevchenko return to Dynamo Kiev, his first professional club, for free in 2009.
Shevchenko’s time at Chelsea is a black spot in an otherwise absolute gem of a career.
9. El Hadji Diouf – RC Lens to Liverpool, 2002
Coming off an impressive 2002 World Cup with global darlings Senegal, Diouf was considered an up-and-coming striker in the global scene. Of course, playing in England for one of the top teams is very different from playing in the French League.
Even with RC Lens, Diouf was a not a top scorer. He scored 18 goals in 54 games, but a strong tournament result can drive market price up.
In signing Diouf for 10 million pounds, Liverpool chose to save money by letting French striker Nicolas Anelka depart. Anelka would go on to score 46 goals in 103 games for Manchester City, while Diouf would only contribute 6 goals in 80 games with Liverpool before being sold to Bolton for an undisclosed fee in 2005.
It is a shame that the transfer fee was undisclosed, but it was assuredly less than the 10 million pounds Liverpool paid to bring him in. Diouf continued to hand around the Premier League and Championship until 2014, with short stints on several teams.
Most recently, in 2014, Diouf joined Malaysian second-division side Sabah FC on a one-year contract.
8. Bebe – Vitoria de Guimaraes to Manchester United, 2010
Would you spend $30,000 on a car you never had a chance to look at? How about $300,000 on a home you never walked through? Well, even though he is considered one of the best football managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson did just that when he signed Portuguese teenaged winger Bebe for 7.4 million pounds.
Vitoria benefitted hugely from the deal, signing Bebe from his hometown club Estrela de Amadora for free before turning around and selling him to Manchester United only five weeks later.
The youngster hardly played for the Manchester outfit, tallying 7 appearances and 2 goals for the Red Devils in his first season, before being loaned out for the next three years. Finally, last season, Manchester United managed to sell off the undervalued winger for 3 million Euros, less than half the value of the price they paid.
7. Adrian Mutu – Parma to Chelsea, 2003
After arriving from Parma for 22.5 million Euros, the Romanian striker started his Chelsea career promisingly enough, scoring four goals in his first three games.
Unfortunately, things started to turn sour in his second season as Mutu hit a drought, was in conflict with new manager Jose Mourinho, and discovered that drug testing in England was much stricter than it was in Italy. At the time, many Italian soccer players were known to be cocaine users, but testing in the Italian league was hardly ever undertaken, or was easily skirted.
Mutu was quickly found to still be using the drug while in England, and was summarily released from his Chelsea contract. He returned to Juventus of the Italian League, and played out his days in Italy and France.
6. Erik Lamela – River Plate to Tottenham Hotspur, 2013
The young Argentine striker arrived in North London from Roma in 2013 for 30 million pounds, making him the club’s most expensive transfer signing to that date. In two seasons in Italy, Lamela had amassed 21 goals in 67 appearances, and appeared to be a player on the rise.
After landing in England, his play took a severe nosedive. Unable to make the starting lineup under manager Andre Villas-Boas, Lamela withered on the bench. When Tim Sherwood replaced Villas-Boas, it looked as if Lamela was due to receive more playing time. Unfortunately, a back injury ended his season early.
The 2014-15 season saw Lamela gain a place in the starting lineup under new manager, and fellow Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino. Nevertheless, he was unable to match his scoring rate from Roma, managing only 5 goals in 42 games for the North London side.
Still only 23 years old, Lamela has the opportunity to grow and develop further. But for now, he appears to be one of the biggest transfer flops in Tottenham’s history.
5. Alex Hleb – Arsenal to Barcelona, 2008
The Belarussian attacking midfielder was highly touted coming from German side Stuttgart to join Arsenal in 2005 for 15 million Euros, and while he played well there, was often injured or forced to play out of position in manager Arsene Wenger‘s lineups.
After three successful seasons in England, Barcelona came calling in 2008 to lure the Belarussian to their side. Arsenal was only able to recoup the fee they had paid for Hleb from Stuttgart, so at the very least Barcelona received the player for a decent price.
Unfortunately, that was the only positive to take from the purchase of Hleb. After joining Barcelona, Hleb suffered from a lack of playing time and was unhappy with his role off the bench. Near the end of the 2008-09 season, Hleb mentioned that he would like to one day play for Bayern Munich, a powerful European rival of Barcelona’s. This caused the officials at Barcelona to loan him out, not to Munich but back to Stuttgart.
He was never able to hold a first-team place very long, as frequent injuries often derailed his play. Since leaving Barcelona for good in 2012, Hleb has had brief stays in Russia, Belarus, and Turkey, with clubs far below the talent levels of Arsenal and Barcelona.
4. Dmytro Chygrynskiy – Shakhtar Donetsk to Barcelona, 2009
Signing central defenders is usually a more certain acquisition than wingers or forwards. Attacking players are worth more because owners and managers tend to pay for their potential goals. A stable defender, though worth far less in monetary terms, can be the backbone of a team for many years.
In 2009, Barcelona legend Carles Puyol was beginning to show signs of aging and occasional injuries, and the Catalan club looked outside of Spain for potential replacements. They found the Ukrainian international Chygrynskiy, a young and powerful centre back. Seeing a potential 10-year powerhouse defender, Barcelona signed the Ukrainian for 25 million Euros.
Only appearing in 14 matches, Chygrynskiy had some struggles and was not at his happiest. In addition, Barcelona was having financial problems and needed to offload some of its fringe players.
As a result, they sold the Ukrainian defender back to his former club, only a year after buying him, for 15 million Euros. An awful deal for Barcelona, they lost 10 million Euros on the deal and only got 14 games out of him. Chygrynskiy has suffered several injuries since then, unable to play a full season with his club in five seasons.
3. Massimo Taibi – Venezia to Manchester United, 1999
You’ve probably heard advice something along the lines of, “Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.” Well, in soccer, the comparison is don’t go goalkeeper shopping with an empty bench.
Unfortunately, in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United were forced to do just that. After the retirement of legendary Peter Schmeichel, and injuries to both Mark Bosnich and Raimond van der Gouw, Ferguson had to go emergency goalkeeper shopping.
Starting quality goalkeepers are hard to buy, especially after the season has already started. The best that Ferguson could find was Italian Massimo Taibi. The Serie A journeyman was starting for Venezia at the time, but the Italian side shrewdly agreed to sell him to United for 4.5 million pounds.
Taibi made only 4 appearance for the Red Devils, which included a 3-2 win against Liverpool in which he muffed a free kick, a 5-0 loss to Chelsea, and a 3-3 tie against Southampton in which he let a weak shot roll underneath him. The papers began calling him the “Blind Venetian”, a clever play on words meant to disgrace and undermine him.
After being signed in August, Taibi was loaned back to Italian side Reggina for the remainder of the season. In July 2000, Taibi was sold to Reggina for 2.5 million pounds, a net 2 million pound loss in less than a season for Manchester United.
2. Denilson – Sao Paolo to Real Betis, 1998
One good tournament is sometimes all it takes for a player to make a life-changing career move. That was definitely the case for Denilson, the Brazilian left-winger who left his local team for Spanish club Betis for a then-world-record 21.5 million pound transfer fee. He was a star for Brazil in the 1997 Confederations Cup and 1998 World Cup, a grand total of about 12 games that shot his market value through the roof.
As a left-winger, Denilson benefitted from playing a shallow position, and many teams yearned for a left-footed player who could set up goals, dribble, beat defenders, and take free kicks. Denilson had all those talents, but when he arrived in Spain, as sometimes happens with Brazilian players, he quickly looked out of place.
In his first full season, 1998-99, he played in 35 games, but managed only 2 goals and was hardly the offensive creator the team had imagined. Betis finished in 11th place in the league, far below what was expected from the team that broke a world record for transfer spending.
Denilson was loaned back to Brazilian club Flamengo for a year, and when he returned, was a shell of his former self. From then on, he wandered around France, Saudi Arabia, USA, Brazil, Vietnam, and Greece, never sticking for more than a few months.
A glance at the players who were worth world-record transfer fees shows names like Ronaldo, Zidane, and Figo. Denilson will long remain the most unlikely, and unsuccessful, player on that list.
1. Elvir Baljic – Fenerbahce to Real Madrid, 1999
Perhaps one of the saddest stories of unfulfilled potential in recent memory, Elvir Baljic was a standout Bosnian playing for Fenerbahce of the Turkish League in 1998-99. In 30 appearances for the club at the age of 24, he scored 18 goals, and attracted interest from some of world’s biggest clubs.
Real Madrid, then managed by Welshman John Toshack, a fan of Baljic’s from his time in Turkey, made a huge splash by signing the Bosnian for 26 million Euros, a massive fee at the time. He joined the Spanish giants at the start of the 1999-2000 season, but ruptured a knee ligament in pre-season training and missed a large part of the season.
Toshack was fired in the same season, and the new coach was not as interested in playing Baljic as Toshack had been. As such, he managed to see the field only 11 times that season, starting only three times and scoring just one goal.
Next year, Baljic was loaned back to Fenerbahce, but failed to regain the form he had shown only two seasons prior. In a final attempt to reclaim his place with Real Madrid, Baljic was loaned to nearby Rayo Vallecano, a team which featured two fellow Bosnians on the starting lineup. That was still not enough, as more injuries and off-field issues interrupted what could have been a long and successful career.
Baljic continued playing in the Turkish League until 2008, but never managed to score more than 3 goals per season, as his concentration and commitment were never the same as that magical 1998-99 season.
On a positive note, Baljic is currently the assistant manager of the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team, which qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and is undefeated in the 2015 calendar year.
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