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Over 20 years ago, promising Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo left his homeland to join Spanish giants FC Barcelona. It was a move that would eventually change the landscape of La Liga and would turn him into a hated figure in Catalonia.
The 4th of November sees Figo turn 43 years old and 21 years after his debut at the Camp Nou and 16 years since he turned traitor and joined Real Madrid, he still hasn’t been forgiven. Hell hath no fury like a woman or football fan scorned. Especially when it comes to joining your eternal rivals.
Figo wasn’t the first player to make the jump. Current boss Luis Enrique went the other way, playing for Los Blancos before arriving at Barca, Figo himself was signed to try and fill the void left when Michael Laudrup moved to the Bernabeu in 1994. However, it was the way his move materialised that disgusted the Blaugrana.
Real Madrid presidential candidate Florentino Perez had promised the voters that if elected, he would land them Figo’s signature. Rumours had surfaced that the winger had signed a pre-contract agreement with the capital club if Perez was successful. He had told the 83,967 members that if he failed to land his man, Perez would pay their membership fees the following year. Clearly he had a plan and it has been reported that Figo’s agent had agreed in the pre-contract that if his client backtracked on the deal, they would have to pay Perez 5 billion pesetas (£18.75 million). The future president had the backing of the members and financial assurances from his soon to be star player. He couldn’t lose.
Figo was obviously not expecting Perez to gain power, so was quick to deny any move was on the cards. After 172 La Liga games for Barcelona, 30 goals, two league titles, two Copa del Reys and a Cup Winners' Cup triumph, the Portuguese maestro and recent star of Euro 2000 caused chaos in Catalonia when he had no choice but to honour his agreement with Perez and invoking his buyout clause to join Madrid. “I'll not forget this,” new Barca president Joan Gaspart declared. “Whoever is responsible for this will pay for it. We'll see how and when. Figo gave me the impression this morning that he wanted to do two things – make more money and stay with Barcelona. He thinks money can do everything in this life.”
It was a sad end to his time in Barcelona. He would go on to win the UEFA Champions League and kick start Real’s Galactico project, but all his good work for Barça had been ruined forever. Yet, that shouldn’t diminish the player he was and the joy he brought to the Camp Nou when he was there and playing at perhaps his peak.
Figo was never the fastest, he didn’t dazzle defenders with mesmerising footwork. His success came from a deft flick, a drop of the shoulder and that constant level of fear he instilled in the minds of defenders.
“He was capable of dribbling without touching the ball and had a tremendous feint,” said former Real Madrid captain Manolo Sanchis. “Second, his ability to create goals: As soon as he got an inch, he was capable of putting through “a goal ball”—an assist. He came at you again and again. He was mesmerizing. And he did it in every match.”
Blessed with a devastating right foot, similar to the way that Arjen Robben has forged his career with his left. You knew Figo was going to favour his right, you waited for it, but you couldn’t stop it. When he wanted to beat you, it was almost inevitable.
He was blessed with a very quick first step, perfectly suited to the Spanish game. He’d keep the ball close, gesture to make his move, then had a gift of pushing the ball that extra yard away from his opponent before delivering a dangerous cross. He really was the master of misdirection.
Once settled, it was from around 1996 that Figo really found his feet, learning from the master, Johan Cruyff. That’s when he began to terrorise the Real defence. During his five years at Barcelona, he would only lose two league games to the Madrid side. In February 1996 he would in the 3-0 win over Fabio Capello’s side. The following season he turned creator.
Real went into the game top of the league, with Sir Bobby Robson’s side chasing Los Blancos. Set to go into the halftime break level, Figo took control.
Advancing down the right-wing, he gestured that he was about to come inside, jinking right he left the speedy Roberto Carlos for dead and delivered the killer cross for Ronaldo to head into the far corner. Barca would win the game 1-0, It gave the home side a chance to win the league, but they would end up losing out to their rivals by just two points.
If Figo wasn’t delivering devastating crosses, he would look to curl unstoppable shots into the top corner. No matter how many times he’d attempt the same move, advancing down the left, fake to hit the byline, then cut inside to cross of shoot, he was almost invincible.
He could pick a pass from anywhere on the park. Adding swerve, power and accuracy to amazing effect. His right-foot could thread a gap through the eye of a needle. Every so often, when you weren’t expecting if, he’d ping one into the top corner with his left-foot, just so you had to respect his weaker side. That gave him the half yard of space he needed to cause maximum damage.
Regardless of what he achieved at Barça, the wounds he created when he jumped ship look to big to heal. In 2015, before the Champions League final with Juventus, Figo was set to play his part in a legends game. However, the fans protested his inclusion and UEFA had to bend to their will and remove him from the pre-match festivities
If 15 years isn’t long enough to turn the other cheek, it seems he will never be forgiven for his treachery. It is perhaps testament to just how special player he was and how much the Blaugrana fans loved him that this move more than any others broke their hearts.
Happy Birthday Luis Figo, your amazing performances for Barcelona may be cast into a black hole in Catalonia, but they will always be remembered not forgotten.