The Premier League may have topped the charts for the biggest individual fees paid for footballers in 2023, but some of the biggest names in the game moved from Europe to unchartered territories in the Middle East and North America.
Saudi Arabia’s entry to the big-name transfers began with a move that brought Cristiano Ronaldo to the Middle East and opened the door for the year to come, while Lionel Messi made a shock hop across the Atlantic to the United States.
Here are Al Jazeera’s top 10 men’s football transfers of 2023.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo: Manchester United to Al Nassr
The Portuguese forward was linked with many of Europe’s top clubs as his transfer away from Manchester United became apparent during last year’s Qatar World Cup 2022, but when Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr stepped in, the world held its breath.
From Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, Ronaldo lit up European football and the list of clubs lining up to sign him was a top-down who’s who of the world’s biggest leagues. The move by Al Nassr to take him to Saudi Arabia opened the door to a number of big names to follow as the year progressed.
2. Lionel Messi: PSG to Inter Miami
The Argentine legend’s shock move to Major League Soccer (MLS) side Inter Miami came after months of speculation as a result of his far-from-happy stint at French club PSG. His 2021 move to Paris from boyhood club Barcelona never really worked out for either the player or the club.
As rumours around his expected departure grew, a reunion with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola of Manchester City or a record move to Saudi Arabia kept doing the rounds. However, it was the former Real Madrid and Manchester United player David Beckham who sealed Messi’s signature at his newly-launched club in Miami in a masterstroke for football in the US.
3. Moises Caicedo: Brighton to Chelsea
The largest amount of money transferred between two clubs, given Ronaldo and Messi and their agents would have received huge financial sums for their moves, was between Chelsea and Brighton. The two West London clubs stumped up a fee of 100 million pounds ($126.8m), plus 15 million pounds ($19m) in add-ons.
It matched what had been offered by Liverpool and managed to convince the left-back that his future was blue and not red. Given the struggles Chelsea have had in the Premier League this season, it’s hard to call the move a success, but the Stamford Bridge club will hope that Caicedo is part of a transition to a new dawn under Mauricio Pochettino.
3. Declan Rice: West Ham to Arsenal
Arguably, Rice was the most valuable and hard-fought transfer of the year as the elite of the Premier League lined up to court the England midfielder. Manchester United still have a Roy Keane-shaped gap in the centre of the pitch and their manager Erik ten Hag made no secret of his admiration for Rice.
Liverpool and Manchester City were hot on the heels of United, knowing Rice was too big a player to allow to fall into the hands of a rival. It was with some surprise that Mikel Arteta stumped them with 100 million pounds ($126.8m), plus five million pounds ($6.3m) in add-ons, to break the Gunners’ transfer record and secure the signing of Rice from their London rivals. With Arsenal among the Premier League’s top sides heading towards the end of the year, it could be argued this was the most crucial transfer of 2023.
5. Harry Kane: Tottenham Hotspur to Bayern Munich
Kane was going to be a success wherever he ended up, but 10 goals in his first seven competitive games for Bayern has made this a remarkable move across to Germany.
The England captain led Tottenham from the front and steered the north London club to some of their best years since 1961 – the last time they won the league in England. Spurs, who were on the verge of becoming title challengers have felt Kane’s loss.
It seemed as though one of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea would snap him up. Perhaps as a mark of respect for the Tottenham fans whom Kane was leaving behind, the England striker decided to leave the country altogether. Spurs netted 86.4 million pounds ($109.6m) for the striker and do have a buy-back clause for Kane, who has admitted his family hasn’t settled in Germany, so maybe the love affair with North London is not finished yet.
6. Sadio Mane: Bayern Munich to Al Nassr
Mane was another player at the peak of his powers. After a disappointing loss for Liverpool, where the Senegalese striker was part of a three-pronged attack with Mohamad Salah and Roberto Firmino, Mane moved to Germany in 2022. His time at Bayern lasted 12 months before Saudi Arabia came knocking and a link-up with Cristiano Ronaldo materialised soon after.
7. Jude Bellingham: Borussia Dortmund to Real Madrid
Bellingham made an astonishing rise from Birmingham City to Borussia Dortmund but not without the attention of England’s top clubs, all of whom wanted to bring the midfielder back to the Premier League in the summer. It was the Spanish giants, though, that stepped in realising there was a potential Galactico in the offing and so it has proved with 12 goals in 14 games so far.
8. Neymar: PSG to Al Hilal
Much like for Messi, PSG never really worked out for Neymar. The Champions League was the target for the French team when they pumped money into their squad, but a number of star players and managers have failed to deliver it thus far.
Rather than following in the footsteps of his good friend Messi, Neymar followed Ronaldo’s lead and headed to the Saudi Pro League giants instead.
9. Karim Benzema: Real Madrid to Al Ittihad
The French striker was the other huge name to swap Europe for Saudi Arabia. Benzema enjoyed a glittering career in Spain with Real Madrid where he scored 354 goals in 648 games. His career at the Bernabeu spanned 14 years after his arrival in 2009 from Olympique Lyon. Even at 35 years of age, the striker is still regarded as one of the world’s top marksmen and was another significant coup for the SPL champions.
10 Rasmus Hojlund: Atalanta to Manchester United
Amid all the talk of Kane replacing Ronaldo at Old Trafford, it was the young Danish forward who was backed to fill big boots for United. A 64-million-pound ($81.2m) price tag, with eight million pounds ($10.1m) in add-ons, was hardly earth-shattering from United, who, it appeared, needed a statement signing. The 19-year-old hasn’t found life easy and is yet to score his first Premier League goal as we head into the new year.