Soccer history, particularly in recent years, has often been decided by major transfers. Beating another team to the signing of a player in August could well prove the difference in beating them to a title or cup competition come May. Certain signings can make or break seasons, or even generations; some have decided the fate of a team or changed the landscape of a division forever.
This list chronicles those transfers which would have done that but for ultimately falling through. All the transfers on this list were very close to becoming a reality, only for one complication or whim to prevent them from going through. Likewise, all of these transfers would have had monumental impacts upon the future of the beautiful game. Had they gone through, you could bet your bottom dollar the world of football would look very differently than the way it does today.
Every player on this list is a giant of the game, with no fewer than eight Ballon d'Or winners and four World Cup winners featured. There are whole heaps of claims and speculation about players, but this list takes into account only those who were genuinely on the verge of their detailed move at one time. It is ranked in order of both the closeness of the deal to being completed the potential impact it would likely have had. Here are the top 15 huge soccer transfers that almost happened:
15 David Beckham to Barcelona
A rare case on this list in that Barcelona may not be too disappointed they missed out on the most recognizable footballer on the planet in David Beckham. The marketing department at Barca no doubt would have been licking their lips had Becks signed on the dotted line in 2003, but given that the club signed Ronaldinho after Beckham joined Real, it turned out to be a fairly good piece of business by the Catalan giants. Barcelona and Manchester United had announced the two clubs had reached a deal for Beckham, but a late €35 million offer saw the former England captain join Los Blancos instead.
14 Pavel Nedved to Duisburg
The 2003 Ballon d'Or winner Pavel Nedved was without doubt one of the finest players of his generation. Energetic, two-footed and world class in possession, Nedved was capable of playing anywhere in midfield, but was most commonly deployed on the left. In 1996, then Bundesliga side MSV Duisburg were in talks to sign the Czech, but decided to hold off finalizing the deal until after Euro '96. It proved to be a poor decision, as the Czech Republic reached the final as Nedved starred, joining Lazio rather than Duisburg that summer, before becoming a Juventus legend. Duisburg are currently bottom of the German second tier, while Lazio and Juventus continue to go strong in Serie A.
13 Lakhdar Belloumi to Juventus
From an enormously talented midfielder who ended up at Juventus to one who did not. Lakhdar Belloumi is an oft-overlooked great of the game, unsurprisingly less well-known given that he never played in Europe. Belloumi is widely considered the greatest Algerian footballer of all time, and one of the finest Africans to ever grace a football pitch, as well as being credited as the inventor of the 'Blind Pass'. Belloumi was trailed by Italian giants Juventus for a number of years, but the move was blocked by the Algerian government until he turned 27. At that time, Juve came back in once more, but having agreed terms with both player and club, Belloumi broke his leg, quashing any chance of the move going through.
12 Paul Gascoigne to Manchester United
A transfer which would have made an enormous impact, perhaps more so to the player than the club. Both Manchester United and Tottenham came in for Newcastle starlet Paul Gascoigne in 1988, and Gazza gave Alex Ferguson assurances that it would be the former he would join. When the Scotsman went on holiday to Malta, Gascoigne instead joined Spurs, where he would spent the next four years. While Gazza had a glittering career, he was renowned for his personal issues. With Sir Alex to guide him, things could have been very different for the Italia '90 star had he gone to Old Trafford.
11 Denis Law to Liverpool
Two-time British record transfer fee setter Denis Law is a legend of the game. Nicknamed 'the King', Law is Manchester United's third highest goal scorer of all time and the only Scotsman to have ever won the Ballon d'Or. Law twice played for Manchester United's neighbors Manchester City, but he so nearly played for their other great rivals, Liverpool. Playing for Huddersfield at the time, when manager Bill Shankly left Huddersfield for Merseyside, he tried to take Law with him, but with the two clubs unable to agree upon a fee, Law joined Manchester United.
10 Garrincha to Juventus
Widely regarded as the greatest dribbler of all time, Samba star Garrincha may not have the worldwide image of Pele, but he has the heart and minds of the Brazilian people and arguably even greater ability than his compatriot. A member of the World Team of the Twentieth Century, Garrincha was Brazil's stand-out player in their 1962 World Cup win and spent the vast majority of his career with Botafogo, but came close to more than doubling the then world record transfer fee when Juventus offered $1 million for him in 1963. The deal ultimately fell through when Juventus lowered their offer to $700,000 having been disappointed with his performance in a tour game, little did they know Garrincha had played three games earlier that week, all while carrying an injury.
9 Alan Shearer to Manchester United
Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson trailed Alan Shearer no fewer than three times over the course of the strikers career, the most serious of these coming in 1992. Ferguson was keen to add Shearer to Fergie's Fledglings, but required a few weeks to get the cash together. In that time, Blackburn swooped in to sign the England international. Shearer went on to become the Premier League's all time record scorer, also setting the record as Newcastle's record scorer, although he may have scored more and certainly would have won more at Old Trafford.
8 Ronaldinho to Manchester United
Another player who came oh-so-close to joining Manchester United was Ronaldinho. The Brazilian appeared to be on the verge of joining Manchester United in 2003, but in a transfer domino effect, when Barca missed out on David Beckham, they entered the race for the young PSG star. Ronaldinho ended up at the Camp Nou, where he was named FIFA World Player of the Year twice and became a footballing icon of style, flair and creativity. There was some good news for the Red Devils though, who in turn looked towards a young prospect in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, who turned out to be a fairly decent signing as well.
7 Georgi Asparuhov to Benfica
It is some indication of the outstanding talent that was Georgi Asparuhov that the forward beat Hristo Stoichkov to be named Bulgaria's Player of the Twentieth Century. Asparuhov is far from a household name outside of Bulgaria, having never plied his trade outside of his homeland. This was not for the want of trying by Europe's elite, many of whom tried and failed to prize the 1965 Ballon d'Or nominee away from Levski Sofia.
Benfica came the closest, lodging a formal offer after he became the first player to score twice at the Estadio da Luz in 1966. European champions in 1961 and 1962, Benfica have never won the competition since, something that could have been very different had Asparuhov become Eusebio's strike partner.
6 Michael Laudrup to Liverpool
"Pele was the best in the 60s, Cruyff in the 70s, Maradona in the 80s and Laudrup in the 90s," that was how highly World Cup and Ballon d'Or winner Franz Beckenbauer rated Michael Laudrup. The Dane was on the verge of moving to Anfield in 1985, then aged 21, but when Liverpool tried to alter the agreed contract from being a 3-year-deal to a 4-year-deal, Laudrup pulled out, and instead joined Juventus, before joining Johan Cruyff's 'Dream Team' at Barcelona.
5 Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Arsenal
Arsene Wenger has been widely ridiculed for his claims with regards to missing out on players. Gerard Pique, Raphael Varane, Vincent Company, Yaya Toure, Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lionel Messi are just some of the players the Frenchman claims he came close to signing. However, having sorted the facts from the fiction, Ronaldo and Zlatan appear to be the two players Wenger was truly on the verge of bringing to Arsenal. Ronaldo's deal fell through due to a minor price disagreement with Sporting, while Zlatan refused to take part in a trial game.
4 Diego Maradona to Sheffield United
Surely the most outrageous near-transfer of all time, Diego Maradona would have become a Sheffield United player in 1978, were it not for an overly-frugal Blades' board. A price of £200,000 for the then 18-year-old Argentinos Juniors starlet was deemed too steep, so the Blades eventually turned their attentions to compatriot Alex Sabella, who they signed for £160,000. Sabella was a very gifted player and Sheff Utd doubled their money with his sale, but he couldn't prevent their relegation, something one suspects El Diego may have been capable of.
3 Eusebio to Sporting Lisbon
This list sees both a player Benfica missed out on and one they very importantly snapped up. Eusebio is widely considered one of the greatest footballers of all time. With incredible athleticism and a ruthlessness in front of goal, he scored more than 600 goals over his career, winning both the Ballon d'Or and a World Cup Golden Boot. The Mozambique-born forward won 29 trophies with Benfica, who dominated Portuguese football with Eusebio as their star, but he so nearly joined Sporting.
Having played for Sporting's feeder club in Mozambique it seemed only natural, but 2,000 euros paid to his family saw Eusebio join Benfica, changing the whole landscape of Portuguese football forever.
2 Zinedine Zidane and Roy Keane to Blackburn Rovers
"Why do you want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?," those were the immortalized words of Blackburn chairman Jack Walker, following Kenny Dalglish's interest in the French youngster. Meanwhile, the club had agreed both a fee and contract with Roy Keane, only for Alex Ferguson to swoop in and sign the Irishman due to Blackburn's offices being shut at the weekend.
Blackburn were Premier League champions at the time, they went on to finish 7th the next season and were relegated three years later. Keane and Zidane became two of the finest midfielders of their generation, and Blackburn most likely would be a much different club today had they signed the pair.
1 Alfredo di Stefano to Barcelona
The transfer of Alfredo di Stefano to Real Madrid is the most significant in the history of the game, and thus it should come as no surprise that Barcelona's oh-so-close attempts to sign the Argentine ranks top of this list of nearly transfers. Barca had a drawn out transfer saga trying to sign Di Stefano, who had been playing in the FIFA exiled Colombian league but was still technically under contract with River Plate. In the midst of it all, Real Madrid swooped in and brought the Blond Arrow to Los Blancos.
Di Stefano was the last piece in the Real jigsaw, transforming them from the second best team in Madrid to by far the greatest team in Europe, winning an incredible eight La Liga titles and five consecutive European Cups, a feat that will never be repeated, all in 11 years at the club. Barcelona, by comparison, won only two league titles in that time and made no significant achievements in Europe.