Barcelona, Real Madrid And Luis Figo: A Gruesome Threesome

Goal.com’s Subhankar Mondal looks back at the career of Portuguese legend Luis Figo and discusses how he is both loved and hated in Spain, starting with one of the most nasty images discerned in Spanish football…..

November 24, 2002. FC Barcelona versus Real Madrid. At Camp Nou. 98,000 cules. 400 Madridistas. Luis Figo's yet another return to the Catalan cathedral as a Real Madrid player. Chantings. Name calling. Banners. Painted faces. Whistles. Flying pigs. Lighters. Broken whiskey bottles. Even a knife. And more.

And hell.

Now, Figo is one of those handful of players who have been brave enough to play for both Barcelona and Real Madrid. Between 1995 and 2000, the Portuguese legend was an absolute darling to the Barcelona supporters, winning the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1997 and inspiring Barcelona to two successive league titles.

But after the summer of 2000, he became one of Barcelona’s biggest ever hate figures.

The ‘Betrayal’

Because in the summer of 2000 he ditched the Catalans and signed for their most loathed rivals Real Madrid. Because in the summer of 2000 Figo committed the biggest and dastardliest of sins possible under the sun (from Barcelona’s perspective).  

Not that Barcelona didn't get anything out of the move. A sum of £38m was stacked into Barca’s vault and made Luis Figo the most expensive footballer at the time but that of course is not to be imported into the context, right?  

Moreover, it's not that Figo is the only player in history to have switched from Barcelona to Real Madrid. Denmark's darling and most trustworthy man Michael Laudrup too had done the very same thing in 1994 when he left Camp Nou for the Bernabeu to win the league title with the Blancos. But while Laudrup is still loved by the Camp Nou faithful, Figo is still ‘missed’ during el Clasicos.  

That November Evening  

Especially the Clasicos held at Camp Nou. That evening in November 2002 the world observed the stark, naked gruesome truth that even though Barcelona and Real Madrid might not contest a derby (in the technical sense of the term), might not be from the same city or the same locality-hell, they are not even from the same 'nation'- they still contest the biggest club football match on the planet.  

Perhaps this is not the best way to introduce what has been a legendary footballing career but that image of Figo picking up the insane objects and even giving a thumbs up sign to the Barcelona crowd while moving almost nonchalantly towards the corner flag, a "provocation" that "was out of place and totally unnecessary" according to the then Barcelona president Joan Gaspart, lingers on in the mind.  

The Barcelona Years  

Luis Figo was always destined for greatness. The Almada born and Sporting Lisbon bred was one of the best young players in the world in the 1990s, winning the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 1991.

He was the leader of the Golden Generation of Portuguese football and arrived in Catalunya as a bright star and became an even brighter one, establishing himself as a truly world class footballer.  

His runs along the flanks, the exquisite corners, the remarkable free-kicks, the astounding stepovers, the subtle drop of the shoulders, the marked through balls all helped him endear himself to the Barcelona supporters, who for once thought that like Johan Cruijff and Hristo Stoichkov he was another convert to the Barcelona cause, another soldier in their army to fight the perennial battle against everything Madrid.  

The Real Madrid Years

Only for them to realize in the summer of 2000 that he was not one of those fancy converts and perhaps was never meant to be. Which is why after loving the man married to Swedish model Helen Svedin they started hating them.

But in football one club's loss is another club's gain. The man who was the Portuguese Footballer of the Year from 1995 to 2000 carried on with his rhythm at the Bernabeu.

In his first season for Real Madrid, he won the league title; he finished runners-up in the FIFA Player of the Year award in 2000 but won the Ballon d'or for his unparalleled performance in Euro 2000. He won the FIFA award in 2001 and along with some help from Zinedine Zidane won the UEFA Champions League in 2001-2002, playing an instrumental role in spite of having suffered an injury during the season.

In 2002-2003 season, Figo scored 10 goals in 33 starts in La Liga and won the league title again. Figo's professionalism and leadership qualities, both on the pitch and in the dressing room, endeared him to the Real Madrid supporters. Even when he appeared to be going downhill form-wise, his work ethic was unquestionable.

And so was his class and creativity. So much so that when Joaquin, now at Valencia, revealed himself at Real Betis, he was dubbed the Spanish Figo.

But if his adventure with Barcelona was cut short by his temptation to join the world’s biggest football club, then his stay at the world's biggest club was turned sour by the inevitable spiraling down of the Galacticos project.

When Real Madrid ended a disappointing 2003-2004 season in fourth- in which he scored 9 goals in 34 league starts-losing the final of the Copa dey Rey to Real Zaragoza and getting knocked out by AS Monaco from the UEFA Champions League quarter-final stage, reports surfaced that Figo was not happy at the state of things.

Then in the summer of 2005 after falling out with Real's then coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, he left Madrid for Italy and Inter Milan.

The Inter Milan Years

That he would be able to restore his old self at Inter was too much to expect but he did dismiss fears that he was going to retire anytime soon. In his first season with the Nerazzurri, Figo amassed 27 starts in the Italian Serie A and played quite a decent role in helping Inter finish third (on the pitch).

Figo has since been an important member of the Inter squad, although he has struggled with injuries, He is also one of the most respected personnel in the Inter unit, club president Massimo Moratti even contemplating of importing him into the club's boardroom after he retires.

What Lies Thereafter?

And he might as well do that but Figo is perhaps suited to be a coach. At 36 the former Portuguese national team captain has loads of experience. He is a footballer with a brain (this is not to suggest that footballers are essentially without brains but you get the meaning anyway, don't you?) and can think objectively, a personality to whom people listen with respect.

Luis Figo might be one of the most hated figures in Catalunya but there is no doubt that he is a legend, the second best Portuguese footballer who led his nation to the final of Euro 2004 and to a fourth place finish at the 2006 Germany World Cup finals.

But then again, even at times legends are thrown suckling pigs' heads.

Subhankar Mondal