The most contentious transfer EVER – when Luis Figo joined Real Madrid

Luis Figo’s arrival at Real Madrid 20 years ago is still the most contentious transfer EVER, beginning with a £1.4m promise on a piece of paper and ending with a pig’s head thrown on the Nou Camp pitch… and it kick-started the entire Galactico era

  • Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to Real Madrid stunned world football in 2000
  • The Barca captain had originally pledged his future to the Catalan club 
  • Florentino Perez winning the Madrid presidential election changed everything 
  • Figo was pelted with missiles, bottles and a pig’s head at the Nou Camp in 2002 
  • Even to this day bitterness lingers in Catalonia over the perceived betrayal 

It’s hard to think of a transfer that compares with it. The Luis Figo switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid that took place 20 years ago this summer was the ultimate football betrayal.

So loaded with symbolism, vitriol and rancour, it makes Sol Campbell going from Tottenham to Arsenal look like Morecambe and Wise joining ITV from the BBC in the late 1970s.

The hurt on Barcelona’s side has never really gone away. 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.

Luis Figo’s transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid is one of the most contentious moves ever

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. But 15 years after he had moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid, Figo was still persona non grata.

Prior to his departure in 2000 Figo, on course to pick up the Ballon d’Or – which he would eventually hold aloft in a white Real Madrid shirt instead of a Barcelona one – had seemed settled and committed at the Nou Camp. 

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.

Elections at Real Madrid in 2000 were what ultimately made the move happen. For all his wealth, young construction magnate Florentino Perez was not the favourite to win at the polls against incumbent Lorenzo Sanz, who had delivered two Champions Leagues in the previous three seasons.

The Portuguese, captain of Barcelona at the time, lifts the Copa del Rey trophy in April 1998 

He even showed his devotion to Barca at the time by dyeing his hair in the club’s colours, as did their Brazilian superstar Rivaldo (centre) and striker Sonny Anderson (right)

The 53-year-old contender had the ear of then Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, he had political nous honed as a Madrid city councillor, 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. He needed some of whatever it was Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega had in that glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. 

Figo was all that. He was the perfect, audacious, jaw-dropping, potential game-changer.

In the run-up to the election, fan polls had suggested Figo was the player Madrid supporters would most like their club to sign. Figo was at the time in stalled negotiations with Barcelona over a new deal and he had a release clause of 10billion pesetas – around £37.5m. 

It was high but not so high that Madrid couldn’t pay it. It would be a world-record fee but that was part of the dream that Perez was trying to sell the club’s supporters: with me at the helm we will be the club that breaks the world transfer record over and over again.

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.

Figo poses with Florentino Perez (left) and Alfredo Di Stefano after signing in July 2000

Release clauses are all well and good but the player must want to leave. In 2017, it would have done Paris Saint-Germain no good to have been willing to deposit Neymar’s €222m release clause had the player not agreed to make the move.

Likewise, Madrid in 2000 could deposit the equivalent sum at the league headquarters – but Figo would have to want to leave Barcelona.

Twenty years on, in the countless interviews he has given about the move, it still seems he never really did.

He always says he never regrets the move. Only last week he told Fox Sports Brazil: ‘I am extremely happy for the decision I took.’ But at the time it felt as though it was the last thing he wanted.

How did Perez, and Figo’s agent Jose Veiga, make it happen?

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). 

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,’ he said. ‘My shirt is red and blue and always will be.’

Figo, with team-mate Rivaldo in 1999, at first insisted he would be staying at Barcelona

LUIS FIGO’S CAREER 

  • 1989-1995 – Sporting Lisbon
  • 1995-2000 – Barcelona
  • 2000-2005 – Real Madrid
  • 2005-2009 – Inter Milan 

Had Figo been told of the agreement but been assured Perez would lose? Did Veiga see this as easy money because he thought Perez would not win? Did he also believe it would be a useful tool in making sure Barcelona negotiated Figo a new contract?

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. In other words: it was now time to reel in Figo.

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.

The pig’s head which was infamously thrown at Figo by a Barca fan on November 23, 2002

The symbol of the greatest betrayal in La Liga’s history will always be the head of a suckling pig tossed on to the pitch at the Nou Camp. It came a full two years after Figo signed, on November 23, 2002 – a clear sign that feelings had not cooled.

In Figo’s first season back in his old stadium, he had to block his ears to the shrill whistles and wonder at the magnitude of reaction: there were ‘Traitor’ signs everywhere and thousands of fake bills with his face printed on them. Fortunately for him he wasn’t Madrid’s corner taker at the time.

In his second season he was injured and didn’t play the fixture. He could have been forgiven for thinking things would be calmer in his third season. He was wrong.

This time he was taking the corners and on a wet night the rain was not the only thing falling out of the sky. Real Madrid won a corner at the north end of the ground and the first thing to almost hit Figo as he went to take it was an empty coca-cola bottle. He raised a sarcastic thumb and tossed it off the pitch.

Figo was pelted with missiles and bottles as he takes a corner against his former team in 2002 – the piglet’s head can be seen on the turf near the feet of a helpless steward (centre)

There was a delay and when he finally got to take the kick he almost scored direct. Roberto Bonano tipped the ball over for another corner kick on the other side of the pitch.

This time the missiles rained down with such intensity that after Carles Puyol’s appeals to his own supporters for calm had gone unheeded, the players were taken off the pitch for 15 minutes by referee Jose Luis Cantalejo.

They returned and the subsequent corner came to nothing. The game ended 0-0 but the story of the match still went around the world.

Such was the abuse directed at Figo, play was suspended for 15 minutes at the Nou Camp

‘Catalonia doesn’t forget Judas’; read one banner behind the goal. Of the debris on the pitch that night the piglet’s head was not the worst of it – an empty whiskey bottle might have done far more damage had it made contact.

After the game Barcelona coach Louis van Gaal said Figo was partly to blame by not just ‘getting on with taking the corner’.

In terms of trophies won from 2000 onwards, Figo can have no complaints about the early years. 

He won two leagues and a Champions League in his first three seasons. From 2003, there was less to celebrate. 

The Portuguese winger lifts the Champions League trophy after Real Madrid’s triumph in 2002

Figo’s arrival sparked the Galactico era at Real Madrid, which saw (from left) David Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Raul join forces in a superstar-studded dream team

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.

He moved to Inter where he won four more league titles before retiring. He now lives in Madrid and it’s from there that most of the nostalgia will come from this summer.

In Barcelona, save for the odd image of football’s most famous suckling pig, they would still rather forget. 




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