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 By Nick Miller

Bale, Lentini and Maradona: Major transfer fees that outraged football

The FC crew debate whether the price of Neymar's PSG move is a bad sign for football or a special exception in the market.
Julien Laurens evaluates Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho as possible replacements for Neymar at Barcelona.

The £197 million PSG have paid for Neymar has, perhaps quite rightly, caused some degree of outrage, but this is nothing new. Here are some other big money transfers from football history to have inspired moral condemnation.

Alf Common: Sunderland to Middlesbrough, £1,000 (1905)

The first four-figure transfer, Common moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough for a grand in 1905, a desperation move as 'Boro were heading towards relegation. Ultimately it worked, as Common's new team finished fourth bottom and avoided the drop, but wider society was not quite as impressed.

Middlesbrough were condemned for paying such an astronomical sum and Sunderland were condemned for demanding it. Spittle-flecked editorials were written; the Athletic News wrote that "the Second Division would be more honourable than retention of places by purchase," and one commentator even called it "a new type of white slave trade, which might one day see transfer fees reaching £2,000 or even £10,000."

Imagine that.

Bryn Jones: Wolves to Arsenal, £14,000 (1938)

Transfer sagas weren't really a thing in 1938 but if the media was then like it is now, the move of Jones to Arsenal might have qualified. A year after the legendary Alex James retired, Arsenal finally bit the bullet and paid what was then a record fee for Jones, a forward, but it took a while to persuade the Welshman that the move was a good idea. When he finally did, the wider public were not impressed, to the point that there was a debate in the House of Commons about the morality of spending such a sum on a single footballer, with war on the horizon and the general economic deprivation of Britain in the 1930s.

"That's the sort of money that makes a commentator want to take up soccer!" said the Pathe news announcer when reporting the transfer. Ultimately it would prove a mistake: Jones scored three goals in his first four matches but only one more that season, and the bulk of his prime years were then swallowed by World War II.

Trevor Francis: Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest, £1 million, 1979

There will always be some quibbling about the actual, specific fee, but broadly speaking it's agreed that Francis was Britain's first million-pound footballer. That figure had been breached a number of times in Europe, but for some this was unknown, and decidedly vulgar, territory. "How ... can these players fetch such fees and how is it that a country portrayed as surviving on the bread-line can afford to allow footballers to be sold for these absurd, unreal amounts?" huffed the Times.

Fellow managers were unconvinced too. "If you look upon Francis as a second-hand car deal, you would have some misgivings about buying a vehicle that had done an awful lot of miles over eight years," Bob Paisley said. "I certainly wouldn't spend £1m on a player." Then-Manchester City boss Malcolm Allison concurred: "A fellow would need four legs before I'd consider paying that sort of money for him."

Despite Francis not sprouting two extra legs, City did actually sign him (after Allison had departed), for £1.2m just two years later.

Bale's move to Real caused consternation, not least because it may have upset Ronaldo.

Diego Maradona: Boca Juniors to Barcelona, £3m, 1982

At the time, it looked like a "can't miss" transfer: this was the greatest young talent in world football moving to Barcelona, where he'd be managed by Udo Lattek, winner of the European Cup with Bayern Munich. Everyone knows how it turned out. Nonetheless, the transfer wasn't a universally popular one, with some in local government up in arms at the fee, and many of the Barcelona members also objecting to so much of their money being spent on an unproven player.

"If the politicians don't understand it, well, they can go home," said a defiant Barca president, Josep Nunez. "Maradona is going to revitalise football and thanks to him we're going to avoid a financial crisis. We deserve a monument to be build in our honour over this." At the time of writing, that monument remains unbuilt.

Gianluigi Lentini: Torino to Milan, £13m, 1991

In the early 1990s, transfers were closer to being an arms race than the movement of footballers. Millions were spent and for the biggest clubs, sometimes it seemed as if it was more a case of one-upmanship, of ensuring your rival didn't get a player rather than guaranteeing that you did.

In 1992, Milan and Juventus got themselves involved in a bidding war for Gianluigi Lentini, a war that Silvio Berlusconi and Fabio Capello won, purchasing the Torino winger for a world record fee. To say the least, people were rather unimpressed: the media declared it obscene, an affront to Italian football and a sign that things were getting completely out of hand. But the most stinging rebuke was left to L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper, who decreed the fee paid for Lentini was "an offence against the dignity of work."

Gareth Bale: Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, £91m, 2013

Those of us around in the summer of 2013 will one day tell tales of the things we saw, the indignity we witnessed and the tedium we experienced, for it was then that Real Madrid bought Gareth Bale, after months of dancing around and negotiating with each other.

The fee has always been disputed, but the accepted figure now is a tick over €100m, more than the €94m Real paid for Cristiano Ronaldo, but the story goes that Real told their star man that Bale actually cost €91m to protect his fragile ego.

Regardless of that, the move caused no little hand-wringing, perhaps inevitably from then-Barcelona head coach Tata Martino, who said it showed "a lack of respect for the world we live in", a little rich considering his club's move for Neymar earlier that summer was hardly cheap or squeaky clean. Meanwhile, CNN commented that "many have found the value distasteful, grotesque and somehow out-of-touch with the austere global economic reality of 2013."

Wherever there are transfer fees, there will be outrage.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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