The passage of time has not remotely dulled the sheer audacity of Real Madrid’s hostile acquisition of Luís Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona in 2000.
Those seventeen years do at least allow a broader take on this astonishing deal and in hindsight there’s an argument to be made that Madrid’s biggest win from the whole affair was neither the acquisition of the services of a world-class Portuguese winger, nor even the chance of cocking a snook at their bitterest opponents.
Rather, the Figo deal precipitated panic and wounded pride that led to an eminently avoidable and self-inflicted collapse in the fortunes of the Catalans way beyond any level that Real Madrid could ever have hoped for.
The loss of Figo was seismic but did bring a then-world-record fee of £37m as some compensation, and with a level-headed approach to re-investing that money Barcelona could still have conceivably emerged with a restructured team that was stronger.
There was little in the way of calm leadership under the leadership of Joan Gaspart, however. Stung by the cheek of their rivals and the perceived loss of face to the broader footballing world, Gaspart presided over three disastrous summer transfer campaigns in which the only common element of their scattershot acquisitions was the eye-watering cost.
Fading star names, injury prone superstars, domestic misfits, the next-big-thing from South America or, sometimes, players of genuine quality who were just never going to fit the team’s playing style: Barcelona attempted to confront the issue by firing a money cannon at it rather than coming up with any sustainable succession plan for their lost talisman.
In the immediate aftermath of the deal, the entire Figo fee with a generous £23m on top was spent on Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Alfonso and Gerard. The Dutchman’s time at the club was blighted by injuries; Petit claimed his coach didn’t know what position he played and was back in England within 12 months; striker Alfonso managed 18 months and just two goals before going out on loan and Gerard was typically a midfielder who came off the Barça bench more than he started.
A further £55m was lavished on more signings the following summer: Fabio Rochemback and Geovanni brought the exoticism of brilliant young Brazilian promise that went typically unfulfilled at the Camp Nou; Patrik Andersson was a year or two past his impressive best in central defence and suffered regular injuries while young French counterpart Philippe Christanval from Monaco never quite looked the part. Dazzling Argentine forward Javier Saviola enjoyed a fine first season but faded thereafter, frustrated at being consigned to a strictly regulated wide attacking position.
Barcelona’s transfer nadir arrived in November 2002 with the £10m acquisition of Argentinian forward Juan Román Riquelme – a fantastically gifted playmaker but a footballer horribly unsuited to the hard-running left sided attacking role that coach Louis van Gaal wanted him to play.
Fortunes started to turn in 2003 with a new president, the arrival of Frank Rijkaard as coach and the emergence of Xavi but those three post-Figo seasons had been harsh for the club: no honours and La Liga finishes of fourth, fourth and sixth. And in the meantime a Luís Figo-inspired Real Madrid had gleeful taken over their mantle as Spain’s dominant club.