There is a single word in football that is a near guarantee of causing pitched battles in bars, cafes and even on sofas around the world. It is a small one—to be fair—but full of mystery, controversy and indefinable frustration. That word is "best."
This means that when discussing any kind of list of best footballers, teams, managers or on this occasion, signings in La Liga over the past 10 seasons, the definition and contextualization of "best" can take longer to read than the ranking itself.
However, for the purposes of not wasting the dear reader’s time too much, the general meaning behind "best" for this particular list is not focusing on the finest footballers as such of the hundreds to move into or about the Spanish league over the past decade.
Instead, it is a complex formula of talent, influence, value, blindness and bias. For this reason, a bank-busting import for Madrid or Barcelona may rank lower than a plucky cast-off who got a tiny team into the Champions League.
Finding five to make the ranking was hard enough. Putting them in order of importance has proven impossible, so here’s a chickening-out, chronological choice.
Dani Alves, Sevilla (2002-03)
The Barcelona defender could also qualify for this illustrious list for his role at making Barcelona one of the greatest club sides ever seen, after a move to the Catalan capital in 2008. However, the influence over a Sevilla side in six seasons at the Sanchez Pizjuan cannot be overlooked.
The Brazilian was pinched from Bahia for €550,000 and reinvented what the role of a fullback should be. In a sensational spell in the city, Alves helped transform the club into Spain’s third force in La Liga and a European giant with UEFA Cup wins in 2006 and 2007.
The defender’s sale then put €35.5 million into Sevilla’s coffers. Not a bad move all-round.
Marcos Senna, Villarreal (2002-03)
The Brazilian-born midfielder has been and continues to be the driving force behind a club that came from nowhere to being a hair’s breadth from reaching a Champions League Final in 2006. When Senna joined Spain’s East Coast club in 2002 for €600,000 from Sao Caetano, the former Spanish international became the heart, the lungs, the brain—pretty much every organ you can name—of a Villarreal team that danced among the European elite.
A decade later and the 36-year-old is still at the club, despite Villarreal having slipped into the second division, and is working tirelessly to get the Yellow Submarine back where it belongs in La Primera.
Samuel Eto’o, Barcelona (2004-05)
A prickly character no doubt and one who did not always see eye-to-eye with his managers. But the Cameroon forward has arguably been the best out-and-out forward of his generation and another key part of what may become a legendary Barça side of 2008-09.
The final year at the club for Eto'o saw the poacher signing off with 30 league goals and the Catalan side’s first strike in the Champions League final, when Guardiola’s men were on the ropes against Manchester United. The €27 million paid to Mallorca in 2004 was considered a hefty sum at the time, but most of the figure was claimed back with a transfer to Inter Milan, five wonderful years later.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid (2009-10)
Of course, an awful lot should be expected from the world’s most expensive footballer, who moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009. Seriously though, the forward has been more than worth the €94 million forked out by Florentino Perez over the past four years, never mind the years to come if a new contract deal can be ironed out.
At the beginning of May, the winger (not even a striker) scored his 200th goal for the club in just 197 games, to move eight behind the very handy Hugo Sanchez, who took a sluggish 282 matches to reach that tally.
But Ronaldo is not just about the goals. It is the assists, the drive, the ambition, the energy and the leadership which could make the priciest player in the world, the bargain of the century for Real Madrid.
Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid (2011-12)
The former Porto striker cost an awful lot of money for a club that is not exactly the richest in the world. The €47m splashed out by the Rojiblancos may be a similar figure to the one the club will receive in a deal set to be signed (at time of writing) with Monaco, according to a report by AS' Manu Sainz.
However, the Colombian's two years at the Vicente Calderon have helped turn a club of endless promise but no results into Spain’s third force once again, as well as propelling the side into the Champions League after a four seasons.
In Falcao’s first year in the Spanish capital, the striker knocked in 24 league goals and bagged a brace to win the Europa League final. The current campaign sees Falcao set to beat his league tally to leave the side in a comfortable third spot. Falcao may make no impact with the club’s troubled bank balance, but the forward’s role in making Atletico great again has been immeasurable to the side’s supporters.