Football Features

The world-class players Real Madrid sold to sign even more expensive ‘Galácticos’

By Will Hall

Real Madrid galacticos player sales

Published: 12:30, 6 July 2020 | Updated: 23:25, 20 February 2022

Gold surrounds the club crest but silverware is in Real Madrid’s DNA.

They have more La Liga titles than any other club in Spain (33) and more European Cups (13) than anyone else, too. The same is also true of the Club World Cup, of which they have won four.

All of this makes them a head-turning proposition to any transfer target in sight. Especially as Real Madrid have essentially been able to reserve places in Fifpro’s annual Men’s World XI over the last decade. Only Barcelona (55) have a better ‘appearances by club’ record in the men’s yearly line-up “celebrating football’s best players” than Madrid (53).

So why would anyone ever leave? In most cases, even those of club legends such as San Iker, it is because they are made to.

The Galácticos policy of signing global superstars at huge cost, most heavily associated with Real Madrid and club president Florentino Perez’s two terms in particular, is impossible without player sales. And when paying world-record fees, any makeweight sold usually has to be highly valuable in their own right to raise the necessary funds.

So here are seven world-class players who were reduced to sellable assets because of Real Madrid’s expensive habit.

1. Clarence Seedorf

Sold in: Winter 1999/2000, to Inter for £15m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: Figo, from Barcelona for £38m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

You get star-struck just looking at the career path of Clarence Seedorf. He was the complete midfielder and part of the Ajax team of 1994/95 who, under Louis van Gaal, went ‘invincible’ while winning both the Eredivisie and Champions League. Then, after a gap-year at Sampdoria working under Sven Goran-Eriksson, Seedorf became a Real Madrid player before turning 21.

At the Bernabeu he won La Liga as well as another Champions League in 1998.  But domestic failures and debts were mounting up at Real Madrid toward the end of the 20th century, creating tension behind the scenes within squad in need of a refresh. Seedorf was involved in more than one on-field argument with teammates and his playing time in the 1999/2000 season was reduced. Madrid sold him to Inter midway through the campaign.

“The club needed money, and I was the highest ticket,” is how Seedorf puts it.

This was the winter before the summer where Perez became president off the back of a promise to address the club’s serious financial issues and buy Luis Figo from Barcelona for a world-record €62 million all at once. He was somehow true to his word.

Alongside Figo, Flávio Conceição was signed from reigning Spanish champions at the time Deportivo La Coruna and Claude Makelele arrived from Celta Vigo. The combined outlay for what was basically a whole new midfield amounted to nearly €100m and even that did not stop them signing Zinedine Zidane the next year for three quarters of this figure by himself.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Seedorf was about to begin the third act in one of football history’s most uniquely successful club careers, but only after the setting shifted slightly. AC Milan landed Seedorf in a swap deal after two trophy-less campaigns at Inter, ripping off their closest rivals to the tune of one Francesco Coco.

Within a year, Seedorf became the only player ever to win the Champions League with three different teams. Four years later, Milan won it again and Seedorf was named the Best Midfielder by Uefa.

Incidentally, Figo left Real Madrid himself for Inter in 2005 and for a while was part of the team that stopped Seedorf’s Milan, or anyone else in Italy, winning the Scudetto for the rest of the decade.

2. Claude Makelele (2000 – 2003)

Sold in: Summer 2003, to Chelsea for £14m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: David Beckham, from Manchester United for £25m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

You are probably familiar with the time Zidane asked, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

It was a reaction to the news Makélélé had been sold to Chelsea in 2003, possibly their most regrettable sale of the modern era as it would be four years before Madrid won another major trophy.

And the answer to Zidane’s question was David Beckham.

In the last two years of his contract and having just won La Liga, Makélélé thought he was about to get a new deal. “I got my manager to see the president for my new contract,” he later explained to reporters, “but he said there was no money left after signing Beckham.”

Makélélé decided this was his cue to leave but was told by an “aggressive” Jorge Valdano, sporting director at the time, that “he should be playing at Real Madrid for free” and that they would only let him go if he found a buyer willing to pay €15m.

The end result was of course a move to Chelsea in the first summer transfer window of the Roman Abramovich era. More expensive signings included Hernan Crespo, Damien Duff and Juan Sebastian Veron, but the man who had a whole position renamed in his honour outshone all of them.

Makélélé would win two Premier League titles in his first three seasons at Stamford Bridge. Within the same timeframe Real Madrid won nothing and Perez resigned as club president.

3. Arjen Robben

Sold in: Summer 2009, to Bayern Munich for £21m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: Cristiano Ronaldo, from Man United for £80m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

Real Madrid caught Oranjekoorts during the 2007 summer transfer window and bought Wesley Sneijder, Royston Drenthe and Arjen Robben. Ruud van Nistelrooy was already there and Rafael van der Vaart would join a year later. By Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s signing in winter 2009, there was a six-strong clique of Netherlands internationals in the squad and only Spain was better represented as a nationality.

It makes sense when you consider this was a decade in which the Netherlands national team never dropped out of the Fifa World Ranking top 10. Better still, between 2008 and 2012 they were never even outside the top three and while Drenthe may seem an outlier now, he was signed after being named Uefa’s ‘Golden Player’ for the 2007 European U21 Championship.

Robben arrived a two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea and was key in the 2007/2008 La Liga win, the club’s first major trophy since the departure of his old Chelsea teammate Makelele. His second season did not result in any more silverware bar the Spanish Super Cup, but in 2009 Robben had a “good relationship” with head coach at the time Manuel Pellegrini and was enjoying the “best pre-season” of his career.

But then Perez was re-elected after three years away and Real Madrid “spent so much money,” as Robben later explained to AS, “that they told us they needed to make some back from sales.”

Four years after the resulting move to Bayern Munich, Robben achieved something Real Madrid have never done during the Champions League era by winning the treble. But there is one big reason Los Blancos probably do not regret selling Robben, and his name is Cristiano Ronaldo, the club’s all-time record goalscorer, winner of five Ballon d’Or awards and as many Champions Leagues, a competition in which he has scored more goals than anyone ever (128).

4. Wesley Sneijder

Sold in: Summer 2009, to Inter for £13m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: Kaka, from AC Milan for £57m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

In addition to buying Ronaldo for a world-record fee, another former Ballon d’Or winner in Kaka was recruited. Xabi Alonso joined from Liverpool, too, as well as Karim Benzema from Lyon.

To make room, Robben was not be the only player Madrid needed off the books, which is why Sneijder found himself in what he described as a “very strange” situation.

“[Real Madrid] treated me very badly but to tell the truth I would prefer not to talk about it,” he told the press while packing his bags for Milan after initially refusing to leave.

At Inter, Sneijder played under Jose Mourinho, himself a year away from moving to manage Real at the time, and in front of defensive-midfield teammate Cambiasso, another Real Madrid cast-off who left in 2004 after recognising the “political” obstacle blocking any success for him at the Bernabeu. He was not a Zidane or a Pavon (meaning he was neither a Galáctico nor an academy product).

The Ajax-schooled Sneijder was more established than Cambiasso by the time they sold him but not quite the Galáctico he was become a year later. The playmaker spingboarded off Inter’s treble win and into a 2010 World Cup at which no player scored more goals (5) as Netherlands reached the final. He was runner-up to the Ballon d’Or winner of that year, Lionel Messi. Some argue it should have been the other way around.

5. Mesut Ozil (2010 – 2013)

Sold in: Summer 2013, to Arsenal for £42m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: Gareth Bale, from Tottenham to £85m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

Mesut Ozil’s move to Arsenal in summer 2013 mirrored Makelele’s in that, against a backdrop of fans pleading for Perez not to sell him, a senior player also publicly expressed their objection.

“If I were in charge at Madrid, Ozil would be one of the last to be leaving,” Sergio Ramos said while Mourinho, who left that summer as well, declared him “the best No.10 in the world.”

But it is much easier to make a case for Madrid having missed Makelele more than Ozil. They won La Decima, their 10th European Cup, then added another three consecutive such trophies running up till 2018. In two of those finals, Gareth Bale was instrumental and, according to one key figure in the German playmaker’s Arsenal move, “the story of Ozil, is actually called the story of Gareth Bale.”

“Real Madrid, for all of their firepower, really stretched themselves when they bought Bale,” Dick Law, Arsenal’s transfer negotiator at the time, explained to Goal.

“They paid an extraordinary amount of money for him and they gave him an extraordinary contract, what that meant was they needed to sell somebody. So it’s the Bale story that leads us to Ozil.

“We sat down with Jose Angel, who said that [Carlo] Ancelotti didn’t want to sell either of Benzema or [Angel] Di Maria, but he would sell Ozil.”

Arsene Wenger liked the sound of this and after the news was broken to Ozil, a deal was agreed despite the attempts of Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy to contractually prevent Real selling anyone to Arsenal as part of the Bale transfer.

So what ‘world-class heights’ has Ozil hit since leaving Real? With Germany’s national team, he won the Player of the Year award another two times to take his total up to five and, of course, the World Cup in 2014.

At club level, for all his divisiveness, Ozil’s influence on the Premier League is reflected in the fact he set up 50 goals in his first 141 appearances in the competition. For context, he hit this assists milestone in better time than anyone before him. Kevin De Bruyne has since broken his record, but among the names Ozil surpassed while teeing up some of Arsenal’s less illustrious strikers were Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Cesc Fabregas.

“[Ozil’s] vision is probably the best I have ever seen,” said his Germany teammate Philipp Lahm, the former Bayern Munich right-back who Pep Guardiola considered one of the most intelligent footballers he ever coached. So he would know.

6. Gonzalo Higuain (2007 – 2013)

Sold in: Summer 2013, to Napoli for £30m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: Bale, from Spurs for £85m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

Arsenal made the biggest contribution to the Bale fund but Napoli were Real’s most loyal customers that summer. Their most solid buy of three separate signings (also including Raul Albiol) was maybe Jose Callejon in hindsight as he cost less them than £10m, has played over 300 games there (and counting) and helped win another Coppa Italia just this month. But the star who shined brightest was Gonzalo Higuain.


Many would say winning the World Cup is as good as it gets in a footballer’s career. Higuain had a chance to do that in 2014 and missed his one-on-one with Manuel Neuer. But few can say their name was chanted by tens of thousands of Napoli fans on a Champions League night.

Too bad he jumped ship on them after three years for Serie A supervillains Juventus but what a three-year relationship they had. Especially the last year, where Higuain scored 36 goals in 35 Serie A appearances to break a single-season competition record that had stood for nearly 90 years.

His form was enough for Maurizio Sarri to call him “the best striker in the world.” Sarri was his manager at Napoli at the time, so he had to say that. Juve did not have to pay £75m for him the following summer, though, but they did.

7. Angel Di Maria

Sold in: Summer 2014, to Man United for £60m

Galáctico’ signed by Real Madrid that summer: James Rodriguez, from Monaco for £63m

Real Madrid players who became 'world class' after they left the Bernabeu

Not many clubs would sell the Man of the Match of maybe the most coveted achievement in their club’s history (and make no mistake, despite their recent Champions League three-peat, Real were desperate for La Decima) but in 2014 Perez had eyes for one particular superstar. To paraphrase one of the greatest sports headlines ever, the name was Bond, James Rodriguez.

The Man of the Match from 2014 Champions League final was Argentina winger Angel Di Maria. He played in central midfield against Atletico Madrid in Lisbon where, up against one of the toughest defences you will have seen in modern football, he dribbled past three opponents to force the chance from which Gareth Bale scored what was effectively Real’s winner.

Fittingly, because a newly retired Sir Alex Ferguson actually presented him with his MOTM award, Manchester United were buyers this time, and the Rosario-born winger whose first transfer fee was supposedly 35 footballs became the most expensive signing in British football history. But in the words of Gary Neville, Di Maria played “like a drain” and left for Paris-Saint Germain the next summer.

James meanwhile has won everything at Real Madrid but has never been the star of the show in the same way he was that summer in Brazil, where he collected the World Cup Golden Boot award by scoring six goals, one of which also earned him the Puskas award. There is a reason Real Madrid gave him the No.10 jersey once worn by the Original Galáctico.