Introduction

 

For a football fan, the news of the transfer market always remains a hotcake. The global always updates us with various speculations each and every time and when a big transfer happens, the footballing world goes crazy. The arrival of Diego Maradona was like a carnival in Naples back in the 80s whereas the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in Real Madrid just triggered a party in Madrid. Meanwhile, the departure of Neymar from Camp Nou stunned everyone a few years back.

Some transfers bring joy while some bring the world to a standstill.

On July 24, 2000, Real Madrid Boss Florentino Perez unveiled the superstar of Barcelona Luis Figo in Real Madrid and immediately he threw a bombshell – the world was stunned. The fans were stunned. The media took time to recover from the shock. Barcelona were left furious.

Real Madrid had outsmarted their arch-rivals and played a masterstroke – the great Perez was the brainchild!

Luis Figo

The only child of Antonio Caeiro Figo and Maria Joana Pestana Madeira who moved from Alentejo to Lisbon in the early 1970s, Figo grew up in the working-class district of Cova da Piedade, Almada. He began his career as a street footballer at U.F.C. Os Pastilhas, before joining the academy of Sporting Clube de Portugal at the age of 12.

In his youth, Figo played futsal from which he learned a lot of skills that helped him later in his career.

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Figo started his career at Sporting CP, making his league debut on 1 April 1990 during the 1989–90 season as a substitute for Marlon Brandão in a 1–0 home win against Marítimo.

In 1991, Figo scored his first goal against Torreense in the 1991–92 season, equalizing as Sporting won 2–1. He won his first senior international cap in 1991. Prior to that, he won the 1991 FIFA Under-20 World Championships and Under-16 European Championships with Portugal junior sides alongside Rui Costa and Joao Pinto. He was also a significant part of Portugal’s Golden Generation. In his final season at Sporting, he won the 1994–95 Portuguese Cup.

Figo joins Barcelona

In 1995, Figo looked poised to join one of the big clubs of Europe, but a dispute between Italian clubs Juventus and Parma, with Figo having signed contracts with both clubs, resulted in an Italian two-year transfer ban on him.

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Eventually, Figo made a move to Spanish giants Barcelona for a £2.25  million fee, being loaned back for the remainder of the season due to a rule prohibiting Portuguese players from signing for foreign clubs outside a fixed period. This rule had prevented Figo from joining English club Manchester City, where he had been recommended by his former Sporting manager Malcolm Allison for a fee of around £1.2 million.

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In Camp Nou, the career of Figo took off.

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In 1996-97, Barcelona won the European Cup Winners Cup where Figo featured alongside the great Ronaldo O Fenomeno. O Fenomeno left Camp Nou in 1997-98 season and then Barca formed a formidable attack which included Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert, and Figo.

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Barca won successive Primera Division titles and Figo was shinning like a star alongside Rivaldo and Kluivert. Figo and Rivaldo played a huge role in the creative department during an era when Barca were still not the force to be reckoned in world football like today.

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He was adored by team-mates as much as fans and he even dyed his hair in the club colours when Barcelona won the Copa del Rey in 1998.

Figo catches the attention of Real Madrid  

The creativity and goal-scoring abilities of Figo did not go unnoticed by the think-tank of Real Madrid.

In July 2000, Florentino Perez was elected as the new president of Real Madrid.

Perez had the ear of then Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, he had political nous honed as a Madrid city councilor, and as the head of Spain’s biggest construction company amid the property boom, he smelt of success.

But he still needed something else.

He needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat or an ace from up his sleeve.

Figo was all that.

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He was the perfect, audacious, jaw-dropping, and potential game-changer.

Figo was at the time installed negotiations with Barcelona over a new deal and he had a release clause of 10billion pesetas – around £37.5m.

It was high but not a big deal for Real Madrid.

It would be a world-record fee but that was part of the dream that Perez was trying to sell the club’s supporters.

He did it with Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, and later in the first season of his second spell in charge, he did it for Kaka and then Cristiano Ronaldo.

Figo would be the very first Galactico.

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A few weeks before the elections, Florentino had got in contact with Jose Veiga, Figo’s agent, to get the ball rolling.

Just hours after being elected as president, he flew, contract in hand, to Lisbon to meet Figo to finalize the deal.

Perez offered Figo €1.6m (£1.4m) to sign a piece of paper saying that if Perez won the election, Figo would move to Real Madrid.

If Perez did unexpectedly win then Figo would have to sign for Real Madrid or pay Perez a penalty get-out fee of €35m (£32m).

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It’s still not clear whether Figo knew what Veiga was negotiating or not. As the Real Madrid election drew closer, and as Veiga confirmed there was an agreement with Perez in place, Figo denied having signed anything.

Three times in interviews, he denied he was giving in to Perez’s advances. “I am going to stay at Barcelona regardless of whether or not Florentino Perez wins the election or not. My shirt is red and blue and always will be”, he said.

Negotiations lasted almost 20 hours as Florentino tried to persuade the Barcelona player to betray his employers and supporters.

Figo leaves Camp Nou

Perez did win – 16,469 votes to 13,302.

Asked about possible signings at the post-victory press conference he said he ‘would not get into specific names’ but that he ‘stood by’ what he had already said.

Former Portugal and Atletico Madrid player Paulo Futre, Figo’s friend, had acted as a go-between in the deal for agent Veiga. He has since spoken of how Figo practically broke down in tears after he heard Perez had won.

Three days before the election Figo had repeated to Veiga that he did not want to go to Madrid. He had disappeared with his family to the island of Sardinia and pulled down the shutters.

Three days later he was in Madrid, unable to pay the €35m to Perez, and therefore resigned to signing for Barcelona’s great rivals.

On July 24, 2000, Figo completed a 10.27 billion peseta (61.9 million euros) move to Los Blancos, becoming the most expensive player in football history.

He won the prestigious Ballon d’Or award in 2000, but he received it at Santiago Bernabeu, which hurt Camp Nou a lot.

Joan Gaspart said, “The story about the signing and how it came about has all been told before. I’ve always given my version and I don’t think anyone’s questioned it yet. Could we have done more? Maybe, but it might’ve sunk the club’s finances. And Barcelona was the priority”.

“It was a great move. That being said, it wasn’t legal. A stroke of genius, but illegal”.

The moment Figo told Gaspart about an offer from Los Blancos remains etched in the former Barcelona president’s memory.

“When he told me what happened, I told him that it was breaking the rules, that it was a case for the courts to decide”.

“But he was afraid that they would claim the penalty that his agent had signed in his name. This penalty was 500 million pesetas (three million euros), which Florentino had already planned for his season ticket holders to pay in the event of the move falling through”.

“I offered him all the legal guarantees, which we fought for, which was a case of illegality”.

Gaspart added to his meeting with Figo.

“He could be calm about that. But no, he wanted a guarantee from La Caixa! From La Caixa!”

“It was midnight, I’d just been elected president and I found myself with that. It couldn’t be. No way. Not for the time, nor for what he was asking for.”

Despite Real Madrid’s sly approach to the transfer, Gaspart holds no ill feelings towards Florentino.

“[I have] a good relationship with Florentino. One of my best friends in the world of football was [Ramon Mendoza].”Gaspart’s take on Figo’s role in events isn’t as positive. How can I not feel that it was [a betrayal].”

When Figo returned to Barcelona for the first time in a Real Madrid shirt on 21 October 2000, the noise at Camp Nou was deafening.

Figo – The traitor at Barcelona

There were banners hung around the stadium with words like “Traitor”, “Judas”, “Scum”, and “Mercenary”.

His move to Madrid was significant due to his status as a star player at Barcelona, reliable and always committed to the cause as a team leader.

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One of his Barcelona teammates stated, “Our plan was simple: Give the ball to Luis. He neve-ever hid. Although now wearing the white shirt of Real Madrid, he won the Ballon d’Or award in November 2000, largely for what he did for Barcelona where he became the best in the world”.

Figo was mercilessly taunted throughout, and when he came out of the tunnel and ran onto the field the jeers of almost 98,000 Barcelona fans escalated, with a visibly shocked Figo putting his fingers to his ears.

When the El Clasico started, each time Figo got the ball the noise rose with insults and missiles flying such as oranges, bottles, cigarette lighters, and mobile phones.

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The regular corner taker for Madrid, Figo did not take any corners at the Camp Nou to avoid being in close proximity to the fans.

Barcelona were victorious, winning 2–0, and Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez stated after the match, “The atmosphere got to us all.”

Madrid defender Ivan Campo stated:

“That night when Figo first went back was incredible. I’ve never heard anything like it. Luís didn’t deserve that. He’d given his all for Barcelona. It was built up before: ‘a traitor’s coming,’ the media said. No, Luis Figo is coming, one of the greats for you. That night hurt him, you could see. His head was bowed and he was thinking: ‘bloody hell, I was here last season …’ But my lasting emotion was admiration: you’ve got balls”.

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In his first season with Madrid, Figo won the 2001 La Liga title, scoring 14 goals in all competitions. For his performances at Real, he received the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year.

He would be joined at the club by Zinedine Zidane in the middle of 2001, and in the following season, Madrid won the 2001–02 UEFA Champions League.

He missed two fixtures against Barcelona through injury and suspension.

The ugly incident in 2002

Figo’s second game back at the Camp Nou, on 23 November 2002, produced one of the defining images of the Barcelona–Real Madrid rivalry.

There was no sign of the hatred or the hurt subsiding, and every time he came within range of the Barcelona fans, beer cans, lighters, bottles, and golf balls flew.

Figo said, “I was worried that some madman might lose his head”.

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This time, Figo had decided that he would take corners, as well as throw-ins, and midway through the second half, Madrid won a corner. Amid a shower of flying objects, it took Figo two minutes to take it.

Another corner followed on the other side, and as Figo walked across, he slowed to pick up the missiles and as he prepared to take the corner he moved away some of the debris while giving an ironic thumbs-up and smiling.

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Every time he began his run-up to take the corner, another missile would land which was repeated over and over until the referee Luis Medina Cantalejo suspended the game for almost 20 minutes.

During the break of play, the defining image of the rivalry, a pig’s head, was picked up on camera, which was among the debris near the corner flag.

Figo would spend five seasons at Madrid, with his final success being the 2003 La Liga title.

Madrid won nothing and under Brazilian coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, he was dropped so often that he knew in 2005 it was time to move on.

In April 2013, Figo was named by the sports newspaper Marca as a member of the “Best foreign eleven in Real Madrid’s history”.

But Barcelona still treat him as a traitor.

Conclusion

In the run-up to the 2015 Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus in Berlin, the club requested that Figo not represent them in a legends match.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Edmilson, Deco, Eric Abidal, and Ludovic Giuly were all welcome for what was to be a mixed Barca/Juve XI to play against a combined world XI.

20 years have passed, but the mood at Camp Nou has not changed.

 

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