What is the World Record Football Transfer Fee?

Everybody knows that football is a world of silly money, with some of the latest deals to Saudi seeing players earn ludicrous sums of cash for plying their trade in what remains a very second-rate league. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, is said to be earning around £173m a year, or almost £1m every other day!

However, one area where the Arab nation is not currently competing is in terms of transfer fees. That is not to say that players have not moved to the Saudi Pro League for substantial sums. Al-Hilal recently bought Alexsandar Mitrovic from Fulham for around £45m, the same club paying PSG a massive £77m for Neymar. Much as these fees are huge amounts of money – able to pay the average British worker for 1,607 years and 2,750 years respectively – in the big league of global world record transfers they are, dare we say it, trifling sums!

In case you have doubts over that assertion, here are the current five most expensive transfers in the history of football. Note that these are correct as of 22 August 2023 and as most were paid in Euros we have used that figure as standard. (Data comes from Transfermarkt)

1) Neymar, €222m, Barcelona to PSG

Neymar, whose deal to move to Saudi is worth around £170m a year, and includes the use of a private jet and a fleet, yes a full fleet, of supercars, has been sold for a total of €400m. That astronomical sum comes from just three deals and makes him the most expensive player in history in terms of total fees.

More than half of that huge total came from his move to PSG, after four seasons with Barcelona following his earlier move from Brazil. He netted 118 goals and provided a raft of assists in just 73 games in the French capital. However, he failed to help the club land the Champions League, which was a big reason why he was signed.

2) Kylian Mbappe, €180m, Monaco to PSG

Just a year after prising Neymar from Barca, the nouveau riche Parisians added the jewel in the crown of French football as well. Mbappe was just 18 when he made the move and the brilliant French attacker has delivered 213 goals in just 261 appearances for PSG. Mbappe has won almost everything the game has to offer and not yet 25 has already played in two World Cup finals.

However, despite playing with Neymar, Lionel Messi and a host of other expensive talent for PSG, the club, as said, have been unable to land the UEFA Champions League. Mbappe’s time in the capital seems set to end badly too, with the player trying to engineer a free transfer to Real Madrid when his contract ends, but PSG are desperate not to lose such a valuable asset without a fee. The player currently looks set to win the battle which is unlikely to go down well with many in France.

3) Philippe Coutinho, €135m, Liverpool to Barcelona

Coutinho was superb for Liverpool and looked capable of becoming one of the world’s very best players. A dream move to Barca came following a stunning run of form for the Reds but things quickly went wrong in Catalonia. In the end Coutinho played just 106 times for Barca and managed a disappointing 26 goals. On loan from them to Bayern, however, he did score a brace and register an assist … against Barca! What’s more, the Germans went on to win the CL, triggering a €5m add-on from Barca to Liverpool for him doing so that was, apparently, not club-specific!

3) Ousmane Dembele, €135m, Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona

Dembele was another Barca signing for big money that went badly wrong. Dembele was scintillating and mesmeric for Dortmund, although not so much in Spain. Over six injury-affected seasons the French ace played just 127 games and managed 24 goals. In August 2023 he moved to PSG for €50m, so at least the club recouped some of their cash.

5) Joao Felix, €122m, Benfica to Atletico Madrid

Felix is still 23 so could yet prove to be the world-class player Atletico Madrid thought they were paying more than £100m for. The diminutive attacking midfielder is as good as they come in terms of technique and skill but has not yet found a way to harness that at the highest level and convert his talent into goals and assists. A loan spell at Chelsea in 2022/23 didn’t really work out and the next few years will be massive for the Portuguese ace.

Why are the Discrepancies Between Different Lists of Transfers?

You may have seen other lists of transfers that look slightly different to this one. For example, Wikipedia, which many other websites would copy, list the following as the five most expensive transfers ever:

  • 1) Neymar, €222m
  • 2) Mbappe, €180m
  • 3) Coutinho, €145m
  • 4) Felix, €126m
  • 5) Enzo Fernandez, €121m (Benfica to Chelsea)

Clearly there is a lot of agreement between that and our top five, although Wiki rank Dembele as just the joint-11th most expensive transfer ever. The further down the list we go, the more discrepancies that appear and there are several main reasons for this.

Probably the most important are that the full details of transfers are increasingly not made entirely public and also that deals are often complex in their structure. It is always frustrating for fans to read that their much-loved star striker has been sold for an “undisclosed fee”. But more and more this is what we see, with both buying and selling clubs, as well as the players and their agents, not always keen for the fee to be known.

Second, it is becoming more and more common for transfers to have various performance-related add-ons. These may include the player making a certain number of appearances, starting a set percentage of games over a defined period, scoring a given number of goals or based on what trophies they help their new club win. Additionally, payments may be staggered over a number of years. Different sites may record such transfers differently, with some assuming that all add-ons will be met, others only counting the initial fee and yet others taking the middle ground and including extras they believe are highly likely to be triggered.

There are other reasons why figures may differ, including exchange rate complications, agent fees and also deals that include loans and/or deals for other players as well as the main transfer. In short, to some degree we should take such lists with a pinch of salt, although we can be certain that any player making any sort of top five or 10 such as this has cost a lot of money!