Watch: Mbappe to Saudi's Al Hilal? Five transfers that rocked the football world

If Mbappe agrees to join Al Hilal, it will be arguably the most astonishing move in history. But football is no stranger to such moves from iconic names

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Leslie Wilson Jr

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Brazil legend Pele played for the NY Cosmos and Argentina icon Diego Maradona left Barcelona to play for modest Italian club Napoli. — Twitter
Brazil legend Pele played for the NY Cosmos and Argentina icon Diego Maradona left Barcelona to play for modest Italian club Napoli. — Twitter

Published: Thu 27 Jul 2023, 1:01 AM

From Pele to Maradona to Messi, football tells the tale of some of the most impactful transfers in the history of the sport.

One thing is certain, transfers are serious business that involved mega bucks.


During the summer months, the football markets have been a beehive of activity with Saudi Arabia causing the biggest buzz as it dived headlong into overdrive to acquire the biggest names in professional football.

Already superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N'golo Kante have fallen under the spell of its farsighted sporting vision, with French sensation Kylian Mbappe becoming their newest sighting on the radar.


Saudi’s Al Hilal, the most decorated club in Asia with over 66 trophies, are offering to pay the 24-year-old PSG striker over $700 million for one season with club officials expected to arrive in France to make the deal happen.

If Mbappe, who is at the peak of his career, agrees to join Al Hilal, it will be arguably the most astonishing move in the history of world football.

But the sport is no stranger to such moves from iconic names.

Let's take a look at five historical transfers that forever transformed the beautiful game.

Luis Figo - Barcelona to Real Madrid

Barcelona supporters burn a portrait of Portuguese player Luis Figo, who left the club for Real Madrid in 2000, during a league match between the two bitter rivals at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. — AFP file
Barcelona supporters burn a portrait of Portuguese player Luis Figo, who left the club for Real Madrid in 2000, during a league match between the two bitter rivals at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. — AFP file

The Portuguese great raised a lot of eyebrows and drew hatred when he made a controversial move from Barcelona to arch-rivals Real Madrid in 2000. Barca fans did not take it kindly and said that what he had done was unacceptable saying he had traded loyalty for greed.

Figo was even starting to wonder whether the world record £54 million move was worth it considering the backlash that he would face from unforgiving Barca fans, for years to come.

There was a time in 2001 when he had to endure the worst resentment during a match at Camp Nou. Whenever the midfielder was in possession of the ball, angry fans hurled oranges, cigarette lighters and bottles at him.

One irate fan even went to the extent of throwing a pig’s head at Figo to show how much he resented the footballer’s decision to desert Barca in favour of Real.

Figo would attempt to explain why he jumped ship by saying that the Barca management was not treating him properly.

But that would not stop aggrieved fans from brandishing ‘Judas’ and ‘Scum’ banners around any stadium he played at.

Maradona - Barcelona to Napoli

Almost three decades before the Messi saga, and that of Ronaldo and Benzema, another Argentine icon, Maradona, shocked the world by leaving Spanish giants Barcelona for Napoli, a modest Italian club that had never won the league title.

Maradona’s move across European shores in 1984, two years before he would figure in Argentinian’s World Cup winning squad, was historic as it was the first time that a player earned a transfer fee of over $10m.

But the trappings that came with the deal were somewhat of a rude awakening for the South American star who was treated like a king at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

He was forced to settle for a modest apartment in Naples, as opposed to the luxurious villa life that he enjoyed in Spain. And like every successful footballer Maradona had a thing about sports cars. However, he had to settle for a basic Fiat in Naples, having previously raced through the streets of Barcelona in a red Ferrari.

But Maradona became an instant hit in Naples as his magical displays saw Napoli stun Italian giants AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan for two league titles in 1987 and 1990. Napoli also finished runners-up in the league in 1988 and 1989 and won the Uefa Cup in 1989.

Napoli even named their stadium after Maradona after the Argentinian died in 2020.

Pele – Santos to NY Cosmos

The Brazilian legend’s move from Santos to the now-defunct NY Cosmos was reportedly due to financial pressure. Pele had already retired having played his last match for Santos in 1974, but soon found himself cash-strapped.

The New York club came to his rescue gifting him an offer of $7m.

It was the greatest signing at the time and eclipsed anything before it. But it was also controversial and a big embarrassment for the highly regarded football star who contributed significantly to Santos’ all-time record of the most goals scored by a club in football history.

The Brazilian icon did not just bring himself to the US, he brought with him the beautiful game, an expression of association football, that he arguably coined.

It did not matter that the three-time World Cup winner was past his prime and that his legs had gone old. The Pele magic was still alive and endeared itself to the thousands of fans that he attracted by netting 66 goals in 107 matches.

Lionel Messi — PSG to Miami

The Argentinian virtuoso shocked the world when he travelled halfway round the globe to join Major League Soccer outfit Inter Miami earlier this month.

Having led Argentina to victory in the World Cup last December, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was tipped to join Barcelona, his old club, or Al Hilal. However, in a surprise move reportedly triggered by his wife, Antonela’s wishes, Messi took up the offer from former English football star David Beckham, who co-owns Inter Miami. The fee - $60 to $70m per season, significantly less than the $600m that the Saudi club had proposed or the $140m that the Spanish giants Barcelona were willing to cough up.

Messi explained why he took up the least financially rewarding offer when he said that while Saudi money and Barca’s memories were a factor, the Argentinian chose to play football in ‘another way.’ The American way.

Interestingly, he is not the first big-name footballer from the other part of the world to play in America, as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Thierry Henry and Beckham himself, also played in the US.

Ronaldo – Man United to Al Nassr

The iconic Portuguese striker sent shockwaves around the world when he announced his decision to leave European club football and move to Saudi Arabia. Ronaldo now can be credited with opening the door to Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions to acquire the best football players for their Pro League.

The prolific goal scorer joined Al Nassr after the 2022 World Cup on a lucrative nine-figure deal.

Ronaldo even boasts that he opened the way to the Saudi league which has also attracted many big-name players to the Middle East, where sport has taken on a different meaning and significance.

Although, at 38, he is certainly getting on in age, from a footballer’s point of view, Ronaldo still possesses the skills and ability that saw him score a record 123 goals for Portugal. He continues to be at his prolific goal-scoring best with 14 goals in 19 matches for the Riyadh-based club.

Ronaldo remains the benchmark for professional players in Saudi where he reportedly earns more than $200 million per season.

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