Luis Figo: a story of class and treachery.

Written for These Football Times, I take a look at the wonderfully gripping tales that accompanied Luis Figo’s footballing career. 

A bustling café looks out onto a marina harbouring luxurious yachts and boats exclusive to the affluent. The enclosed water is calm and tourists visiting this shrine to the rich are serene, admiring the opulent decoration that adorns millionaire’s play-things. The sun serves only to heighten the palpable atmosphere of peace, yet it fails to penetrate the large umbrellas that line the ‘deck-lounge’ of Sete Café, Luis Figo’s co-owned venture. His café simultaneously comes to symbolise his playing-days and starkly contrast with them; Figo’s grace and distinct superiority on the pitch mirrors the elegance and monetary elite who dock their yachts in the Algarve, whilst the tranquil ambience of the marina is in clear juxtaposition with the controversy and relentless spirit that surrounded one of Portugal, and the world’s, all-time greats.

“I have known only one road to the path to victory, that of sacrifice and hard work.” Growing up in the working-class district of Cova da Piedade, Figo was no stranger to graft and labour – two qualities that were ever-present in his playing-style, accompanying his flair and creativity. Figo would join futsal team U.F.C Os Patilhas where his precocious talent was evident, and recognised by Sporting Club de Portugal who snapped him up at the tender age of 11. Under the guidance of this prestigious youth academy, who have a tradition for nurturing future internationals, the street-kid from a proletariat suburb of Lisbon would flourish.

Six years on from signing for Sporting CP, Figo made his debut in 1990, at just 17 years-old, making his full international debut for Portugal just one year later. Figo’s performances showed exceptional promise: effortless and iconic feints soon became his trademark as he evolved into a regular starter for the Lisbon outfit, with the bourgeoning star paralysing defenders through his quick feet, pace and creative edge.

1995 offered a first glimpse into the controversy, and feeling of discontent, that Figo would later become accustomed to. Feeling that his performances merited reward, he believed Sporting CP “should have” initiated contract negotiations; later realising that the club had surreptitiously agreed a deal with Juventus for his services, Figo describes his “anger” over being transferred through a “contract” that “wasn’t supposed to be valid”. In retaliation, he signed a contract with Parma – the chaos and subterfuge manifested into a ban being placed on Italian teams from signing Figo for two years. Sensing an opportunity, Barcelona stepped in – the now sadly deceased Johan Cruyff exploited Figo’s availability and brought him in to replace Michael Laudrup, for a fee of around £2.25 million.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made.” Figo’s move to Barcelona thrusted him into the limelight – the footballing world stood up and noticed his abilities. An integral cog in Cruyff’s well-oiled machine, the Catalonian giants won two league titles, two Copa Del Reys, a EUFA’s Cup Winner’s Cup and a UEFA Super Cup during Figo’s time at the Nou Camp. Yet, Figo’s presence brought much more than silverware; through his support for Catalonia, he gave the region a sense of external approval.

At Barcelona he was a leader, a fighter, blessed with enviable talent, representing the ‘Barca’ philosophy and adored. That is, until he committed the most heinous crime imaginable, if you don the blue and red stripes. In the summer of 2000, Luis Figo became embroiled in one of the most controversial transfers in footballing history. The transfer from Barcelona to arch-nemeses Real Madrid was one soaked in betrayal, Machiavellian politics, but ultimately a yearning to belong and feel wanted.

As with Sporting CP, Figo felt he was not “treated properly by the club not paying [him] in accordance with [his] importance”. The cynic in all of us laments his thirst for money, but Barcelona were facing financial problems, and it was about much more than an inflated bank account. He “wanted them to acknowledge” his quality – what Barcelona failed to do, Real Madrid certainly did. Figo recounted how he rang his spouse immediately after his meeting with Real Madrid officials, telling her he had made his decision almost instantly. The reason: they appreciated his outstanding talent, “10 people sitting, all trying to convince me”.

Florentino Perez, angling for Club President at the upcoming elections at Madrid, boasted the arrival of Luis Figo on his manifesto. The business man, now worth an estimated two billion euros, had an ambition to herald a new age for Los Blancos. A pre-contract had been agreed with Figo, stating that if Perez won, he would become a Madrid player.

Although switching allegiance from Barcelona to Real Madrid is considered traitorous, it was not this fact alone that generated so much hate from the Barcelona fan base. After all, players such as Ronaldo, Luis Enrique, Michael Laudrup and Saviola have all played for both and not faced such outrage. It was the fact that Figo came to symbolise Barcelona, and his connection with the Catalonian cause married with his reputation as one of the best in the world that made his crime so unbearable.

Perez won on a mandate of engendering an age of domination, and the promise of an incoming Luis Figo. 60 million euros and a new world-record transfer fee later and Luis Figo left the Nou Camp for the Bernabue. Buying into Perez’s ‘Galactico’ vision, they were, in the words of Figo, “united by the same project”.

Fast forward to 21st October, 2000: Figo’s first return to the Nou Camp since his cardinal sin. The noise is deafening – a cacophony of boos, whistles and profanity. Real Madrid’s no.10 refuses to take corners, fearing for his own safety as missiles are launched from the stands. Despite the torrents of abuse and myriad of banners comparing him to Judas, Figo plays the full ninety minutes, demonstrating an admirable ability to deal with such a daunting atmosphere. Team-mate Ivan Campo said that his “lasting emotion was admiration: you’ve got balls”.

Figo’s maiden season with Real Madrid saw him collect a Ballon D’or and a league title, scoring 14 goals in the process, as Barcelona limped to an embarrassing fourth placed finish. Next season would bring Champions League glory, and another league title – if his move was justified on condition of greater, more coveted, silverware, then it paid off.

23rd November, 2003, Nou Camp: the scene for one of the most iconic, and defining, moments of the nefarious Figo – Barcelona – Madrid triangle. If one expected the hostility to weaken, one couldn’t be further from the truth: it heightened into a crescendo of abhorrence. The noise increased, the missiles were greater in number and the atmosphere was unnerving. With missiles littering the pitch, impeding play, the referee paused the game for twenty minutes, during which the cameras picked up the head of a pig, guarding one corner of the pitch.

Representing greed, and or stupidity, that will eventually lead to one’s downfall.

It was clear what Barcelona fans thought of him; Figo deserved to be compared to the gluttonous nature of one of the animal kingdom’s dirtiest and foulest breeds.

However, when asked about that infamous night, Figo remembers it with an element of nostalgia: “I don’t think there’s another athlete that has played with a hundred-thousand something crowd against them. It’s good to remember that.”

At Real Madrid, Figo made 164 appearances, scoring 34 goals – a more than impressive tally for a winger. However, in his final season for Los Blancos, he would once again meet with the familiar feeling of unimportance. In 2005, Vanderlei Luxemburgo took over from the dismissed Mariano Remon, half-way through Madrid’s campaign. Schooled in the art of South American football, the Brazilian implemented a new formation, one that would be to detriment of Luis Figo. Shunned by the rejection of wingers in the 4-3-3 style that Luxemburgo deployed, Figo found himself an ever-present on the bench.

Out of contract in the summer, Figo joined Italian giants Inter Milan. It was here that Figo would find a sense of belonging and significance he so craved for: “I will never forget the love I received since my first day here.” Four successive Scudettos and a Coppa Italia under his belt, and the man who can brought such finesse and flair to the pitch announced his retirement. Given the captain’s armband in his final game, through the insistence of Javier Zanetti, Figo received a standing ovation as he left the pitch for the last time as a player.

Luis Figo was handed the pressure of leading Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’, after winning the U’20 European Championships in 1991. Making his debut for the senior team that year, Figo would make 174 appearances for his nation, scoring 32 goals: one goal every five games. England fans will remember him most for when he thumped a shot into the top-corner to ignite a Portuguese revival against the Three Lions in the 2000 European Championships. He would later add insult to injury when recounting how Portugal overturned a two goal deficit thanks to England’s “culture and mentality” of failing to protect a lead. Although Figo’s ‘Golden Generation’ failed to lift any silverware, they did manage to secure their best-ever finish in a World Cup: a semi-final defeat at the hands of France, in 2006. This would be the year that Figo retired from international football, ending his national duty in a 3rd placed play-off against Germany with the captain’s armband.

A character blessed with unbelievable skill, combined with a relentless work-ethic, Luis Figo is one of the all-time greats of world football. Immersed in controversy, betrayal and political manoeuvring, he was never far from the headlines. Above all, perhaps, was the exemplary way in which he conducted himself on the pitch: leading through his indefatigable spirit and propensity to churn out magic from labour.

 

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