Football has come a long way since the first-ever footballer to be transferred happened in 1893, when Scottish striker Willie Groves moved from West Bromwich Albion to Aston Villa for £100.
Since then, the valuations of players have skyrocketed, with transfers of elite players now requiring eye-watering sums that would’ve been unimaginable even 10 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, only two of the following top 20 most expensive transfers ever took place longer ago than 2016, while the same old clubs keep cropping up time and again.
For housekeeping sake, these figures reflect the overall fee involving potential add-ons in the deal, rather than just the initial fee. They are also listed by their value in pounds sterling at the time the transfer took place.
The top 20 most expensive transfers ever
20. Virgil van Dijk (Southampton to Liverpool, £75m, 2018)
Eyebrows were raised and scoffs were uttered when Liverpool made Virgil van Dijk the world’s most expensive defender midway through the 2017/18 season.
How wrong the doubters were. The Dutchman’s arrival is now widely viewed as one of the catalysts of Liverpool’s Champions League and Premier League triumphs, and one of the finest signings the club has made in the Jurgen Klopp era.
19. Romelu Lukaku (Everton to Manchester United, £75m, 2017)
United pipped Chelsea to the signing of Lukaku in 2017 after the Belgian’s Everton form made him one of the most sought-after strikers in the Premier League.
Lukaku spent two seasons at Old Trafford, scoring 28 goals, before joining Inter Milan for an almost identical fee.
18. Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli to Juventus, £75.3m, 2016)
Higuain has never been forgiven in Naples for his move to their most bitter rivals, especially as the then-Serie A record transfer came in the wake of the Argentina international scoring a league record 36-goal haul as Napoli finished second behind Juve.
The striker never quite hit those heights in Turin, despite having two goal-filled campaigns after arriving, and he departed for Inter Miami in 2020 after loans with AC Milan and Chelsea.
17. Harry Maguire (Leicester to Manchester United, £80m, 2019)
Maguire’s price tag has often been used as a stick to beat him with during periods of poor form, as the England international was – and remains – the most expensive defender of all time.
The centre-back took over the United captaincy in January 2020, but his wait for a maiden trophy with the Red Devils goes on.
16. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United to Real Madrid, £80m, 2009)
The best dosh Real Madrid have ever spent? Probably. Ronaldo’s move did require a world-record fee at the time, but the Spanish side got value for money – and then some.
Ronaldo departed in 2018 as the club’s all-time top scorer, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and with four Champions League titles and two La Liga crowns to his name.
15. Antony (Ajax to Manchester United, £85m, 2022)
Manchester United were chasing Antony for months before finally tying him down to a contract, Ajax playing hardball over the cost of their Brazilian winger. Eventually the fee stood at £80.75m, with £4.25m available in add-ons.
He’s yet to prove his full worth for Erik ten Hag and Manchester United currently, but is showing glimpses of his undoubted quality each week. Still in his early 20s, Antony certainly has plenty of potential to grow.
14. Gareth Bale (Tottenham to Real Madrid, £85.3m, 2013)
Bale’s move to Madrid broke the world record transfer fee at the time, surpassing Ronaldo’s switch to the Spanish capital four years earlier.
Although the Welshman’s relationship with the club has soured in recent seasons, he has scored some huge goals for the La Liga giants, including *that* overhead kick in the Champions League final victory over Liverpool in 2018 – one of four European crowns he has won with Madrid.
13. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid to Juventus, £88m, 2018)
Him again! Ronaldo’s second move was his more expensive one, and certainly his more shocking one. The football world gasped when Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer suddenly sealed an unexpected move to Turin in 2018 for a club-record fee.
Ronaldo won two Serie A titles in three years in Italy, before returning to United last summer after a declining Juve side narrowly scraped to a fourth-placed finish under Andrea Pirlo.
12. Mykhalo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk to Chelsea, £88.5m, 2023)
Perhaps the greatest transfer steal in history, Arsenal looked in pole position to sign Mudryk in the January 2023 window. That is, until Chelsea nipped in and blew them out the water with a much-improved offer.
Mudryk initially cost Chelsea £62m, with a further £26.5m added to his figure by Shakhtar Donetsk through very achievable add-ons and clauses in his seven-and-a-half year contract.
11. Eden Hazard (Chelsea to Real Madrid, £89m, 2019)
Real forked out an initial £89m to prise Hazard from Chelsea’s grasp three years ago, but the deal agreed had a potential total cost exceeding a whopping £150m.
How they have regretted that decision. The Belgian hasn’t been able to replicate his dazzling Blues form in Madrid and fitness issues have plagued his time there, with the 31-year-old mustering just six goals so far for the Merengues.
10. Paul Pogba (Juventus to Manchester United, £89m, 2016)
United splashed out a then-world record fee to bring Pogba back to Old Trafford from Juventus in 2016, four years after departing Manchester for just £1.5m.
Things haven’t quite worked out as Jose Mourinho hoped they would when the signing was first announced. The Portuguese boss said Pogba could be “the heart of the club” for a decade, but the Frenchman has struggled to find consistent form and now looks to be heading out when his contract expires in the summer.
9. Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan to Chelsea, £97.5m, 2021)
Lukaku re-joined Chelsea for a massive fee last summer after two superb years in Italy with Inter Milan, but the Belgian has struggled to live up to the price tag thus far.
The £97.5m fee fell just short of the British transfer record, but made the striker the player with the largest total transfer value of all time, as a combined £290m has been spent on him by various clubs over the years.
8. Jack Grealish (Aston Villa to Manchester City, £100m, 2021)
Grealish’s £100m move from Aston Villa to City last summer was a British transfer record, surpassing the £89m deal that took Paul Pogba to Man United in 2016.
He also became the most expensive English player ever, knocking Harry Maguire off the top of the list two years after his England team-mate’s move to Old Trafford.
7. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid to Barcelona, £107m, 2019)
Barca met Griezmann’s hefty buyout clause in the summer of 2019 after a long-running transfer saga, but it proved to be something of an expensive mistake.
The France forward spent just two seasons at Camp Nou before returning to Atleti on loan last summer in a deal that included an obligation to buy for €40m (around £34m).
6. Enzo Fernandez (Benfica to Chelsea, £107m, 2023)
After a drawn out transfer saga in the January 2023 window, Chelsea eventually met Benfica’s £107m release clause inserted into Fernandez’s contract, ensuring he would move to Stamford Bridge just six months after joining the Portuguese giants for less than £15m.
He excelled at the World Cup with Argentina, though, winning the tournament and the Young Player award, too. While he cost the same as Griezmann, Chelsea actually paid €1m more due to the exchange rate change over the intervening three-and-a-half years.
5. Joao Felix (Benfica to Atletico Madrid, £112.9m, 2019)
Atleti’s massive outlay on the relatively untested Portuguese prospect took some by surprise in July 2019, but the Spaniards had faith that they would get bang for their buck in the long run.
Felix’s move hasn’t exactly gone to plan, joining Chelsea on loan for half of the 2022/23 season. He’s still a young player with bags of potential, though, so has plenty of time to develop into his humungous price tag.
4. Ousmane Dembele (Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona, £135.5m, 2017)
While Barcelona paid an initial £96.8m fee to Borussia Dortmund for Dembele, the deal still has the potential to rise to an incredible £135.5m.
The forward earned his Camp Nou move on the back of his excellent form in Germany, but he has struggled for form in Spain until hitting a hot streak in recent months under Xavi’s guidance.
3. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool to Barcelona, £105m, 2018)
Coutinho’s signing was another spectacular moment of transfer market misjudgement from Barcelona, which ultimately contributed to the crippling financial problems that saw Lionel Messi leave last summer.
The deal for the Brazilian playmaker, who swapped Catalunya for Aston Villa after a torrid four years at Barca, initially cost £105m, with the figure eventually reaching £142m through add-ons.
2. Kylian Mbappe (Monaco to PSG, £163m, 2018)
Mbappe’s move from Monaco was made permanent in the summer of 2018, when the teenage striker was fresh off winning the World Cup with France.
It followed quickly in the footsteps of the Qatar-backed club’s staggering signing of Neymar, with the one-year loan spell prior to the permanent transfer being an apparent effort to comply with Financial Fair Play rules.
1. Neymar (Barcelona to PSG, £198m, 2017)
PSG’s jaw-dropping deal for Neymar in 2017 wasn’t just the biggest financial flex their Qatari owners have ever made, but a moment that changed the transfer market forever.
The notion that a footballer could be worth £198m (€222m), at a time when the previous world record stood at £89m, altered the way that clubs valued their players and paved the way for another five deals (so far) involving nine-figure sums.