Historical Player Profile: The Luís Figo Transfer Saga

Historical Player Profile: The Luís Figo Transfer Saga

A hail of missiles rains down from the stands as a figure in white steps to the corner flag, moving gingerly to avoid bottles and coins falling around him. A cacophony of boos and whistles greets his every move, his disregard eliciting even greater cries from the crowd: Pesetero!, Judas!  The pleas of Carles Puyol can’t restrain the Camp Nou from issuing its judgement. For an instant all seems to go quiet as a large, fleshy object careens through the air, landing a few feet from its intended recipient. The object: a pig’s head. The target: a former darling of the Camp Nou, Portuguese midfielder Luís Figo.

Today, more than a decade after his astonishing transfer to Real Madrid, the mere mention of the Portuguese’s name brings forth a tirade of visceral hate from even the most staid of Catalans. Several players have made the switch between Spain’s two greatest clubs, but none have ever done so with the calculating treachery that surrounds one of the greatest transfer sagas of the post-Bosman era.

By the time he arrived in Catalunya during the summer of 1995, Luís Filipe Madeira Caeiro Figo was already a star.  The leader of Portugal’s Golden Generation that included the likes of Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes, Figo’s talent was unquestionable: an attacking midfielder that could both create and finish plays with startling efficiency, he had led his country to glory at the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship. A product of the Sporting Clube de Portugal youth academy, Figo made his first team debut at only 17 years of age, going on to spend six successful years at the Portuguese side, scoring ten goals on his way to picking up the Portuguese league championship during his final season.

The summer of 1995 proved pivotal for Figo, as some poor advice led to his signing for both Juventus and Parma.  A scandal erupted when it was found that both clubs had contracts with the Portuguese’s signature, and the result was a two year ban from playing in Serie A, paving the way for his transfer to Catalunya.

Once in Barcelona, Figo wasted little time endearing himself to the fans, scoring nine goals in his debut season from midfield and becoming a favorite of the Camp Nou.  The first few seasons proved fruitful for both Figo and the Catalan side, as they went on to win the 1996  Supercopa de España, the 1997 UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, two successive Copa Del Rey tournaments (1997 and 1998), as well as successive Spanish league titles in 1998 and 1999. Playing alongside Josep Guardiola, Figo excelled: picking up passes from deep in the midfield, his runs directly at opposing defenders were frequently finished with what became a trademark swerving shot.  Handed the captain’s armband for his efforts, things looked bright for the Catalans and their Portuguese captain; by the summer of 2000 they would not.

Presidential elections at any club are often a brutal affair, full of grandiose promises and personal vendettas.  The 2000 election at Real Madrid proved no different: the incumbent, Lorenzo Sanz, found himself fighting for reelection against former candidate and Madrid city councilman Florentino Pérez. A repeat of the previous election of 1995 that had proven so unsuccessful, Pérez left nothing to chance on this occasion. Once again running on a platform that accused the current regime of mismanagement, his campaign’s selling point hinged on one promise: to bring Luís Figo to Real Madrid. Naturally, a firestorm in the press ensued.

Several things then transpired that, in retrospect, paint a picture of intentional deception and an orchestrated effort to buy time. Pérez made the rounds in the Spanish press proclaiming the existence of a secret document, signed by himself and the Portuguese, that guaranteed the latter’s transfer on the condition of Pérez winning the elections.  Figo, meanwhile, denied the affair all together in an interview with Barcelona based paper Sport: “I want to reassure fans that Luís Figo, with all the certainty in the world, will be at the Camp Nou on July 24 to start the season.” On the supposed secret agreement with Pérez, Figo assured readers that “…I’m not mad enough to do something like that.”  It was now early July.

Despite winning the European cup only a few months before, Lorenzo Sanz was defeated in Madrid’s first presidential election of the new century on July 16.  The grand vision set forth by Pérez, anchored by an aggressive transfer policy meant to build the greatest team the world had ever seen, had proven popular among the team’s voting members, eager to reclaim the glory of the 1950s. Figo, stalked by the press in the run-up to the election, was enjoying a holiday in Sardinia following his appearance in the European Cup the previous month. As news of the election results broke, Figo and his family made their way to a waiting jet. Its destination was Madrid.

Luís Figo became a Real Madrid player on July 24, unveiled to the press in a masterfully orchestrated ceremony by the newly elected Pérez.  A then-world record £37 million transfer fee did little to ease the pain felt by the Catalans, betrayed by one of their most beloved players in a months-long transfer saga that had gripped the world of football.  Portuguese daily Diário de Notícias summarized the feelings of many when it proclaimed that “Figo represented the little that was left of purity and romanticism in soccer…[Luis Figo] is the last great casualty of football’s moneygrabbing.

The transfer of Luís Figo to Real Madrid remains one of the greatest stains on the contentious relationship between Spain’s two biggest club sides.  Heralding the start of the capital team’s era of the Galácticos, it also represented the start of a marked downturn in the fortunes of the Catalans.  On his return to a hostile Camp Nou in that year’s edition of El Clásico, the culés present unfurled a message that could not have been lost on anyone who saw it: “We hate you so much, because we loved you so much”.

Images: AP Photo and El País