Footballers rarely stay put at one club for an extensive period of their career nowadays, inherently accumulating millions and millions in transfer fees each time they elect to jump ship.
Whether in pursuit of a more lucrative contract, a city with better weather or a reunion with a former teammate or manager, most players will succumb to the lure of switching clubs at some point before they choose to hang up their boots.
At the summit of elite football, transfer sums of less than seven digits are virtually extinct. In turn, this means players who fail to settle at a single club rack up huge amounts of money in transfer proceeds over the course of a decade-long career.
Apart from providing a clear-cut overview of the most expensive players football has seen, this list also sheds light on an intriguing convergence of old and new transfer policies in modern football.
The majority of inclusions are pushing or already beyond 30-years-old and have accumulated their overall transfer costs by means of numerous moves between wealthy clubs. However, there’s a handful of other players who’ve made the cut despite only changing clubs three or four times to date.
If it isn’t already clear, this further indicates that clubs are comfortable with splashing fees around the £50m ballpark in order to acquire a player, even those who might not even come close to matching the abilities of the best in the world. This behaviour is likely to continue, and before long, will render many of the players who currently rank among the most expensive in the world well off the pace.
Read on to discover the top 20 most cumulatively expensive players of all-time.
21 Willian – £59.15m
Willian, one of Chelsea’s few shining stars at present, commanded a £24.85m fee to join from Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala in August 2013. The in-form Brazilian has saved the Blues’ bacon on a number of occasions this season while his more recognized teammates flounder through what has been a disastrous 2015-16 campaign. Prior to signing for Chelsea, Willian joined Shakhtar Donetsk from Corinthians, his boyhood club, for £9.8m in August 2007 before sealing a £24.5m move to Anzhi six years later.
20 Robinho – £59.5m
The prospect of Robinho returning to Brazil by 2010 seemed preposterous following his stunning £30.1m move to Manchester City on transfer deadline day in September 2008. Having snubbed interest from Chelsea to join the ambitious revolution taking place at the Etihad Stadium, the flashy Brazilian looked to have the world at his feet. However, Robinho crumbled beneath the pressure of being the figurehead of City’s newfound wealth, ultimately leading to his £12.6m switch to AC Milan four years later. Although the £16.8m fee Real Madrid paid to sign the forward from Santos in August 2005 was just at the time, his lack of consistency at the highest level marred what could’ve been a stellar career.
19 Neymar – £60.34m
Likened to Robinho throughout the formative years of his career, Neymar has proven there’s more substance to his game than the flashy compatriot he was often compared with. The forward honed his skills with Santos and made his senior debut for the club at the tender age of 17-years-old. Neymar quickly became a leader of the famous Brazilian club and following a hard-fought bid to keep hold of its wonderkid for as long as possible, Santos eventually agreed to sell him to FC Barcelona for £60.34m in July 2013.
18 Edinson Cavani – £60.55m
With Paris Saint-Germain constantly in the market to buy and sell players in order to assemble a squad capable of matching the best in world football, it’s likely Edison Cavani will add to this sum before the end of his career. The Uruguayan striker was strongly linked with a move to the Premier League, namely Chelsea, before PSG swooped in with a colossal £45.15m offer to prise him away from Napoli in July 2013. Although such a fee was likely given his world-class quality in the penalty area, it dwarfs the £8.4m Napoli paid to sign him from Palermo, which spent just £3.5m to acquire him from Uruguayan outfit Danubio FC back in 2007.
17 Carlos Tevez – £60.76m
Given Carlos Tevez’s rocky experiences at Manchester City, some sections of the Etihad would argue he’s more trouble than he’s worth, regardless of his goalscoring record. Despite the occasional disciplinary hitch, the Argentine has attracted more than £60m in transfer proceeds over the course of his career. The striker’s most expensive move was in May 2009, when Manchester City coughed up £20.3m to sign him from West Ham United after he refused to make his loan spell at Manchester United permanent. Tevez would eventually join Juventus for £6.3m in July 2013 before returning to his homeland with Boca Juniors.
16 Christian Vieri – £61.25m
Players who ply their trade for as many clubs as Christian Vieri rarely command significant one-off transfer fees. The Italian breaks the mold of the football nomad in this sense; he held the title of the world’s most expensive player when he moved to Inter Milan from Lazio for £31.5m in July 1999 despite wearing the shirt of 16 different teams during his career. Although the transfer fee would be the last paid for his services, Vieri remained a professional player for another 12 years.
15 Fernando Torres – £69.65m
Few strikers have lost their eye for goal in the same way as Fernando Torres. The Spaniard can still pick his spot when his confidence is running high, but there’s no escaping the fact he’s barely a shadow of the player who led the line at Liverpool. Torres joined the Reds from Atletico Madrid for £26.6m in July 2007 before penning a record-breaking £40.95m deal with Chelsea four years later. It was from then onwards the once deadly attacker lost his way and was eventually sold for £2.1m to AC Milan, who have loaned him to his boyhood club, Atletico, until July 2016.
14 Ronaldo – £70.68m
If not for a series of debilitating injuries, Ronaldo would arguably be near the top of this list. The Brazilian was undoubtedly one of the greatest strikers of his generation and the amount of money clubs paid to sign him is a testament to his magnificent abilities. He first moved to Europe in 1994 with PSV Eindhoven for £3.83m before Barcelona poached him two years later with a £10.5m offer. Ronaldo reached his peak after moving to Inter Milan for £19.6m in July 1997, then Real Madrid came calling following the 2002 World Cup and snapped him up for £31.5m, the most expensive move of his career. The striker gradually declined after moving to Spain and eventually switched to AC Milan for £5.25m in January 2007.
13 Robbie Keane – £72.7m
It may come as a surprise to see Robbie Keane featuring in twelfth position on this list, but the Irish striker has commanded his fair share of transfer proceeds during his prolific career. Now at LA Galaxy to see out his twilight years, the 35-year-old signed for Inter Milan from Coventry City in July 2000 as part of a £13.65m deal. Keane would return to the United Kingdom the following year as he moved to Leeds United for £12.6m, then to Tottenham Hotspur for £7.35m 12 months later. After six campaigns with Spurs, Liverpool paid £16.8m to secure his signature before he returned to White Hart Lane in 2009. His £2.6m switch to MLS would be final paid transfer of his career to date.
12 Radamel Falcao – £73.03m
Radamel Falcao has collected some serious transfer fees since forging a reputation as one of the deadliest strikers in Europe while wearing an FC Porto shirt between 2009 and 2011. Although the Colombian continued his goalscoring hot streak following a £28m move to Atletico Madrid for the 2011-12 season, his form has dwindled since completing a £30.1m transfer to AS Monaco in July 2013. His patchy form for the French club led to a horridly unsuccessful loan spell with Manchester United, which has continued with Chelsea this season.
11 Kevin De Bruyne – £73.12m
Kevin De Bruyne wouldn’t even come close to featuring on this list but for his enormous £51.8m transfer from Wolfsburg to Manchester City in August 2015. His first stint in the Premier League came after a £5.6m move to Chelsea in winter window of 2012. After a disappointing spell with the Blues, De Bruyne was sold to Wolfsburg for a cut price of £15.4m before wowing the football world with a season of immaculate performances as the chief creator in midfield. As the club often does nowadays thanks to its enviable bank balance, Manchester City pounced on the in-form De Bruyne.
10 Gareth Bale – £76.09m
It’s hardly a surprise the most expensive footballer of all-time would crack the top 10 positions on this list. Tottenham Hotspur forked out £10.29m in 2007 to snap up Gareth Bale from Southampton and mold him into one of the most dangerous attacking weapons in the modern game. Six years after making his Spurs bow, Real Madrid came calling with a monumental £65.8m (€100 M) offer, a sum the Londoners simply couldn’t turn down despite his importance to the club. The Welshman has grown into his role at the Santiago Bernabeu and now looks at home alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
9 Cristiano Ronaldo – £78.05m
Given all the records Cristiano Ronaldo has smashed and trophies he has won wearing the famous all-white kit, nobody bats an eyelid over the thought of paying £65.8m (€94 M) to secure his services. The fee was a world record in July 2009 before it was narrowly eclipsed by Gareth Bale’s switch from Tottenham Hotspur four years later. Like few other players, Ronaldo is virtually unplayable just about every time he steps onto the pitch.
8 Luis Suarez – £81.06m
Luis Suarez has always been blessed with majestic ball skills and an unerring eye for goal, but he only really started making a name for himself once he moved from Ajax to Liverpool for £18.55m in January 2011. Just like his career, the Uruguayan striker’s market value skyrocketed as he continued to impress on the grand stage of Anfield. Four campaigns of sheer brilliance with the Reds inevitably intrigued Barcelona, which won the race for Suarez with a £56.7m bid in July 2014.
7 Juan Sebastian Veron – £81.2m
Although his spell in the Premier League casted a maligning shadow over his career, Juan Sebastian Veron remains one of the most expensive footballers of all-time. His performances prior to joining Manchester United for £29.82m in 2001 were a joy to watch, but his inability to adapt to the physical demands of the English game marred what was meant to be a dream move. His fortunes hardly improved when he jumped ship to Chelsea two years later in a £15.05m deal, eventually leading to his return to Argentina following a loan stint with Inter Milan during the 2005-06 campaign.
6 Hernan Crespo – £83.49m
Many of the top strikers in today’s game are seemingly reluctant to test their skills at multiple clubs over the course of their career, perhaps in fear of failing to adjust to an unfamiliar style of football. Hernan Crespo, a true poacher, was the exact opposite. The Argentine managed a respectable haul of goals just about everywhere he played during his travels, whether for Chelsea, AC Milan, Lazio or Parma. As a testament to his formidable instincts in front of goal, Crespo racked up well over £80m in transfer fees between 1992 and when he hung up his boots in 2012.
4 Nicolas Anelka – £89.15m
With a CV comprising Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Juventus to name a few, Nicolas Anelka remain one of the most well traveled strikers of the modern era. Prior to a matter of years ago, the Frenchman comfortably topped the most expensive players ever. His biggest move came when Real Madrid paid Arsenal £24.5m in 1999, a stint which lasted only a year before he returned to France with PSG. His final non-free transfer was a £12.6m switch from Bolton Wanderers to Chelsea in January 2008, a move which resulted in arguably the least turbulent period of his career.
3 James Rodriguez – £92.84m
The most impressive aspect of James Rodriguez’s position on this list is simply his age. The 24-year-old Colombian has come within £8m of smashing the £100m milestone with just four transfers during his career. His first major transfer involved AS Monaco paying a staggering £31.5m to sign him from FC Porto, which acquired him for £5.15m just three years earlier. His stunning performances for the Ligue 1 club and his country had tongues wagging around the world, and Real Madrid eventually saw fit to splash £56m on the creative genius sooner after the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup.
2 Zlatan Ibrahimovic – £118.37m
Regardless of whether numbers prove otherwise, Zlatan Ibrahimovic would probably still argue he deserves to top this list. Even though the big Swede falls one place short of the summit, he has still racked up an enormous amount of money in transfer proceeds throughout his career. Ibrahimovic has only ever changed clubs for less than £10m once, and that was a £5.46m move from Malmo to Ajax as a 20-year-old in 2001. The striker went on to attract fees to the tune of £17.36m and £48.65m when he joined Inter Milan and Barcelona respectively, but a stint with the latter would prove to be a low point in his career. Still the chief attacker at a top European club in PSG, the 34-year-old is showing no signs of losing his goalscoring touch any time soon.
1 Angel Di Maria – £125.3m
A trio of big-money moves between Real Madrid, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain has pushed Angel Di Maria to the top of this list, overtaking teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic following his £44.1m switch to the French capital in August 2015. The Argentine previously commanded a £23.1m fee when he joined Real Madrid from Benfica in July 2010, only to move on to Old Trafford for £52.5m four years later. Di Maria showed flashes of brilliance during his Premier League stint, but United opted to cash in on a blockbuster £44.1m offer from the bank-rolled PSG.