Football’s Biggest Traitors – Players Who Left Clubs To Join Bitterest Rivals
January transfer window is around the corner, and the football world is set to witness another round of transfer merry-go-round as clubs in England (Premier League and EFL), Scotland, Germany, France, Spain and Italy engage in outright and loan transfer of players.
Transfer window comes with various shades of intrigues. For instance, when players set tongues wagging and cause controversies by leaving their sides to join rival clubs.
The team at Betting.com has rifled through the history books to reveal the football’s biggest traitors – players who have ditched one club for a move to their bitterest rivals.
1. Carlos Tevez – Manchester United / Manchester City
In July 2009, Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez shocked the world by crossing the Manchester divide, ditching the red of United for the sky blue of the City.
While it is hard to imagine now, City had not long been a wealthy global force when the Tevez transfer was made, and this signing was a real statement that the club could now lure players away from Old Trafford.
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If signing one of their rivals’ star strikers wasn’t enough, City went one step further in their pursuit to wind up the red half of Manchester, by erecting a sky blue “Welcome to Manchester” billboard with an image of Tevez on it on Deansgate.
2. Luis Figo – Barcelona / Real Madrid
In July 2000, Figo was a certified Barcelona legend after spending five seasons with the Catalan club, making 172 appearances and winning successive Primera Division titles. All of which made his transfer to Barcelona’s biggest rivals, Real Madrid, that summer all the more shocking.
Signed for a then world-record fee of €62m (£54.5m), Figo was the marquee signing of Real Madrid’s Galactico era. The move turned out to be as controversial as it was expensive.
Feeling betrayed, the Barcelona fans turned on Figo. During the Portuguese winger’s first El Clássico in white, Barcelona fans produced several offensive banners featuring words like “traitor”and even went so far as to throw a pig’s head at Figo as he was taking a corner kick.
3. Michael Owen – Liverpool / Manchester United
There may have been a considerable gap of five years between Michael Owen leaving Liverpool and signing for Manchester United, but plenty of supporters on Merseyside still found the England striker’s move to their North West rivals unforgivable.
To add salt to the wound, the Liverpool academy graduate was handed Manchester United’s prestigious number 7 shirt, which had been previously worn by such Red Devils legends as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and George Best.
4. Sol Campbell – Tottenham Hotspur / Arsenal
In the summer of 2001, England defender, Sol Campbell broke Spurs fans’ hearts by switching to the red side of North London to join Tottenham’s arch rivals, Arsenal.
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Outlining his desire to play UEFA Champions League as the main reason behind his controversial move, Campbell’s transfer to Arsenal was even more painful as he ran down his contract to move on a Bosman rule, meaning Tottenham did not receive a single penny in compensation for losing one of their biggest assets.
5. Robin van Persie – Arsenal / Manchester United
In August 2012, Dutch forward, Robin van Persie broke Arsenal supporters’ hearts by refusing a new contract at the Emirates Stadium in favour of a £22.5m move to the club’s old foes, Manchester United.
After making 196 appearances and scoring 94 goals during eight seasons in North London, plenty of Premier League fans had a hard time picturing van Persie in a Manchester United shirt.
However, the Netherlands international would reach new heights under Sir Alex Ferguson, assisting Manchester United to a record-breaking 20th league title in his first season at the club, before scoring 48 times in just 86 appearances.
6. Ashley Cole – Arsenal / Chelsea
Adding to the pantomime-villain feel of this move, Ashley Cole actually received formal punishment from the Premier League for making contact with London rivals, Chelsea, without informing his then club, Arsenal.
A fine of £100,000 was issued to Cole in June 2005, while further fines of £300,000 were issued to Chelsea football club, plus a fine of £200,000 for Chelsea’s then manager, José Mourinho.
After graduating through Arsenal’s academy system and making 156 appearances for the Gunners, the England defender would go on to be even more prolific for Chelsea, making 229 appearances and starring in the club’s first-ever UEFA Champions League final win in 2012.
7. Mario Gotze – Borussia Dortmund / Bayern Munich
While it is far from uncommon in the Bundesliga for players to make the switch from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich – prolific names such as Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels both did it around the same time – few transfers would have hurt Dortmund fans as much as Mario Gotze’s.
The timing of the transfer announcement was terrible for Dortmund, with Götze announcing the move just 36 hours before Dortmund were due to face Real Madrid in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League semi-final. When the €37m (£32.5m) move eventually went through in July 2013, Götze became the most expensive German player of all time.
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The 2014 World Cup winner would return to Borussia Dortmund just three seasons later in 2016, stating that he regretted his decision to join Bayern Munich.
8. Zlatan Ibrahimović – Juventus / Inter Milan / AC Milan
Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović has played for plenty of elite clubs during his illustrious career, including all three of the Italian giants – Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. Oddly, despite Inter Milan and AC Milan sharing a city and a stadium, each club arguably considers Turin-based Juventus a more fierce rival.
Starting his Serie A journey with Juventus in 2004 and winning the ‘Scuedetto’ with the club, Ibrahimović moved directly to Inter Milan in 2006 after Juventus were punished for the Calciopoli scandal and relegated to Serie B.
In a three season spell on the blue-and-black side of the San Siro, Ibrahimović would win another ‘Scudetto’. The talismanic striker would join Barcelona in 2009, but after falling out of favour with Pep Guardiola’s team, was loaned back to the San Siro – but to play for AC Milan this time round.
Joining AC Milan permanently in 2011/12, Ibrahimović scored 28 goals in just 32 games before being sold to PSG. Ibrahimović rejoined AC Milan in December 2019, and would complete the rare feat of winning the ‘Scudetto’ with each of Italy’s three giants in 2021/22 at the ripe age of 40.
9. Lee Clark – Newcastle United / Sunderland
In 2007, boyhood Newcastle supporter, Lee Clark shook the North East of England by signing for the Magpies’ most bitter local rivals, Sunderland, despite having priorly made 195 appearances for Newcastle across six seasons.
Despite joining the Black Cats’, Clark could not forget his Newcastle roots and during the 1999 FA Cup Final between Newcastle and Manchester United, the then Sunderland player was spotted in the crowd wearing a t-shirt with a slogan criticising the Sunderland fan-base written on it.
After this moment, Clark was immediately dropped from the Sunderland team and never played in red and white stripes again. He would later re-join Newcastle for the 2005/06 season, in what turned out to be his final season as a professional footballer.
10. Mo Johnston – Celtic / Rangers
The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is famously one of the fiercest in the footballing world, and very few players have dared to cross the Glasgow divide. However, Scottish striker Mo Johnston did the unthinkable in 1989.
After scoring 52 goals in 99 appearances for Celtic, Johnston earned a move abroad to Nantes in France, but would return to Glasgow just two seasons later to join Celtic’s most bitter rivals, Rangers.
Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’ rivalry encompasses religion as well as football, with Celtic traditionally being regarded as a Catholic club and Rangers a Protestant one. When Johnston moved to Ibrox in the summer of 1989, he became the first openly Catholic player to sign for Rangers since the time of World War I.
Suffice to say, neither set of Glasgow-based fans were happy with the deal, and Johnston even chose to live in England during his two seasons as a Rangers player, commuting to Scotland for matches and training to avoid facing any conflict with fans.
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