The strangest stories of the 2023 summer transfer window - including Liverpool and Chelsea sagas
Looking back at some of the weirdest and most wonderful stories of a tumultuous summer transfer window, from Saudi Arabia to Santi Cazorla.
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It felt like an eternity, but it really was only three months long – the 2023 summer transfer window, one of the strangest in recent memory, has closed. And while deadline day may have been a bit of a damp squib, the preceding months still torched the accepted order of football to the ground before fizzling out.
Today we’re going to look over the strangest and most earth-shattering transfers that happened across a summer that changed the face of the game for good. We won’t be checking in on the drawn-out, big-money sagas involving players like Harry Kane, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, because for all that they were pretty seismic moves, tedious negotiations over colossally expensive football real estate is standard superclub fare these days. These are the oddities, the transfers that raised eyebrows to a height beyond even Carlo Ancelotti’s conception. Let’s dive in…
The great Saudi exodus
There’s only one place to start – the Saudi government’s decision to directly fund the Pro League with their colossal oil wealth has torn the old order to pieces and changed the landscape of the game. Whether it will last remains to be seen, but for know even the wealthiest and grandest European clubs know that they can be blown out of the water for cold, hard cash at any given moment. There is no FFP in the desert.
At first it was just a few old hands tentatively following Cristiano Ronaldo towards the money – Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, Roberto Firmino. Then it gathered pace, the cash got even bigger, and now even players in their prime years like Rúben Neves and Gabri Veiga are making the switch. Will the league manage to gather enough prestige to make this a continuous onslaught on football’s old world order? Or will this be a single summer of lavish spending followed by a slow settling down, as was the case with Chinese largesse a few years ago? Will Al-Ittihad get their wish and make Mohamed Salah the most expensive player in history? Come back in January and find out, I suppose.
Not that the SPL doesn’t have a few things to figure out, of course – for starters, their social media game largely consists of having players blurt out incredibly stilted and evidently scripted posts, while their announcement videos are often bafflingly insane, as evidenced by the psychedelic nightmare that was Jota’s introduction to At-Ittihad, a piece of media which made us question whether drugs really are illegal in the Kingdom. Given that Jota has been booted out of the club and the country just two months after signing for £25m, there may be a few things the players need to figure out, as well…
Jordan Henderson makes a mug of himself
Of course, perhaps the most controversial move of the summer of Saudi wasn’t anywhere near the most expensive – it was Jordan Henderson’s transfer to join Steven Gerrard at Al-Ettifaq that really caught the eye.
Henderson, one of the few top-level players to have been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ rights in recent years, was accused of selling out his morals for a bit of cash at the end of his playing career, and an interview given to The Athletic didn’t help his cause, with a series of baffling and credulous assertions that implied that he wanted to act as some sort of agent on the inside, as though he was in a footballing spy movie (presumably written by Steve Bruce).
Perhaps it’s harsh to point the finger at Henderson given that none of the other players who popped on a plane to the Arabian peninsula have ever lifted a finger for gay rights, and he arguably comes out of the affair as more clueless than malicious, but it’s pretty hard to contest that you’re still going to stand up for your personal beliefs when your own club pointedly obscured the rainbow armband you were wearing for Liverpool on their social media posts.
Everybody hates Romelu
Romelu Lukaku would have known that he was looking for a new club the moment the final whistle blew in the Champions League final and his loan spell at Inter Milan ended. Chelsea didn’t want him, Inter did, all Lukaku had to do was hang out with Megan Thee Stallion for a bit on holiday and come back when the contract was ready to sign.
But then July came round, the transfer was ready to go… and Lukaku disappeared. Clubs, agents, lawyers and team-mates were unable to get in contact with him, and Inter publicly announced that the deal was off. Lukaku quietly re-emerged from wherever he’d been holed up and decided to make a beeline for Juventus, instead – only for their ultra groups to go ballistic and demonstrate against the potential signing outside the stadium. Lukaku was left high and dry, as were Chelsea.
Eventually, Roma came to the rescue, with the Belgian taking a massive pay cut to rejoin José Mourinho, so it had something resembling a happy ending for all concerned – but what did happen to Lukaku? Why did he decide to burn a bridge he’d so readily built with Inter? Why wouldn’t he answer his phone? It may remain a mystery, a sporting version of the time Agatha Christie vanished for 11 days. All we know is that half of Italy now seems to be unable to stand the poor man…
Last tango for Paris Saint-Germain’s cast of superstars
First Neymar, then Kylian Mbappé, and then finally Lionel Messi himself, the greatest player there has ever been. Paris Saint-Germain spent enormous amounts of time and money to bring together the starriest strike force the sport has ever witnessed, all in the name of winning the Champions League. Well, that and flogging some discount tickets with Qatar Airways, of course.
The Champions League dream never came true, but the all-star cast remained – until it all imploded in spectacular fashion in a single summer. Neymar found a baying mob of frustrated fans yelling into the intercom of his mansion, and decided to make good his escape to Saudi Arabia. Lionel Messi turned down the Saudi cash and decided to become one of the best-paid athletes in America instead, joining Inter Miami and immediately outshining the entire MLS set-up to an almost comical extent.
And then there was Mbappé, the beating French heart of the entire project, who made clear his desire to leave for the second summer running. He’d already extorted a colossal sum to extend his contract by one year in 2022, and PSG decided they weren’t playing the same game again – he remains on the books for now but will almost certainly be in Madrid this time next year. To make the entire collapse of one of the most expensively-assembled teams in history even more spectacular, new manager Luis Enrique decided to publicly ostracise other important players like Marco Verratti and Hugo Ekitiké, neither of whom managed to escape before the drawbridge of deadline day was pulled up. Enormous amounts have been spent on Randal Kolo Muani and Gonçalo Ramos, but the end of the first phase of Project PSG ended in sudden and explosive fashion.
Manchester United’s star players signs for Arsenal
Those of you who are laser-focused on the Premier League may have missed it, but this summer Manchester United’s star striker and key goalscorer left the club on a free transfer to join Arsenal, despite being a born-and-bred United fan – all because United simply wouldn’t put together an appropriate contract quickly enough.
Of course, I’m talking about the women’s game – and if the transfer of England forward Alessia Russo to Women’s Super League rivals Arsenal passed you by, then that probably says a great deal about the lack of media attention given to the domestic women’s game. If this had been the men, it would have been one of the biggest and most controversial transfers of the summer. Instead, it felt like a footnote.
United didn’t even have a women’s team a few years ago, of course, one of just two clubs in the Premier League without a women’s section. Then they finally bowed to pressure, built one from scratch, spent enough to make fire them up towards the top of the WSL and then sort of left them dangling, just below Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea and unable to compete for top players or hang on to their best. Russo followed Lauren James out, and Mary Earps looks set to follow. Again, if this was the men’s side of the sport, the Old Trafford faithful would be going ballistic. Those who follow the women’s team probably should be.
Chelsea vs. Liverpool
When Todd Boehly’s Clearlake Capital first bought Chelsea out, it quickly became clear that the players he prized most of all were the players other people wanted. Had he even heard of Mykhaylo Mudryk before Arsenal started negotiating for him? Perhaps not – but Boehly’s Chelsea simply could not let someone else be happy. They had to have the Ukranian, and so they undertook the first gazumping of the new regime.
This summer, the gazump gun was turned squarely at Liverpool. Chelsea needed holding midfielders, and so did the Reds. And Chelsea’s entire transfer policy seemed to turn around buying whoever Liverpool wanted, regardless of other considerations. Liverpool went for Moisés Caicedo, and so Chelsea came right back over the top. A bid went in for Roméo Lavia, and so Chelsea pounced and paid even more.
Was it a cunning business strategy, designed to hobble a potential rival at the same time as the club rebuilt? Or was it just a very rich man who couldn’t stand the idea of someone else having nice things? Either way, a Premier League side’s transfer strategy be so targeted, and so personal, was something very new indeed.
Cazorla homecoming warms the cockles
In 1996, a 12-year-old boy by the name of Santi Cazorla joined Real Oviedo, then a mainstay of the upper echelons of Spanish football. Seven years later, as he stood on the brink of the first team, the club began to crumble into financial dissolution and he was among those sold to pay the bills. He never made his debut for his boyhood club.
Since then his career has taken him to huge heights – Villarreal, Arsenal, Málaga, Qatar, and 81 caps with the Spanish national team. He’s a double European champion and, now 39 years of age, would have every right to retire in comfort and look back at a stellar career with satisfaction and pride. Instead, he signed for Real Oviedo. For minimum wage.
This is just a feelgood story of a player who has lived out the dream going back to tick the one box he never could, and play for his local team, the same side that started him out on his journey so long ago. In an age when so many players seem motivated solely by money, it’s nice to see a player who’s made his playing for loyalty, playing for the memories, or doing it simply for the sheer joy of it. Hats off to Santi Cazorla. May many more follow your example.