The fabulous Luis Figo – Spanish football’s most controversial transfer

He was a mercurial talent showcasing elegance on the ball, dribbles that made your mouth drool and possessing a magnificent footballing brain – characteristics of the fabulous Luis Figo. From the Portuguese city of Almada, the winger’s origins started in his native mainland as he rose through the Sporting CP ranks – amassing 137 first-team games with 16 goals to his name.

His talent would alert major European clubs and although he signed contracts with both Juventus and Parma, it was Barcelona who eventually won the legal battle for his signature in a bargain £2.25m deal. It was a shrewd deal which reaped huge rewards during a five-year spell where he would dazzle the Camp Nou faithful and become an icon. Figo made 172 appearances and netted 30 goals during a trophy-laden half decade where he would win successive La Liga titles in 1998 and 1999 as well as back-to-back Copa del Reys between 1997 and 1998. A Spanish Supercopa was secured too and European glory was achieved in lifting the 1997 Cup Winners Cup defeating PSG, as the Catalan club 1-0 in the final. The European Supercup was also added later that summer.

His skill, personality and model looks made him a mega star not just in Barcelona but the world over. His dribbling ability, fantastic free-kicks and natural ability with the ball captivated fans, yet the hero would become a villain in July 2000 when Figo signed for eternal rivals Real Madrid for a world record fee of £37m.

As presidential elections took place, a candidate for the Real Madrid presidency had the Portuguese superstar in his sights: Florentino Pérez. The construction magnet promised the signing of Figo if he was sworn into office. He duly won the elections, acting on his word by enticing the player to the Santiago Bernabéu. You can check out all the latest tips on what will happen in the world of football on

It was a staggering deal at the time not just monetary wise but to the astonishment of people in the football fraternity of Figo changing his allegiance to a bitter rival. Indeed, years later Perez described the deal as his ‘toughest signing’ as Madrid superemo. Naturally, Barcelona fans incensed by what they called the actions of a traitor. World football was in shock and Barcelona were angered. The ultimate act of betrayal.

Barcelona’s loss was very much Madrid’s gain. Figo was aged 27 at the time of his signing and very much in the peak of his powers. At Madrid, his game elevated to new heights and heralded the start of the Galactico era of president Pérez – signing a world star each summer.

Over his five-year spell in Madrid, Figo world surround himself by the Galacticos including Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Raúl Gonzalez and Ronaldo Nazario. Much like Barcelona, his stay lasted five successful years with Figo becoming an icon for Los Blancos, starting in 164 games and scoring 38 goals. He would collect a further two La Liga titles in 2001 and 2003 – wrestling the crown away from Barcelona providing insult to injury where it hurt most. Madrid also won the Spanish Supercup that season.

Figo helped Madrid in gaining European honours too with a Supercup victory in 2002 and the Intercontinental Cup later that year. His appearance in that competition made possible by Madrid’s European Cup triumph that May over Bayer Leverkusen in Scotland when Zidane famously scored one of the best goals in a final. Figo become FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001 and his achievements endeared him to the Bernabéu faithful despite his previous Barça past.

However, for all Figo’s successes in Madrid, his past with Barcelona would be never be far away. His return to his former stomping ground at Camp Nou took place on 21 October 2000 when Barcelona hosted Madrid in El Clásico. It was to be the winger’s first taste of the grudge match wearing the white of Madrid and he was welcomed to a cacophony of whistles and abuse. The fallen idol was subject to cigarette lighters, mobile phones and bottles raining down from the stands.

The Portuguese schemer was the clubs regular corner kick taker, yet tellingly didn’t take not one single corner that night through fear of his safety due to the torrential abuse from Barcelona supporters. He and his team naturally got a bout of stage fright and ended up losing 2-0 with Figo notably underperforming.

Figo would miss the next seasons clash in Barcelona, a 1-1 draw in March 2002, but would start in the following seasons match on 23 November 2002. A match which would be known for one infamous incident.

The game itself was a disappointing 0-0 draw yet the headline takeaway was the incredible image of a pig’s head being thrown towards Figo. Throughout the match there was a hostile atmosphere with a deafening noise ‘welcoming’ Figo as he touched the ball and took the corner kicks, this time stepping up to the plate and taking charge of his set piece responsibilities. Although no short corners were offered up as normal teammate and set piece foil Michel Salgado stayed well clear of the wrath of the baying Camp Nou faithful.

The pigs head thrown to the pitch in the 72nd minute was the final straw for referee Luis Medina Cantalejo who brought the players off the pitch to calm the tense and hyped situation. 12 minutes past before the players would return to the field of play.

The match concluded scoreless, a duel dubbed ‘The derby of shame’ by Spanish newspaper Marca and Barcelona would be fined €4k for the incidents – a poultry figure for such a frenzied and international incident.

Figo was a villain of the peace for Barcelona’s heartbroken supporters but fast forward to today and the Portuguese ace remains one of footballers most gifted talents of his generation.

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