Ajax, Dortmund, Monaco: 10 iconic teams that were 'destroyed by the transfer market'

Silva, Lemar and Mbappe.

We’ve all seen it before: a so-called ‘lesser’ side overachieves out of nowhere, only to then be completely dismantled by bigger clubs when the next transfer window rolls around.

The brutal reality of the modern men’s game is that unless you have the name power of the Real Madrids and Barcelonas of this world or have the mega-money resources to offer crazy wages, then you’re always going to struggle to retain any players who start to seriously impress.

As such, you can all probably name two, three or four brilliant teams who gave us so much joy and entertainment when we least expected it and then watched as the big-money vultures began to circle.

Now, don’t get it twisted, you’ve got to respect the players who thrive in these sides and use it as a launchpad to either make their dreams come true or earn the money that they richly deserve, but that doesn’t make it any less of a footballing tragedy amongst the purists.

And if you are indeed one such football fan who’s reading this article from behind your cappuccino while wearing a 1990s Schalke jersey, then you’re in for a bumpy ride, because we’re going to be breaking down some of the most crushing examples.

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Man United line-up

Manchester United vs Chelsea, 2008 UCL Final

10 teams ‘destroyed by the transfer market’

That’s because Marca wrote a brilliant article back in 2020 listing ‘the teams that were destroyed by the transfer market,’ with 10 examples that really make you wonder: what could have been?

So, join us on this journey of reliving those 10 teams that had their moment in the sun, only to be ripped apart by the big-money spenders who wanted a piece of the pie.

1. Johan Cruyff’s Ajax

After Ajax won a third consecutive European Cup in 1973, the ‘Total Football’ project fell apart as Cruyff led an exodus in Amsterdam by securing a move to Barcelona.

Johan Neeskens followed him to Camp Nou the following summer, before Arie Haan, Johnny Rep and Horst Blankenburg all upped sticks in 1975 to fully dismantle one of the greatest teams in history.

Cruyff in his Ajax days.
Football – Ajax of Amsterdam Johan Cruyff – Ajax Mandatory Credit:Action Images

2. Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto

Kings of Portugal and Champions League winners in 2004, Mourinho himself led the deconstruction of his plucky underdogs as he moved to Chelsea with Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira in tow.

Pedro Mendes moved to Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona snapped up Deco and Carlos Alberto headed off to Corinthians all in the space of one hectic summer at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto win the Champions League.
Porto’s Deco (L) and Derlei kiss the trophy in front of their team mates after their 3-0 Champions League final victory over Monaco at the Arena AufSchalke stadium in Gelsenkirchen May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Thomas Bohlen JOH/CRB

3. Kylian Mbappe’s AS Monaco

The most recent example on the list, Monaco charmed fans the world over by beating Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title and making it all the way to the Champions League semi-finals for good measure.

It’s just a shame that Manchester City nabbed Bernardo Silva, Liverpool grabbed Fabinho, Chelsea took Tiemoue Bakayoko, Atletico Madrid poached Thomas Lamar and PSG themselves took on Mbappe.

Monaco's Champions League semi-finalists.
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 21: Monaco players line up prior to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

4. Red Star Belgrade’s Champions League winners

Real Madrid, AC Milan, Sampdoria, AS Roma, Inter Milan and Valencia all wanted a piece of the Red Star cake after they won three consecutive Serbian league titles as well as the 1991 European Cup.

Robert Prosinečki was out the door in the summer of 1991, before Dejan Savićević, Vladimir Jugović, Siniša Mihajlović, Darko Pančev and Miodrag Belodedici followed in his footsteps 12 months later.

Prosinečki of Red Star Belgrade.
29 May 1991: Robert Prosinecki of Red Star Belgrade warms up before the European Cup final against Marseille at the San Nicola Stadium in Bari, Italy. Red Star Belgrade won the match 5-4 on penalties. \ Mandatory Credit: Simon Bruty/Allsport

5. Marco van Basten’s Ajax

The umpteen-millionth Ajax side to have a short shelf life courtesy of the bigwigs in European boardrooms, Cruyff’s team was disbanded almost as soon as they bagged the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Cruyff himself switched to the Barcelona dugout in 1988, but Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard had already sought a new challenge the previous summer.

Cruyff managing Ajax.
Football – Ajax Johann Cruyff – Ajax coach smoking Mandatory Credit: Action Images

6. Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League winners

Downing Zinedine Zidane’s Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final was more than enough for Europe’s elite to start circling, stripping the club of its quality to set them back until the Jurgen Klopp days.

Karl-Heinz Riedle to Liverpool, Paulo Sousa to Inter Milan and Paul Lambert to Celtic all went through in 1997, before Jörg Heinrich to Fiorentina, Stefan Klos to Rangers and Steffen Freund to Tottenham were given the green light one year later.

Dortmund win the Champions League.
Football – 1997 Champions League Final – 96/97 – Borussia Dortmund v Juventus – 28/5/97 – Munich – Germany Borussia Dortmund celebrate with the trophy after victory over Juventus Mandatory Credit: Action Images / John Sibley

7. Roberto Carlos’ Palmeiras

League champions in 1993 and 1994, we don’t hear enough love for the impressive Palmeiras side of the mid-1990s that attracted serious European money for players like Carlos, Mazinho and Rivaldo.

Carlos himself moved across the Atlantic Ocean to link up with Inter Milan, while Mazinho went to Valencia and Deportivo de La Coruña gobbled up Rivaldo, Flávio Conceição and Djalminha.

Carlos for Brazil in 1993.
BRAZIL – JUNE 01: Brazil player Roberto Carlos pictured in June 1993. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport/Getty Images)

8. Ajax’s Champions League winners

Poor old Ajax do have quite the reputation for being taken apart and that was most certainly the case when their ‘Golden Generation’ of the 1990s won the club’s most recent Champions League title.

Clarence Seedorf kick-started the exodus with a Sampdoria move that very same summer, before Nwankwo Kanu, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert took the same course of action in 1996 and 1997 respectively.

A young Kluivert playing for Ajax.
1995: Patrick Kluivert of Aiax is stopped by the Milan defence during the Champions League at the Amsterdam Arena in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Ajax won the game 2-0. \ Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

9. Marseille’s Champions League winners

Let’s just say that Marseille conquering the continent took place under interesting circumstances, which must certainly have contributed to France’s sole European champions devolving over the course of the 1990s.

Abedi Pele jumped ship to Lyon, Marcel Desailly sought pastures new with AC Milan, Rudi Voller returned to Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and Didier Deschamps secured a Juventus switch.

Deschamps lifts the Champions League trophy.
AC Milan v Marseille 26/5/93 Champions League final Pic : Action Images Marseille’s Didier Deschamps holds aloft the trophy

10. Diego Simeone’s Lazio

It’s often forgotten just how brilliant Lazio’s team really was at the turn of the century, winning Serie A, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana winners in 2000 as well as the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999.

But alas, their glorious team was eventually picked apart as Juan Sebastián Verón went to Manchester United, Pavel Nedved moved to Juventus and Alessandro Nesta was snapped up by AC Milan.

Lazio win the UEFA Super Cup.
27 Aug 1999: Lazio celebrates winning the UEFA Super Cup match against Manchester United at the Stade Louis II stadium, Monaco. \ Mandatory Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport

What could have been…

Like we say, there are very specific reasons in each case as to why all the players left when they did and we can all treasure the fact that we still got to see these teams competing as a unit.

You’ll just forgive us for wondering how much more competitive and diverse the footballing landscape might have been in a world where these supposedly ‘lesser’ sides stuck together, sticking two fingers up to the clubs at the top of the food chain.

Besides, with the exception of crazy examples like Leicester City winning the Premier League, it’s ultimately rather sad that England’s top-flight, for instance, even has a concept of the ‘big six’ clubs.

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So for as long as the top-table diners of the footballing world continue to gorge in their own riches, we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled for more of these unexpected entertainers, even if they do go onto suffer the same old fate at the hands of the transfer market.

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