“WHITES WEEP. Congratulate the champions.” Enthusiastically delivered words of a similar emphasis were expelled from Luís Figo’s mouth, from his vantage point on the balcony of the Palace of the Catalan Generality in the Plaça Sant Jaume. The La Liga title and the Copa del Rey had both been won by Barcelona within an emblematic 11-day span in late April 1998. The coronation of a new king of Catalonia had just been played out in front of an adoring congregation. He was their captain, and now he was their footballing head of state.
Following on in the footsteps of Johan Cruyff, Figo was a figure who was seen to embrace and embody Catalonia, having been drawn in and absorbed by a hypnotic part of the world, he had become one of their own. Figo may not have been born of Catalonia, but he was deemed to be of Catalonia.
Within two years, however, that love and adulation unbound had turned into the white heat of a hated unconfined.
So much has been said and so much has been written about the invective nature of Barcelona-based feelings towards Figo, and also about the vagaries and conundrums of his summer 2000 transfer to Real Madrid, that it has served to largely obliterate the image of Figo the Barcelona player.
Summon up your initial minds-eye when it comes to Figo and it’s difficult to draw yourself away from him in the all white of Los Blancos. This is despite the fact that at the Santiago Bernabéu, Figo was essentially a cog in the star-studded wheel, compared to his role as the matador of the Camp Nou.
Figo was well on his way to being canonised by the Barcelona faithful when he turned his back on them. As a result, his time and his achievements at the Camp Nou have almost been stricken from the record. Whitewashed from existence. Yet the pain of his departure, or more pertinently the destination of his departure, is still felt.
The idolisation of Figo at Barça was at fever pitch. The depth of positive feeling towards him is something which still sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of the supporters of the Blaugrana. In the eyes of the Culés, Figo betrayed them. He will never be forgiven.
The visage of Figo in the red and blue stripes of Barça is one which is distorted now, as if seen through frosted glass. A mirage that confuses the senses. While Figo isn’t alone in having made the controversial switch from the Camp Nou to the Bernabéu, this is a visual sensation which isn’t necessarily applicable to Michael Laudrup for instance. Laudrup still somehow belongs in the colours of Barça, more so than he does in the white of Real, despite the torrent of abuse he received on his return to Catalonia in the colours of Real.
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When Figo arrived at Barcelona in 1995, a year after Laudrup’s departure, he did so without fanfare. Signed from Sporting CP for a fee of just £2.2 million, he glided in under the radar after a projected move to Serie A floundered, when he controversially signed pre-contract terms with both Juventus and Parma.
In Cruyff’s final season at the helm, Figo was given time and space to acclimatise to his new surroundings, sharing the Camp Nou stage with the prodigiously talented, but soon to be departing, Gheorghe Hagi and José Maria Bakero, plus the sublime yet injury plagued Robert Prosinečki.
Third place in La Liga, defeat in the final of the Copa del Rey to the =double-winning Atlético Madrid, and a narrow loss to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup semi-finals brought the end for Cruyff, in what was a decision born of a power struggle between coach and president, rather than for on-field failings.
In the post-Cruyff Barcelona world, Figo would rise and prosper as others fell by the wayside. If not collectively, 1995-96 was a personal success for Figo. His first taste of El Clásico had ended with a point gained at the Bernabéu, on an evening when Luis Enrique was Real’s midfield enforcer. The return game at the Camp Nou saw Barça emerge 3-0 victors, with Figo netting the pivotal second goal midway through the second half.
Euro 96 served to enhance Figo’s blossoming reputation. As part of Portugal’s much celebrated golden generation, alongside Rui Costa and João Pinto they purveyed what Ruud Gullit christened ‘sexy football’. It was a triumvirate of talent that had together won the 1991 World Youth Championship, with the nucleus of the side that had lost to Scotland in the semi-finals of the 1989 World Under-16 Championship.
While Euro 96, and an unexpected quarter-final loss to the Czech Republic, went on to set the tone for a series of glorious shortfalls when it came to the international scene for Figo, his club career was on the brink of a silver-laden future.
As Bobby Robson was brought in as successor to Cruyff, it also marked an influx of new arrivals to the Camp Nou inclusive of Luis Enrique from Real, Ronaldo from PSV, Vitor Baía from Robson’s previous employers Porto, plus the return of Hristo Stoichkov after a year at Parma.
The air of regeneration, after the civil war aura of the previous year or so, brought a wonderful openness and at times endearing naivety to Barça’s football throughout 1996-97. While they always seemed a step-and-a-half behind Real in the La Liga title race, then did come to administer often forgotten pressure on their bitter rivals during the run-in, ultimately finishing just two points behind Fabio Capello’s champions.
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Disappointment in the league was, however, offset by cup success, both domestically and in Europe. The Cup Winners’ Cup was claimed in Rotterdam against Paris Saint-Germain and the Copa del Rey was won in dramatic circumstances at the Bernabéu, when the Blaugrana twice came from behind against Real Betis to win in extra-time. Figo was on the score sheet twice, inclusive of the winning goal.
Despite the combination of promise and success during 1996-97, change still came. Robson was reluctantly moved to desk duties, making way in the dugout for Louis van Gaal, and the club cashed in on the force-of-nature which was Ronaldo, as he left for Inter Milan.
Once again, Figo remained central to proceedings as the dust settled. He was a man increasingly venerated by the supporters, a man growing in self-value. Robson had been sidelined at the Camp Nou due to perceived weaknesses in tactical organisation and defensive solidity. In finishing runners-up to Real in 97, Robson’s Barça had scored 102 goals, conceding 48.
Within a year, Figo was on that balcony at the Palace of Catalan Generality, captain of the double winners. Rivaldo now his partner in footballing beauty, yet as ever when it comes to van Gaal, a degree of sleight of hand was an ingredient.
This Barça wasn’t as free-flowing as the 1997 vintage; it scored 24 fewer goals and conceded eight more than Robson’s had. It had been a more functional side which had taken them to comfortable La Liga glory, and retained the Copa del Rey on a night at the Mestalla when they came to within a penalty kick of losing to 10-man Real Mallorca.
Like previously, political issues came into play at the Camp Nou. During their centenary year, Barça retained the La Liga title, in what was the bare minimum requirement. The hierarchy had, however, fully expected to see their club grace the Champions League final on home soil, yet they instead exited the competition at the group stages.
Figo, having seen his nation fail to qualify for the 1998 World Cup finals, was feeling the vague sense of a lack of prestige by the summer of 1999. He felt the adoration of the Culés but a degree of under-appreciation from his employers. He wanted to be on the most elevated of platforms. He wanted wider recognition of his talents, and he reportedly wanted that with Barcelona, with a club and within a city he had taken as his own.
Figo’s final season at the Camp Nou was one fraught with internal conflict, both personally for him and generally within the club. As van Gaal flooded his squad with players from his own home nation, a split appeared. Ruud Hesp, Michael Reiziger, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Phillip Cocu, Bolo Zenden, Winston Bogarde and Patrick Kluivert all arrived during van Gaal’s first 12-months at the helm. Explosive arguments raged between van Gaal and Rivaldo over which position he should play.
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Throughout 1999-2000, Figo excelled amidst the rancour. Domestically, Barça couldn’t shake the gathering clouds enough to challenge sufficiently as Deportivo La Coruña took their very first La Liga title. In Europe, however, they did rise. The periodical nature of the games suited a club which was ill at ease with itself domestically. Navigating both group stages with ease, they launched a stirring second leg comeback in the quarter-finals against Chelsea.
Figo was pivotal to it all, although having received a yellow card in both legs of the quarter-final, he had to sit out the first leg of the semi-final against Valencia at the Mestalla. It proved to be the night when the path of his entire career arguably changed direction.
From the stands, Figo watched on as his team-mates were dismantled by Héctor Cúper’s side. A 4-1 reversal left the Catalans with a mountain to climb, and hopes of an El Clásico Champions League final was in shreds.
Yet again, Figo carried the hopes of the Culés onto the turf at the Camp Nou. It proved to be a bridge too far, however, as Barça were comprehensively out-thought. It was the last time that the Portuguese star strode into the Camp Nou as a Barcelona player.
An ebullient Euro 2000, where he helped Portugal to the semi-finals, was soon followed by the seismic news of Florentino Pérez unexpectedly winning the Real Madrid presidential elections, and subsequently by him fulfilling his manifesto pledge to meet Figo’s buy-out fee.
Aged 27, and at the peak of his powers, the unthinkable happened. Figo not only became the most expensive footballer in the world, but he crossed the most volatile divide within the game. Not only did he move between bitter footballing rivals, he switched from the ideological, independence-seeking Catalans, to the very seat of centralised power. It wasn’t that he dared to leave, it was where he went to that was the problem. The hero of Barcelona, the captain, the flag bearer, left to join their mortal enemy.
Beyond the wall of hate which met his every return to the Camp Nou, the novelty-sized currency with his face on it, the pigs’ heads thrown in his direction, the request from the club itself to UEFA for him to be removed from a combined Barcelona-Juventus representative game prior to the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin, the lingering pain is still there as we fast approach 17 years since his infamous transfer.
It is because Figo meant so much to the Blaugrana, and that his actions stung them so badly, that the image of him in the colours of Barcelona to this day seem like a figment of the imagination. In the wake of van Gaal’s expected departure in the summer of 2000, Figo was expected to once again emerge from the dust, standing central to Barcelona’s future path. Instead, he created an even bigger sandstorm.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74