Off the Ball

Transfers – as easy as putting pen to paper?

Lionel Messi of Argentina signs a huge poster
© Getty Images

The January transfer window has closed for another year. Behind every deal sealed over the past month was the simple act of a player signing his name on the bottom of a contract. But completing a transfer is not always as straightforward as that. Occasionally, the journey from initial approach to final signature can take some unexpected twists. Join FIFA.comas we look back at some of football’s more unusual transfer stories.

Sometimes a sparkling career can grow from a few words on a scrap of paper. For Lionel Messi at Barcelona, it all started with a makeshift first contract scribbled on a serviette. In late 2000, after emerging as a youngster at Newell’s Old Boys, the left-footed 13-year-old caught the eye of Carles Rexach, Barça’s technical secretary. But as Rexach struggled to convince his club of the merits of signing a small, scrawny kid with growth problems, so Messi’s father, Jorge, and agent, Josep Maria Minguella, grew impatient and started considering other clubs for their teenage prodigy.

It was then that Horacio Gaggioli, a former Newell’s player acting as an intermediary, arranged a meeting at the bar of Pompeya Tennis Club in Barcelona to help push the deal forward. An agreement in principle was reached, but there was a small problem: they had no paper on which to record it. No matter – they just used a paper napkin instead.

“In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and in the presence of Josep Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli], I, Carles Rexach, technical secretary of FC Barcelona, use my position, despite there being some whose opinion is against it, to commit to signing the player Lionel Messi, so long as we can come to a financial agreement.” Those were the words that appeared on the serviette, before an official contract was signed a few weeks later.  

Fast forward twelve years and Messi now has four FIFA Ballon d’Or awards in his trophy cabinet. And this unusual document, which has been carefully preserved by Gaggioli, is soon to go on display at the *Barça *museum. “This serviette is as valuable to the museum as the club’s charter of foundation, signed by Joan Gamper,” said Gaggioli.

It is unclear what became of another napkin that changed the course of history for Barça’s arch-rivals, Real Madrid. At an awards gala in Monaco in 2000, Zinedine Zidane, then of Juventus, was sitting at the same table as Real president Florentino Perez. With no beating about the bush, Perez wrote “Do you want to play for Real Madrid?” on a paper serviette and passed it to the 1998 FIFA World Cup winner™. Zizou replied with a furtive “yes,” despite having just extended his contract with Juve until 2005. That set the wheels in motion, and the following summer he joined Real for a then-record €73m.

This serviette is as valuable to the museum as the club’s charter of foundation, signed by Joan Gamper.

Signing a young Samuel Eto’o proved far less expensive for Real. In 1996, the then 15-year-old forward left his native Cameroon alone and set off for Madrid airport. The only hitch: Eto’o missed his connection in Paris, and the guide sent to meet him on arrival in Spain had not waited around for the next flight. “It was the middle of winter and I didn’t know a single word of Spanish. I was lost and didn’t really know what to do,” recalled the striker, who now plays for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia. Undeterred, the Cameroon international approached the first friendly-looking face he could find and asked them to accompany him on the bus to the club’s headquarters.

Eto’o’s adventure recalls that of Mali legend Salif Keita,after he was offered a contract by the French side Saint-Etienne in 1967. After being smuggled out of Mali, Keita, who would later become known in France as *la panthère noire *(The Black Panther), arrived at a Paris airport without having warned his new club. Knowing little of French geography, the striker hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take him to Saint-Etienne’s Geoffroy-Guichard stadium – a full 500 kilometres away. The driver was eventually persuaded when Keita assured him the club would cover the fare. Keita would go on to repay *Les Verts *handsomely, helping them to three league titles and two Coupes de France before later joining Marseille.

Marseille themselves thought they had everything covered ahead of Gunnar Andersson’s arrival from Danish side Kjobenhavns Boldklub in 1950. What they had not planned for, however, was the Swede’s kidnapping en route to the city. Raymond Gimel, a local journalist, had been determined to secure an exclusive first interview and exact revenge on OM president Louis-Bernard Dancausse, who had been unhappy with his articles and revoked his access to the players. 

Gimel, then, sent a telegram to Andersson advising him to get off the train a stop early, in Avignon, to ensure a low-key arrival. Andersson duly obliged and, at 5am, was led to a hotel by the journalist. There, the Swede gave Gimel his first interview, before going to sleep for several hours. Marseille’s welcoming committee, meanwhile, were left to wait impatiently on the station platform, no doubt concerned and more than a little annoyed.

Andersson’s arrival may have taken longer than expected, but at least he knew where he was supposed to be heading. The same cannot be said for Brazil’s Robinhowhen he moved from Real Madrid to Manchester City in 2008. “On the last day of the transfer window, Chelsea made me a great offer and I accepted it,” the forward said after completing his move, to which an alert reporter replied: “You mean Manchester City, right?”

Two other Brazilians to make a less-than-ideal first impression on their new fans were Marcio Amoroso, in 2006, and Gustavo Nery the year before. Both knew they were joining Sport Club Corinthians, but were clearly thrown by the fact that eight different clubs in Sao Paulo use the name Corinthians. Indeed, Nery expressed his delight at joining “Futebol Clube” Corinthians, while Amoroso declared his desire to win titles with “Sociedade Esportiva” – the name associated with *O Timão’s *fierce rivals, Palmeiras.

On the last day of the transfer window, Chelsea made me a great offer and I accepted it.

Germany’s Bernd Schustermade a similarly awkward faux pas in 1978. After finishing his youth development at Augsburg, the then 18-year-old Schuster was a little too generous with his signature, signing for not one but three different clubs at once. Realising he had spread himself a touch too thin, the young midfielder decided to turn down the offers from Borussia Monchengladbach and Augsburg in favour of joining FC Koln, where he excelled before later signing for Barcelona.

The Catalan club no doubt took pains to ensure that Schuster had not made the same mistake before signing for them, particularly after their own painful experience with Alfredo Di Stefano. In 1953, *Barça *agreed a deal with River Plate for Di Stefano, unaware that he had joined the Colombian side Millonarios de Bogota without permission during a suspension of the Argentinian league. In the meantime Real Madrid had also reached an agreement for the player with Millonarios, which left Di Stefano belonging to the two Spanish rivals at the same time.

It took intervention from FIFA and Armando Munoz Calero, former president of the Spanish Football Federation, to untangle the situation and resolve the conflict. Calero, acting as a mediator, decided that Di Stefano would play for Real in the 1953/54 and 1955/56 seasons, and for *Barça *in 1954/55 and 1956/57. But his decision did not suit the Catalans, and they would eventually sell their rights to the player to their Madrid rivals.

Di Stefano went on to be voted Real’s best player of all time. Years earlier his former club, River Plate, were themselves involved in one of the most remarkable transfers ever seen. In 1932, Tigre winger Bernabe Ferreyrawas one of the hottest properties in Argentinian football. His club, however, had no intention of selling their star man. That was, at least, until they received an offer they could not refuse, with River agreeing to pay the transfer fee not in cash... but in gold. The incident gave the Buenos Aires side their nickname, Los Millionarios.

Seven decades later, in Romania, another transfer was made in exchange for goods rather than money. In 2006, Regal Horia, from the fourth tier of Romanian football, bought defender Marius Cioarafrom second-division side UT Arad. The transfer fee? Fifteen kilograms of pork sausage.

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