The gentleman’s agreement that Figo refused to break with Real Madrid

Ryan Benson

The day is November 23, 2002. More than 100,000 people are crammed into the Camp Nou stands as Barcelona host Real Madrid, and Luis Figo prepares to take a corner in the 72nd minute. The police presence near the Portugal star is huge, but that doesn’t stop the home supporters raining missiles of all varieties down on their former darling.

And the most bizarre of all the objects hurled in Figo’s direction; a pig’s head, photos of which would become iconic in – and synonymous with – Spanish football, as the incredible backlash to his transfer betrayal continued two years on from the historic switch.

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But how did things get to that stage?

Figo had previously been Barcelona‘s star man; adored by fans, lauded by commentators and envied by rivals. He joined the club in 1995 after coming through the ranks at Sporting Lisbon and he went on to have five successful years at Camp Nou, winning seven trophies including LaLiga, Copa del Rey (both twice) and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

Even with the presence of Brazil star Rivaldo, the adulation Figo received was generally incomparable at Barca at the time. And that feeling only made things worse when the crime was eventually committed in 2000.

The move was instigated by Florentino Perez, who used the idea of Figo’s signing to persuade fans to vote for him in the club’s presidential election. Such was his confidence in luring him to Madrid, he promised to pay the costs for all 80,000 season tickets for the coming season.

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For Real Madrid fans it was a win-win; sign Figo or get to watch football for free at the Santiago Bernabeu for a full season.

Allegations claiming Figo had signed a pre-contract agreement with Perez and Real Madrid would not disappear while he was away on Euro 2000 duty with Portugal. Reports suggested that the midfielder had struck a conditional deal meaning that if Perez won the election and went ahead with his plan to meet the £37.5 million buy-out clause, Figo would make the switch or face a penalty fee of £18.75m.

At the time Figo was understood to be chasing a new contract at Barcelona, but their reluctance to entertain discussions left the buy-out clause at a level Madrid were willing to meet.

As it turned out, reports of Figo’s pre-contract agreement with Perez and Madrid were true, and once the former civil engineer’s election triumph was confirmed, the writing was on the wall. The release clause was triggered, Figo honoured the agreement and on July 24, 2000 he was presented as a Madrid player, ushering in the ‘galactico’ era.

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As the first of Perez’s ‘galacticos’, Figo’s move – for what was a world-record at the time – in some ways changed football transfers forever. His switch signalled the start of Madrid’s mass-spending, which in turn has been touted as the inspiration for many big takeovers in world football, with Chelsea a prime example.

It influenced the idea of how football clubs should be run, the perception of player value and essentially began Madrid’s obsession with breaking boundaries in terms of transfer fees. Would Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale ended up at Madrid were it not for Perez’s masterstroke in securing Figo?

That’s open for debate, but one thing certainly isn’t; Figo’s move was the quintessential footballing “betrayal”, and for that reason he is persona non grata in the Catalan capital.

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