Luís Figo’s arrival in July 2000 not only heralded the beginning of Real Madrid’s Galáctico era, but it also saw the Portuguese star cross the divide – after joining the club from La Liga rivals Barcelona.
Figo had a €62m buy-out clause in his contract at the Nou Camp, which was met by new club president Florentino Pérez. Pérez had made a promise to bring in Figo as part of his election campaign and the move saw the 2000 Ballon d’Or winner become the world’s most expensive player – a record he held until Kaká arrived at the Santiago Bernabeu nine years later.
Figo quickly became the new focus of the rivalry between Real and Barca, with Barcelona fans feeling a sense of betrayal that led to them turning against him. That bile all built up to Figo’s return to his old club for his first El Clasico for Los Blancos on October 21.
Figo was mercilessly taunted throughout, with “Traitor”, “Judas”, “Scum”, and “Mercenary” banners hung around the stadium and Figo being greeted with insults and missiles flying his way every time he touched the ball. Barca won the game 2-0, with Pérez stating after the game that “The atmosphere got to us all.”
The Portuguese star put the personal disappointment he felt that night firmly behind him though – as he went on to score 14 goals in all competitions in his first season. Figo also had the last laugh over Barcelona by celebrating a La Liga triumph in his debut year at the Bernabeu, with his form also leading to him receiving the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year.
The arrival of Zinedine Zidane in summer 2001 would see Figo link up well with the newest Galáctico at Madrid. So much so, in fact, that the pair inspired Real to claim the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League – Figo’s second major European trophy.
When Figo returned to the Nou Camp again in November 2002, it would create one of the defining images of the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry.
The animosity and hatred that he was met with on his first visit showed no sign of subsiding – as beer cans, lighters, bottles and golf balls flew towards him every time he came within range of the Barcelona fans. Discussing the Barca fans’s behaviour that night, Figo commented: “I was worried that some madman might lose his head.”
Figo’s words were certainly apt, given the events that conspired in the second half.
Having decided to take corners as usual during the game, Figo walked across, slowed to pick up the missiles and – as he prepared to take the corner – he moved away some of the debris, while giving an ironic thumbs-up and smiling.
The missile throwing got so extreme that referee Luis Medina Cantalejo suspended the game for almost 20 minutes. One item picked up by TV cameras in amongst the debris by the corner flag was a pig’s head, which became the defining image of the rivalry.
Figo picked up one more trophy in his five-year spell in the Spanish capital – as part of the La Liga-winning side in 2003, before he left to join Serie A side Inter Milan on a free transfer in 2005.
Looking back at his first return to his old club, Figo’s Madrid teammate Iván Campo remarked: “I’ve never heard anything like it. Luís didn’t deserve that.
“He’d given his all for Barcelona. It was built up before: ‘a traitor’s coming,’ the media said. No, Luís Figo is coming, one of the greats for you.
“That night hurt him, you could see. His head was bowed and he was thinking: ‘bloody hell, I was here last season’…but my lasting emotion was admiration. You’ve got balls.”
That admiration was felt the world over for Figo and the dignity he showed when faced with the hostility of his former club and throughout the rest of his time at the club, to the point that – in April 2013 – Figo was named by Spanish newspaper Marca as a member of the “Best foreign eleven in Real Madrid’s history” alongside fellow midfield maestro Zidane.