Barcelona 0-0 Real Madrid, November 23, 2002
For a supporter, there aren’t many greater acts of treachery a player can commit than leaving for a massive rival. But there are few more high profile than when Luis Figo swapped the iconic Blaugrana jersey for the all white of their eternal rivals Real Madrid.
Amidst all the controversy that engulfed Figo in the wake of the fractious move, it’s worth remembering just how good a player he was at the time of the sale. The Portuguese was a phenomenon at the Camp Nou, with his silky dribbling, eye for a pass and clinical edge in front of goal cementing his status as a fan favorite; he won two league titles and two Copas with the Blaugrana.
It’s what made his move to Real all the more infuriating in their eyes, but when Los Blancos president Florentino Perez sanctioned a world record bid for that player in 2000 to match the release cause in his contract, the wheels were already in motion on a potential deal.
Not many expected Figo—a man who had grown to become almost synonymous with the Barcelona cause—to make the switch, but in Sid Lowe’s book Fear and Loathing in La Liga, he admitted he felt unappreciated by the Catalan club and decided to speak with their great rivals. The Portuguese star went on to claim it was a moment of hot-headedness that evidently turned into something a whole lot more significant.
Indeed, on July 24, 2000, Figo was unveiled as a Real Madrid player after completely a £38 million deal. He looked uneasy and uncomfortable when being handed his shirt by Alfredo di Stefano, perhaps anticipating the anger that would inevitably come his way when he did eventually return to Catalonia.
As expected, season after season Figo was treated to the most hostile of receptions from the 120,000 strong crowd that were jam packed into the Camp Nou. Michel Salgado recounts one particular game in Lowe’s book:
By the second or third corner I turned to Luís Figo and said: ‘Forget it, mate. You’re on your own’. I used to offer Luís the chance to take the short corner, drawing up close to him near the touchline, but not this time.
Missiles were raining down from the stands: coins, a knife, a glass whisky bottle. Johnnie Walker, I think. Or J&B. Best to keep away. Short corners? No thanks.
But the item thrown onto the pitch that came to embody the rivalry between these two during that generation was a Cochinillo, a pig’s head. The fact that this moment occurred three seasons after Figo had made his transfer provided an indication of just how raw the hatred for the midfielder remained in Catalonia following his move.
For understandable reasons Figo didn’t take corner kicks the first time he went back to the Camp Nou in Real Madrid colors and the season after he didn’t feature in the match. But in 2002, he strode over to whip in a delivery, perhaps hoping the wounds had healed somewhat; it became clear pretty quickly that they hadn’t.
Despite the vitriol that was inevitably hurled his way from those in Catalonia, Figo made a massive success of his career with the Santiago Bernabeu side. He won the Ballon d’Or at the end of 2000—admittedly, mainly due to his phenomenal skills showcased for Barca—before winning two league titles, a European Cup and two Copa’s during a five-year stint.
Needless to say—Javier Saviola’s understated switch from Barca to Real on a free transfer aside—Figo was the last player to have directly crossed the divide between the two clubs; looking at the carnage that switch conjured, it’d be a major, major surprise if we were ever witness to someone quite so high-profile doing so ever again.
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