The reaction to LeBron James’ NBA-altering decision 10 years ago was unlike any the sports world had seen in America. For European Soccer fans, it was just another drop in an endless sea of controversy. If you think letters in Comic Sans are bad, wait until you read how the supporters of some clubs reacted to these incendiary transfers.
LeBron James changed the NBA forever with ‘The Decision’
The 2010 free-agency period was unlike any the NBA had seen. Fittingly, James announced his choice via a method no one had tried, a TV show. Until then, the idea that star players would not only leave successful franchises but team up to create superteams was seen as sacrilegious. The fact that James’ show raised $3 million for charity didn’t matter to scorned fans.
Fans were mad that the most talented NBA player chose a franchise that already had a superstar. And they were upset that he broke the Cavaliers’ hearts without notice ahead of time. The true reasons to dislike “The Decision” — it didn’t need to be an hour-long, and the “take my talents to South Beach” line was terrible — were drowned out by the hatred for James.
History has made him the victor. NBA stars are now expected to team up. And fans are seen as ungrateful if they get mad when they leave for greener pastures. But James still regrets how “The Decision” went down. He said so just a few months later to ESPN’s Michael Wallace:
“If I had to go back on it, I probably would do it a little bit different,” James explained. “But I’m happy with the decision I made. There’s always going to be a misunderstanding. I don’t know what I would [have done], but I definitely would have changed it.”
The soccer world has seen far more controversial transactions
As bad as the reaction to James’ Miami move was, when compared to some of the furies that came with the following transfers, the anger over “The Decision” looks like child’s play. Here are five of the most controversial moves in the history of the sport, according to Insider:
Carlos Tevez: Corinthians to West Ham/Manchester United to Manchester City
Controversy mired Carlos Tevez’s career in English football from the minute he arrived. One of the most exciting prospects in South America, every big club hoped to sign him. So it came as quite a shock when Tevez and his talented teammate, Javier Mascherano, showed up at West Ham in August 2006.
There’s no direct comparison in American sports. But imagine if Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett could sign with any team out of college, and they suddenly announced that they’d chosen the Pistons. It was that bizarre. More information about the deal didn’t make the transfer any less strange.
Tevez’s playing rights were owned by a third party (Media Sports Investments) and not Corinthians. Yet West Ham paid them the transfer fee instead of Corinthians. This was against Premier League rules, and West Ham received charges for breaking the rules. However, they were allowed to keep Tevez and Mascherano.
Tevez saved the team from relegation almost single-handedly, at the expense of Sheffield United, which also received an undisclosed settlement after threatening to sue West Ham. He left for Manchester United after the season. But this exit was also divisive.
After struggling to work out a contract, Tevez moved across town to sign with upstarts Manchester City. They had recently been bought and were looking to make a splash. His signing was commemorated with a billboard taunting his former club. Tevez spent four years with the club, helping them to win their first-ever Premier League title.
Roberto Baggio: Fiorentina to Juventus
“The Divine Ponytail” was Fiorentina’s best player for most of his time in Florence. But the joy Roberto Baggio gave to fans only made the betrayal worse when he moved to Juventus in a then-record $11 million deal in 1990. The two clubs already had a strong dislike for each other. This only worsened after Baggio left for the Turin-based team.
Fiorentina fans were hurt by the move not just due to the rivalry, or because Baggio was a playmaker. It was also due to the fact that they supported him as he recovered from a severe knee injury, and Fiorentina’s prior season ended in a loss to Juventus in the UEFA Cup Final.
Supporters spent days rioting after the transfer was finalized, according to The Gentlemen’s Ultra. After bricks, chains, and Molotov cocktails were thrown around the city, 50 people reported injuries. Fiorentina’s owner, Flavio Pontello, locked himself in the Stadio Artemio Franchi as it happened. He later sold the club out of fear for his safety.
Even though he won a league title and won the prestigious Ballon D’or award in 1993, Baggio also seemed to regret the move. He claimed he felt compelled to accept the transfer. When Juventus played Fiorentina for the first time after he moved, he refused to take a penalty and put on a Fiorentina scarf after he was substituted.
Eran Zahavi: Hapoel Tel Aviv to Maccabi Tel Aviv
Eran Zahavi lived the dream of every young sports fan: He became a star for his favorite club. Zahavi came through the Hapoel Tel Aviv youth system. After making a name for himself, he moved to the Italian side Palermo in 2011.
The move didn’t quite work out for him, so Zahavi moved back to his native Israel 18 months later to kickstart his career. But he did so by joining Hapoel’s biggest rivals, Maccabi Tel Aviv. Zahavi scored in the Tel Aviv derby in November 2014. All hell broke loose.
Zahavi received a red card, and the game was abandoned as fans invaded the pitch. He stayed with Maccabi for three years before moving to Guangzhou R&F in China.
Mo Johnston: Nantes to Rangers
Scottish football often comes down to the deep-seated rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. A few athletes have played for both. But no one inspired as much scorn as Mo Johnston. He played almost 100 games for Celtic before moving to the French club Nantes.
As his time there came to an end, a return to Celtic seemed all but done, giving a news conference and posing outside Celtic Park. But the move suddenly collapsed, and Johnston played for Rangers, who offered more money to Nantes to jump the line.
The transfer was a big deal both because Johnston was perceived as traitorous and he was the first high-profile Catholic to play for Rangers, who were the preferred club of many sectarians. Rangers’ kit man reportedly refused to arrange Johnston’s apparel before games. He was also hit in the face with a pie during a game, according to The Herald.
Rangers grew to appreciate him after Johnston led them to two straight league titles — the same number of championships they won in the prior decade.
Luis Figo: Barcelona to Real Madrid
There are few better examples of the passion bordering on insanity that high-level sports can inspire than the fallout of Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Madrid’s president Florentino Perez masterminded this transfer. He was attempting to win a second term in the job and needed to make a splash to be favored in the polls.
Perez accomplished this in the most audacious way. He made a secret agreement with Figo that changed history for both legendary clubs. If Perez won the election, Figo would either sign for Madrid or pay Perez $24 million. If Perez lost, then Figo got a free $2 million for nothing.
To the surprise of Figo and many others, Perez won the election, paid Figo’s $70 million release clause, and Figo left the club where he’d won every trophy except the Champions League and become a club idol.
When Madrid went to the Camp Nou to play Barcelona, Figo was called “Judas” and “Scum” by the home crowd, who threw bottles, coins, cigarette lighters, and most infamously, a pig’s head at him. Figo spent five years in the Spanish capital. He won two league titles and the Champions League in 2002.