January 31 each year is the deadline for teams mostly in the rich leagues in Europe to buy for megabucks, swap or discover new talents o bolster their clubs and their bank balances. Some teams leave negotiations to the very last minute while some including teams like Chelsea and Manchester have paid astronomical sums to buy new players. However, football history would probably have been different if Sheffield United bought a certain unknown Diego Maradona in 1978.
Love it or hate it, deadline day is enthralling because transfers matter. The stories of clubs the world over have been shaped by fateful, occasionally fantastic, deals, be they big-money additions or bargain buys.
But although the pursuit of players can be satisfying, it occasionally leaves supporters lamenting what might have been. After all, as FIFA.com discovered, there are plenty of star footballers whose careers could have taken very different turns, and no shortage of clubs bemoaning the fact they did not.
Hopes dashed by wages and weight
A prime example is Sheffield United, where – 36 years on – fans still talk about one that got away. That is hardly a surprise when the one in question is Diego Maradona, spotted as a 17-year-old by the then Blades manager Harry Haslam during a 1978 scouting mission to South America. So impressed was Haslam that he immediately set about agreeing a £350,000 fee with Argentinos Juniors, only for the United board to decide that spending £160,000 on Alex Sabella represented better value. Hallam’s side went on to relegated from England’s second tier.
Boca Juniors ended up being the next stop on Maradona’s remarkable football journey, but he could easily have ended up at their bitter rivals. River Plate were on the verge of securing his signature when club president Rafael Aragon Cabrera refused to bow to the youngster’s demands for a contract that would have exceeded those of Millonarios stars Daniel Passarella and Ubaldo Matildo Fillol. “I had the dream of playing for River,” said Maradona at the time, “but Cabrera has destroyed that dream.”
Missing out on Maradona would be a source of regret for any club but, in Sheffield at least, there is plenty of remorse to go around. Ask fans of Sheffield Wednesday, for whom Eric Cantona seemed set to sign following his ban in France for throwing the ball at a referee. Manager Trevor Francis, though, asked the Frenchman to stay on for a second week’s trial before making up his mind, and Cantona refused, signing for Leeds United instead.
Football is littered with such misjudgements. Zinedine Zidane should, for example, have ended up playing in England at the same time as his mercurial countryman. But while Kenny Dalgish, then manager of Blackburn Rovers, agreed a deal in principle to sign the then 23-year-old Zizou, chairman Jack Walker refused to sanction the move. “Why would we want to sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” was Walker’s explanation, as reported by the Lancashire Telegraph.
It seems that is the fate of every all-time French great to endure one such episode in their career. Michel Platini was certainly not immune, being declared “unfit to play football at the highest level” at 16 by a medical report at Metz.
The Metz president of the time also recalled the club’s coaches remarking that Platini “had a fat ass”, and a similar opinion put paid to Paul Gascoigne’s hopes of winning a move to Ipswich Town in 1983. Concerns about the midfielder’s weight led to the Tractor Boys rejecting him, a decision all the more galling in hindsight as it came just three years after they had turned down a young Dutchman – lacking in discipline, they felt – by the name of Ruud Gullit.
One player misjudged by several clubs was Andriv Shevehenko . The Ukraine legend spent a week on trial at West Ham United in 1994, was offered to Cologne the following year, and two years later was again put on a plate for Werder Bremen. All turned up their noses, with then Hammers manager Harry Redknapp remarking: “He didn’t look anything special at all.”
Later the same decade, Turkish club Gaziantepspor made a near-identical error, baulking at Sao Paulo’s £1.5 million asking price for a young Kaka. Within three years, AC Milan would be multiplying that figure by six. And if Gaziantepspor were left to rue their parsimony, imagine how Flamengo must have felt. They, after all, lost out on Ronaldo by refusing to fund the bus fair – around 20p – from the striker’s home in Ribero.
Fulham also have a hard luck story regarding a Brazilian FIFA World Cup winner. In 1978, with the club in the second tier of English football, Paulo Cesar was convinced to join, only for the deal to collapse over a dispute over the player’s phone-calls home to Brazil . Across London, Arsenal have also endured their share of costly near-misses in recent years. Yaya Toure spent a week on trial in 2005 but problems with his passport meant a deal was not pursued; their second such glaring error in a matter of years. “I had [Cristiano] Ronaldo at the training ground,” Arsene Wenger revealed some time later. “I showed him around and I gave him a shirt. But in the end it was a question of the transfer fee between the two clubs.”
Ultimately, Arsenal refused to pay a fee of around £4 million, and by this point they were making a habit of passing up future greats. After all, in 2000, they had Zlatan Ibrahimovic within their grasp and, once again, allowed him to slip away. As Ibrahimovic recalled: “Arsene gave me the famous red and white jersey – the No 9 shirt with Ibrahimovic on it. Then I waited for him to convince me that I should join Arsenal. But he didn’t even try. It was more: ‘I want to see how good you are, what kind of player you are. Have a trial.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was like: ‘No way. Zlatan doesn’t do auditions.’ So I said no and signed for Ajax instead.”
Just as a Gunners team with Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo and Toure would have taken some stopping, imagine an 1860 Munich side in which the talents of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller were fused. This could have become reality, with Muller having been on the verge of a move before Bayern – alerted to their city rivals’ interest – moved in to snatch the striker away an hour before TSV’s proposed signing talks. Beckenbauer, meanwhile, had his heart set on a move to Die Löwen only for one of their players to slap him in the face during a match for SC 1906 Munich. That act of violence set him against the club of his dreams and on a course towards Bayern, where he would go on to make history with ‘Der Bomber’.
If those two deals helped define an era, so too did the transfer of Alfredo di Stephano to Real Madrid. After all, Los Merengues’ great rivals, Barcelona, thought they had signed La Saeta Rubia, and lengthy negotiations resulting in an agreement that the player be shared on a yearly basis with Real for a period of four seasons. Later though, an interim Barcelona board would allow Di Stefano to join Real for a compensation payment of 5.5 million pesetas – small recompense for the misery he would inflict on the Catalans over the years that would follow.
A similar fate befell Monaco, who agreed a pre-contract deal with Jean Pierre Papin in 1986 only for Marseille to dazzle the striker with a subsequent offer. Compensation was paid between the south coast clubs, but for OM it was a paltry price to pay for a player who would become one of their all-time greats, finishing as France’s top scorer for five successive seasons between 1988 and 1992.
Though it is difficult now, given Papin’s heroics at the Velodrome, to picture him in a Monaco jersey, some transfers that nearly took place are positively unthinkable. Who, for example, could imagine Ronaldinho playing for unfashionable Scottish outfit St Mirren in advance of his move to Paris Saint-Germain? That, though, was a very real possibility, with the Paisley side intended to offer the Brazilian experience of European football before a passport scandal put paid to the deal.
A few miles away, Dumbarton came within a whisker of an even bigger coup. The great Johan Cruyff, , still just 33, might have been seen as an impossible target for a mid-table team in Scotland’s second tier. But manager Sean Fallon, previously assistant to Jock Stein during Celtic’s glory years, almost convinced the Dutch master to swap Barcelona for Boghead, only for the Scottish weather to prove decisive. “Was I tempted? Yes, of course,” Cruyff said in Fallon’s biography. “Playing in England, or Britain, was something I had always wanted to do. But when you’re old your muscles get stiff, and moving to a cold country like Scotland would have been asking for problems.”
It may be an unusual reason for this most audacious of transfers falling through, but others have been just as peculiar. Former Scotland international Darren Jackson, for instance, spent just eight days on trial at Dalian Wanda before returning home, citing his inability to stomach Chinese food. Another Scot, Kenny Dalglish, might have ended up at Liverpool as a 15-year-old, but turned down an extra week’s trial because it would have prevented him attending a midweek Old Firm derby. The future Anfield legend travelled back to Glasgow to cheer on Rangers, the team he followed religiously, and yet within months the youngster been convinced by Fallon to sign for the Ibrox club’s great rivals.
Liverpool also missed out on England international Frank Worthington, but for very different reasons. Bill Shankly had agreed a fee of £150,000 with Huddersfield only for the striker, well known for his off-field antics, to fail a medical due to high blood pressure. The reason? “Excessive sexual activity.” And while Shankly told Worthington to take a relaxing holiday in Majorca and re-attempt the medical on his return, more of the same behaviour on that sunshine break ensured the second test was even worse. The deal duly collapsed.
Transfers, as we can well see, can be a fraught business. And while there will be plenty of deals going through over the coming hours, deadline day is also sure to end with a few clubs – and a few players – rueing a golden opportunity missed.