We had Neymar, Sol Campbell and Carlos Tevez, but in July 2000 Luis Figo completed the most controversial transfer in football history. The move from Barcelona to Real Madrid in a move that shocked the world of football to the core and began the era of the legendary Galacticos at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Over the course of five delightful seasons, Figo, who celebrates his 49th birthday on Thursday, has been the inspiration for Barcelona to win two La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey titles and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The Portuguese was the star of the show, adored by the Camp Nou followers. One anecdote that exemplifies how symbolic Barcelona was at the time was that after winning the league title, his hair died blue and red and he asked: “Children’s white cry, salute to the champions.”
In 2000, Figo was the best player in the world, and soon he would go on to win a well-deserved Ballon d’Or ahead of Zinedine Zidane while wearing the respective ‘White Crying Children’ shirt.
So how on earth did this movement happen? Madrid was already enjoying its own successes at the time. They have won two of the last three Champions League titles and club president Lorenzo Sanz looks set to win another term in the upcoming elections due to this European success.
But then Florentino Perez came along.
As one of the richest men in the country, Perez knew he had to do something impossible to wrest the presidency from Sanz. He wanted to do the unthinkable and bring the Barcelona icon – the best player in the world – to the Spanish capital in an act that would prove that Real Madrid is the biggest club on the planet.
The Spanish businessman had a plan. He approached Vigo’s agent, and on paper it seemed like a perfect deal for his client. The suggestion was that the Portuguese winger would get £1.6m up front to sign a contract stating that he would join Real if Perez won the election, and even if Perez lost, he would keep the full amount.
With all the signs pointing to another Sanz tenure, this looked like the best deal in history for Figo and his agent. Money had just fallen into their arms, unfettered. But they did not count on the deal that was leaked to the press, which led to turmoil and an uproar from Barcelona fans. Figo, who still desperately wants to stay in Barcelona, denied all the allegations and resolutely blamed Perez, claiming that he was saying anything in his power to win the election and President Sanz backed these beliefs. At a press conference, Figo reassured fans with this statement:
“I am not too angry to do such a thing. I want to assure the fans that Luis Figo, most definitely in the world, will be at the Camp Nou on July 24 to start the season.”
Perez had Real Madrid members, who voted in the elections, and the player himself on the strings. He was the master of puppets in this amazing performance and made an epic pledge to those in the club. If he wins the presidential election and does not sign Figo, each member will go to Madrid’s home matches for free during the next season.
Although Perez could probably afford it, he wouldn’t pay for it out of his own pocket. Smartly, he inserted a clause in the contract signed by Figo stating that if he refused to join Madrid after Perez’s successful election victory, he would owe the club £19m in compensation. By his promise, Perez won. All Los Blancos had to do was pay out the £38m deal, and the deal would be nearing completion. One thing that could stop them was the newly elected Barcelona president, Joan Gaspart.
Figo begged him to block the move, and Gaspart could already have prevented Barcelona from losing their best player by paying Madrid Figo £19m. To put that into perspective, that equates to the fifth highest transfer fee in football history at the time, and they would pay for their player not to join their biggest competition.
“I couldn’t do it. I am the new president of Barcelona and I pay Real Madrid fans to watch them every week? I will die, I will die!”
Figo was presented at the Bernabeu the next day as the world’s most expensive player and awarded the famous No. 10 shirt by the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. He didn’t seem happy. Despite the controversy and hatred surrounding his transfer, he did well again on the pitch and led Madrid to the league title in his first season and the Champions League title in 2002, but his return to the Camp Nou was painful.
Rockets were thrown at him – the notorious boar’s head most shocking – but perhaps the banner raised on his return would hurt him the most. It simply reads:
“We hate you now, because we loved you then.”
Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham would all become stand-out deals in later years and for the Galacticos, but no transfer would send a shockwave through football like this. The best player in the world has been forced to move away from the beloved Barcelona to their fiercest rivals Real Madrid. Perez’s perilous game has paid off.