Nobody remembers the actual football that took place that night. For nearly two hours on a November night in Barcelona, it was one man against the hatred of an entire fanbase who had once adored him.
Players have betrayed clubs before in football. Yet, no betrayal has been felt as strongly, no anger been so palpable as it was when Luis Figo moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid in the summer of 2000. It rocked Catalonia to its very core and kicked the Florentino Perez ‘Galacticos’ into overdrive.
But it was the legitimate anger from Barcelona fans that brought new meaning to El Clasicos following the move. And on that November night in 2002, one of football’s iconic images came from that vitriol.
But what possessed a Barcelona fan to throw a pig’s head at Luis Figo? Why was his betrayal felt so strongly?
Figo: Barcelona’s Leader
Luis Figo was a wanted man in the mid-1990s. Having starred for Sporting from the turn of the decade, Figo really shot to prominence as he led Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’ to youth international glory in 1991.
We speak of ‘Golden Generations’ mockingly now but that Portuguese one was just that. Rui Costa and Joao Pinto were standouts in that group but it was Figo who was the one. It was Figo that was the leader. And it was Figo who was in demand.
Italian football at that time was the dominant force in world football. It had it all – huge stars, huge budgets and huge success. Juventus and Parma were the two frontrunners for Figo’s signature and both thought they’d gotten a coup when he signed a deal with them. However, it quickly turned sour when it transpired Figo had signed for both leading to a fight between the clubs and an Italian ban for Figo for two years.
So, Figo was at a loose end then. Where could he possibly go? Well, Sporting had just seen Malcolm Allison depart as head coach and the Manchester City legend was so struck by Figo that he recommended him instantly when he was brought to Maine Road as a scout.
The best part? City were very close to signing Figo too. A deal was thrashed out between both sides but Portuguese regulations meant Figo couldn’t sign for a foreign club outside a certain period. City were then left pondering whether they wanted to do a loan deal with an option to buy or not.
While the thinking happened, Barcelona pounced with £2.25 million and a proposal to loan him back to Sporting until the summer of 1995. It was a done deal.
While City spent the late 90s in the English doldrums, Figo’s stock rose and rose to unimaginable heights. Barcelona were off the back of the ‘Dream Team’ era and Romario and Stoichkov were now images of the past. Some of the core of that team remained when Figo arrived ready to support their new shining star.
And boy did he shine. 1995/96 saw Figo settle in at the Nou Camp before success finally arrived. The summer of 1996 saw Barcelona make a huge statement, signing the Brazilian dynamo Ronaldo for a world record fee and, under the tutelage of Bobby Robson, Figo and Ronaldo ran riot.
While Ronaldo rattled home 47 goals in 49 games, Figo was usually the instigator or creator for those goals. When Ronaldo left after a year, in came Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert and the machine kept ticking.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about Figo the player because he was simply so damn good. And sure, it’s easy to look at the trophies at Barcelona (2 league titles, 2 Copa del Reys, a Cup Winners’ Cup) and come to the conclusion that Figo was adored for his skills and winning but the truth is far deeper than that.
Luis Figo WAS Barcelona by the year 2000.
There was a simple tactical plan at Barcelona in the late 90s: ‘give it to Luis’. Figo was simply that good and he had the balls to stand up when things were going wrong. He was a symbol of Barcelona. He had played through injury at his own insistence to help the team in a Champions League semi-final. Sure, Rivaldo and Ronaldo took the headlines but Luis Figo was the apple of Catalan eyes.
And while Barca fans loved Figo, he loved the club just as strongly. When Barcelona won one title, he dyed his hair Barca colours and sang “white cry babies, salute the champions”. If that isn’t love then who knows what is? He was the closest thing to God for many at the club. He became an adopted son of the city, enjoying status really only Johan Cruyff could get near.
Yet, 2000 saw a storm brewing.
A Deal With The Devil
The summer of 2000 saw presidential elections at not just Barcelona but also at their greatest rivals, Real Madrid.
Barcelona’s were fairly standard with Joan Gaspart eventually winning out. Over in Madrid, there was something in the water. While Barcelona had dominated domestically late in the 90s, Real were reigning European champions in 2000 and had also won it 1998. That would typically be enough for incumbent Lorenzo Sanz to easily win another term as president.
However, one of Spain’s richest men fancied a go as Real Madrid’s head honcho.
Florentino Perez had made millions upon millions in the property business and wanted in on the action at Real. He needed something special to even have a shot at dethroning Sanz. So, he concocted a plan that would shake up the football world forever.
Perez promised that he would sign Luis Figo immediately from Barcelona.
This was met with no great amount of scepticism from within the Madrid fanbase and the wider media. Perez was accused of pulling a stunt by Sanz and Barcelona and, while Madrid fans were excited by the thought of Figo in white, they didn’t think it would ever be possible.
However, Perez had already set the wheels in motion for the greatest betrayal in football. The presidential candidate contacted Figo’s agents and offered him a ridiculous contract. It stipulated that Perez would pay Figo 2 million euros immediately and that the money was his if Perez didn’t win the election. However, to get it, all Figo had to do was agree to sign for Real Madrid if Perez won. If (and it was a huge if) Perez won and Figo relented, it would cost the player £19 million in compensation to Real.
Figo’s team signed that agreement with absolutely nobody thinking Perez would win. Not only was it easy money but Figo was wanting a new contract in Barcelona. It was leverage too. Simple politics.
Whether or not this was legally questionable is probably a whole other debate but word of the agreement got out pretty quickly and there were instant PR moves made in Catalunya. Barcelona dismissed the news as nonsensical, Barcelona players said it would never happen and Figo himself was dismissive:
“I’m not so mad as to do something like that. I want to assure the fans that Luis Figo will, with absolute certainty, be at the Camp Nou next season.”
Those words there gave Barcelona confidence. This was a publicity stunt and their worst nightmare would not unfold before their very eyes.
Except it did…
A Nightmare Unfolds
On 16 July 2000, Florentino Perez won the presidential elections at Real Madrid. It may have only been by a few hundred votes but it was enough to begin a series of events that resulted in one iconic footballing image.
Perez’s election victory came entirely on the back of Luis Figo. Figo was the player most wanted by Real fans. Perez reportedly polled the members of Real Madrid and found Figo was overwhelmingly the player they wanted most. That was his only hope of winning the election.
So, he used every trick and loophole in the book he could.
Approaching Figo’s team with a contract like Perez did seems like it would be an illegal move yet that was not the case. Florentino Perez was not affiliated to any football club so, under FIFA law, he was just a man proposing a business deal with another man. That meant Perez could offer that ludicrous conditional deal to Figo’s team.
Secondly, Perez had made Figo the centrepiece of his campaign and, if Figo relented on the deal, he needed a backup. So, he promised that if he didn’t sign Figo, he would personally pay for all members to go to the Bernabeu for free in the 200/01 season. The total cost of that would be covered by that very convenient £19 million clause if Figo broke the agreement.
Perez also moved when Barcelona’s own presidential elections were going on. This was incredibly timely as nobody could sign off on a new deal that Figo so desperately wanted. He had one concrete offer that whole time and it was from Perez.
So, when Perez was elected on 16 July, Figo’s pre-contract became legal and Figo DID NOT want to go. When Joan Gaspart finally took office, Figo was instantly at his door begging for Gaspart to help out of the deal with Perez.
Figo’s team had taken the deal as something of a stunt by a madman hoping to buy his way into office. Figo had let his agents deal with it on his behalf thinking nothing of it. The politics of a new contract at Barcelona had suddenly backfired on Figo and his team and they were in a no-win situation – financial ruin or joining the dark side.
Gaspart too was now in a bit of a quandary. He had two options as well and neither were great. He could pay the £19 million to Perez and Real Madrid which would essentially mean Barcelona were giving their arch-rivals the equivalent of the fifth-highest transfer fee (at the time) for THEIR OWN PLAYER.
Or, he could watch as Perez takes his prized asset away from him right at the start of his reign as president.
As Gaspart himself put it, he’d ‘die’ if he had to pay for Madrid members to watch football at the Bernabeu.
I’m sure you’re asking why Gaspart was so sure Figo would be gone if he didn’t stump up the cash? Well, the Spanish have release clauses in all contracts and Figo’s was set at £38,000,000 which was a world record. It was also chump change for Perez when compared to the amount of marketing revenue and media attention it would bring.
So Figo made the jump and Barcelona went into meltdown. Figo himself was not too happy about the entire move. A picture from his Real presentation was symbolic of that very day.
On the left was Florentino Perez, beaming. He’d become president and followed through on his promise.
On the right was Real legend Alfredo di Stefano, stunned. He, like the footballing world, couldn’t quite believe it.
And in the middle was Figo. He’s got no real expression on his face, a man who doesn’t quite know how he’s ended up where he is and wishes he hadn’t.
In truth, the only real winner out of all of this was Perez. He took a chance and it paid off thanks to some sound business manoeuvring. He put himself into the power position with this deal, playing off the fact that nobody believed he could in the presidential election.
In the end, it came back to bite everyone.
Barcelona fans took Figo’s departure to heart in the most literal way. When he returned three months after moving, huge amounts of security were on standby just to make sure Figo was safe. The Real Madrid bus was peppered with missiles. Barcelona fans lined the streets with white flags indicating Figo should be dead a la bullfighting.
Figo was visibly shaken by the reception, covering his ears at one point to try and drown out the noise. Barcelona’s stadium announcer even left a gap after announcing Figo’s name for people to specifically boo him. This was deeply personal, on both ends.
Figo was not himself that night, the one real time it was clear that the great man was truly affected by a crowd. Indeed, when the game ended, Figo went to head down the tunnel as quickly as he could, trying to escape the baying public.
Barcelona players, though, had other ideas. They looked at him as a friend who had left and made that publically known. They sought him out and embraced him like a brother. The Catalan media toned down their criticism of Figo too, attempting to ease the hatred towards him.
It didn’t work.
23 November 2002 saw Figo pelted with everything from a whiskey bottle to a knife to a pig’s head. The play had to be abandoned for nearly 20 minutes at one point to calm the crowd down. Figo just trotted around the field like an empty man throughout, doing his best to prove that they couldn’t get to him.
Figo has since said that he ‘did not feel appreciated’ which led to him accepting the deal at Real. Even so, in an ideal world, this would never have happened.
But, as Luis Figo found out the hard way, we don’t always live in an ideal world.