Luís Figo was the player who welcomed us into the 2000s, to the decade of shocking transfers, big money, the Galácticos, and Florentino Pérez. The biggest story from the 2000 summer transfer window was the move of the Portuguese winger, the winner of that year’s Ballon d’Or prize, from Barcelona to Real Madrid. It was era-defining.
The story has been told countless times, read like a fairy tale by Real Madrid supporters and whispered as a horror story by the Barça faithful. There were presidential elections at Real Madrid that summer, ones that would change the course of football history. The incumbent Lorenzo Sanz was expected to win, as Los Blancos had just claimed the 1998 and 2000 Champions League titles, in Amsterdam and in Paris, but Pérez, the challenger, promised the arrival of Figo after a survey found that he was the player Madridistas most desired.
An agreement had been struck with the player’s representatives that saw the Portuguese commit to a transfer to Real Madrid through the triggering of his release clause in the unlikely event of a Pérez victory.
Pérez won. With 16,469 votes to Sanz’s 13,302, he became the president of Real Madrid – and Figo was to follow him to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. An agreement that was supposed to mean quick and easy money for the player, and that was supposed to provide leverage in his stalling contract talks with Barcelona, ended up in a one-way ticket to the Spanish capital.
“The Barcelona directors thought I was bluffing,” he said years later, in Sid Lowe’s book Fear and Loathing in LaLiga. “Then things started taking the direction they took. It was uncomfortable because there were doubts and difficult moments. Maybe it wasn’t very, very, very clear because it didn’t only depend on me. And that made it very hard.”
It was hard at points, not least when he famously returned to Camp Nou and saw lighters, cans, bottles, fake banknotes and, of course, a pig’s head thrown in his direction as he tried to take corner kicks. On the whole, though, it was probably the best move Figo could have made. He’d already been a winner at the Catalan club, helping them to a couple of league titles and a brace of Copa del Rey triumphs. The big prize, though, was the Champions League and it was when he teamed up with other Galácticos – Zinedine Zidane for one – that he tasted European glory.
Alongside players such as Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham, Figo reached new heights. He’d gone from being the groovy bass player on the wings in an indie band that produced the occasional hit, to becoming the Paul McCartney or John Lennon figure in a team that were like the Beatles of football.
His first season at the Bernabéu was sensational. In addition to his 13 goals, he provided 27 assists. The Sporting CP academy graduate hit double figures for both goals and assists in each of his first four seasons at Real Madrid, cementing his status as one of the most exciting and productive players on the planet. With his stepovers, drag-backs and shimmies, his he’s-faster-than-he-looks speed, his come-finish-me crosses and his long-range blasts into the back of the net, this was the kind of player who could define an era. He had everything, and made the Real Madrid of the early noughties what it was.
Figo remained a superstar even after he left Spain to move to Italy in 2005, finally arriving in Serie A after a previous opportunity had fallen through, wherein he’d reportedly signed agreements with both Juventus and Parma – yes, loyalty, perhaps, wasn’t his thing. Aged 32 by the time of his transfer to Internazionale, some of his pace had deserted him yet his skills remained.
Figo had never been a winger whose main attribute was his speed. While he moved quicker than his square frame suggested he could, his game was all about the tip-taps of the ball that sent opponents sliding like ice hockey players and that bought him space to run into. Even if going up against a Ferrari, he could undercut like a McLaren and make it across the finish line first.
Eventually, the goals and the assists did dry up and Figo retired in the summer of 2009. “I’m not leaving Inter, I’m leaving football,” he said at the time. The winger departed as a winner, having claimed the Serie A title in each of his four seasons at San Siro, even if the first came following the Calciopoli scandal. With José Mourinho guiding the team to a treble the year after Figo’s departure, the Milanese club made it five league titles in a row and the number 7 was a major part of that accomplishment.
Over his ten years of football during the noughties, Figo won six league titles in addition to eight further trophies, one of which was the Champions League. That’s a rare haul, even more so considering he was playing in two of the most competitive leagues of that decade.
One regret Figo may have from his career is that he never won a title with Portugal, the nation he captained from the age of 23 until his international retirement in 2006, aged 33. Given what Cristiano Ronaldo went on to become, one of the defining images of Euro 2004 is the photo of the now-Juventus player sobbing in disappointment as Greece won the trophy against the host nation by winning the final at the Estádio da Luz 1-0. But, at the time, this was seen as Figo’s setback.
Euro 2004 was supposed to be Figo’s to win, as he fatefully returned to Lisbon. We were supposed to remember Figo lifting the trophy, wearing that iconic Portugal kit with the player numbers marked in a circle on the chest. But we didn’t. Figo had won the 1989 European Under-17 Championship and the 1991 World Youth Championship, but couldn’t repeat that success at senior level and that hurt.
“That defeat in the Euro 2004 final was tough,” he admitted, years later. “To see us all united, and to see the whole country united, was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But the loss in the final can be explained by the run we had. There was a lot of wear and tear and that meant we didn’t reach the final at our best.”
It’s amazing, considering just how much Figo did win, that the Portuguese winger’s career could be viewed as something of a ‘what if?’ He won so much, yet hung up his boots with no medal at international level and just one Champions League title, only playing 60 minutes in that 2002 victory over Bayer Leverkusen. There is absolutely no doubt that he was one of the icons of the 2000s, the first megastar of the 21st century, yet, unfairly, he isn’t spoken about in the same way as his Galáctico colleagues Zidane or Ronaldo.
To this day, “Luís Figo pig head” is the first search suggested by Google when you begin typing his name into the search engine. A shame. He was greater than that, far greater.
By Euan McTear @emctear