In the past, only the very biggest players were worthy of breaking the bank for - often by Real Madrid. The huge fees paid for the likes of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Cristiano Ronaldo were accepted simply as Real Madrid flexing their financial muscles for their Galacticos policy.
But within the last two seasons, the world record transfer fee has been broken twice via the moves of Paul Pogba (£93.25 million) and Neymar (£198 million).; between those two record fees, Ousmane Dembele went for £97 million and Liverpool were offered £166 million for Philippe Coutinho.
In the following piece, we look back at the superstar world record transfers of the past, and question what they might be worth in today’s market. We’ll be looking at today’s football financial climate as though it applied to previous seasons but while also keeping in mind the financial powers of modern clubs and other star players.
This list will examine what legends like Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona, and even Cristiano Ronaldo would have been worth if their transfers took place in the modern market. We’ll also take a special look at the man who many consider the best player of all time, Pele.
2009: Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid had been after the Portuguese superstar for a couple of seasons, running up to his eventual move to the Bernabeu, with it taking a record-shattering £80 million to pry Sir Alex Ferguson's prized asset away from Manchester United. At the time, no one disputed the massive fee for a player who was undisputedly the best in the world, and still only 24-years-old.
He had his big breakout season in 2006/07, improving his abilities each year, and helping Manchester United get to the Champions League final in back-to-back seasons, winning one, and achieving the very rare feat of winning the Ballon d’Or while playing in the incredibly tough Premier League.
The fact that he was so young and the best in the world at the time, as well as carrying a certain superstar charisma that people loved, Cristiano Ronaldo would be worth so much more than £80 million.
Take the Neymar switch; there’s no doubt that he has the potential to be the best in the world, but he’s been overshadowed by Lionel Messi and still Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years – who are 1/14 and 18/1 to finish as the top goal scorer in La Liga this season – whereas Ronaldo was undisputed when his move came to fruition.
Ronaldo’s move in 2009 adjusted to inflation would cost £98.5 million, but in this current financial climate it could very possibly eclipse £250 million, and maybe even creep towards £300 million, especially when you consider the brazen financial power that Manchester United have been intent on showing since Ferguson retired.
2000-01: Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane
Before Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009 – both of which were record-breaking transfers – came Real Madrid’s original Galacticos, who were also signed for record transfer fees. When Florentino Perez became club president of Los Blancos in 2000, he ushered in the Galacticos initiative, which entailed buying the very best players in the world. This started with another Portuguese superstar, Luis Figo.
Figo signed for Real Madrid in 2000 for £37 million from eternal Clasico rivals Barcelona by activating the buyout clause in his contract; he ended up winning the Ballon d’Or in that same year. But Real Madrid weren’t done there; they went on to break their own record the very next year by paying £47.2 million for former Ballon d’Or winner Zinedine Zidane from Juventus.
An incredibly gifted and versatile goalscorer from midfield, Figo scored 14 goals in the season before moving between the El Clasico combatants. A goal tally of 14 in the season before his world record transfer may not seem like a huge amount, but it was his incredibly skilful play everywhere and anywhere on the field as well as his leadership skills that made him such an impressive footballer.
Adjusted for inflation, Figo would cost £57.2 million these days. But, as so few players in the modern game possess the skill set that Figo did, he would easily be worth close to £110 million in the modern game when at the prime age of 28-years-old – as he was when Real Madrid signed him.
There’s no doubt that Zinedine Zidane was also a world-class player when the Frenchman signed for Real Madrid. Having been crucial to Juventus’ success, with the Italian giants hitting a peak in their history at the time, Real Madrid really had to fork out to get him.
World renowned as one of the greatest talents of the era, Zidane never took on a prima donna persona, which fans appreciated. Zidane's fee would exceed £71.6 million in present times, but he would have blitzed the £135 million mark in today’s market as, while he wasn’t a high-volume scorer, he was integral to any team he played for.
He continued to prove his value to Real Madrid by leading the team to a Champions League and La Liga win last season as their manager, feats that Los Blancos are 5/1 and 4/1, respectively, to repeat this season.
1996-97: Alan Shearer and Ronaldo
The summers of 1996 and 1997 saw two of the most rampant goal scorers of all time make world record transfers. In 1996, Newcastle signed the man who pulled Blackburn Rovers to a Premier League win with his 34 goals in the season prior, Alan Shearer. The English super striker amassed 112 goals in just 138 games for Blackburn, so breaking a world record to bring him in for £15 million was a no-brainer.
Then, in the summer of 1997, Inter Milan went up to £19.5 million to bring in the 20-year-old Ronaldo from Barcelona, after the Brazilian had been at the club for just one season, by activating his buyout clause. In the season before his big-money move, Ronaldo was simply unstoppable, scoring 40 goals in 46 games for the Catalan giants.
At just 26-years-old, while being a proven record-breaking striker in the Premier League, Alan Shearer’s modern-day value would be incredible. His inflation-adjusted transfer fee sits as a modest £25.8 million, but winning the Premier League these days gets clubs upwards of £150 million, so it would come as no surprise if a title contender in need of a striker forked out close to £140 million for the Englishman.
Ronaldo was hailed as the second coming of Pele after his incredible performances in his very early years, and yet his adjusted transfer fee with inflation only comes in at £32.6 million. His career may have ended up being plagued by injuries, but his play when he was fit was next to unstoppable.
At such a young age and having already harnessed such immense power on the ball, Ronaldo would easily be worth somewhere close to £180 million in the modern game.
1982-84: Diego Maradona
When people are asked about the best player of all time, Diego Maradona’s name is always thrown into the mix. Famous for his ‘Hand of God’ goal scored against England in the 1986 World Cup – while the Falklands War was waged – Maradona’s skill on the ball was unmatched, with his big moment goal-scoring cementing him as one of the greatest.
The Argentinean was first signed by Barcelona from Boca Juniors for a world record £5 million in 1982 but two injury-plagued seasons and a fight in the 1984 Copa del Ray final – in which Maradona headbutted one player, elbowed another, and then knocked a third one out with his knee for xenophobic insults thrown his way by one of the Athletic Bilbao players – saw his time in Barcelona come to an end.
Napoli – who currently lead Serie A and are 17/20 to win the league – then signed him for another world record fee of £6.9 million, where Maradona forged his most illustrious domestic seasons.
It’s hard to find a value for such a gifted player in the modern climate, especially as his inflation-adjusted transfer fees come in at £16.2 million and £20.4 million. Prior to the mishaps at Barcelona, but still known to be a hothead, Diego Maradona could well have exceeded £170 million in value, possibly a tad less in 1984 at the time of his switch to Napoli aged 24.
In 1957, Pele made a name for himself by placing as the top scorer in the division with Santos, aged just 16-years-old. Still aged 16, Pele scored on his international debut in a 2-1 loss to Argentina. In the 1958 World Cup, aged 17, Pele was given the best young player of the tournament award, scoring six goals en route to winning it all.
When the 1962 World Cup rolled around, Pele was known to be the undisputed best player in the world. He couldn’t compete for the entirety of the tournament, which Brazil went on to win, but in the ensuing summer, the big clubs of Europe came knocking.
Clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus were all after the 21-year-old’s signature but, because he was named an official national treasure in 1961 by president Janio Quadros, he was blocked from plying his trade outside of his home nation.
Having proven himself to be the best in the world on the international stage as well as scoring an inordinate number of goals for Santos by 1962, Pele could very well have a world-record valuation on his head in the modern game. While Brazilian clubs often accept relatively low fees for their star youngsters, by the age of 21, Pele had already proven himself to be the best, so they would likely be able to fetch a fee that’s fair to the football financial climate.
Pele would easily be worth over £300 million in the modern game, but with Santos not being a financial powerhouse like the big European clubs, he could probably be signed for £200 million – still a world-record fee, befitting of the star.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*