Luis Figo: Barcelona’s Wing Wizard Who Turned From Hero to Villain

Nov 17, 2020, 10:30 AM GMT
Barcelona's wing wizard Luis Figo
Barcelona's wing wizard Luis Figo

It took five long years to build and just one brief transfer saga to destroy.

Luis Figo’s magical spell at Camp Nou could be wiped from the record for all anyone connected with Barcelona would care.

Luis Figo celebrates with the Barcelona crowd | PHILIPPE DESMAZES/Getty Images

When the Portuguese magician decided to swap Barcelona for Real Madrid in the summer of 2000 he extinguished any love, admiration or respect the Blaugrana faithful held for him, so much so that the club requested he didn’t represent them in a legends match against Juventus in the buildup to the 2015 Champions League final.

While Figo wasn’t the first player to move from Catalonia to the Spanish capital, the venom and hatred he was subjected to from his once adoring fans was like nothing any former Barça player had ever been forced to endure.

So why was it that he was exposed to such anger? He wasn’t a Barcelona fan, he wasn’t tied down to a deal which would have meant he saw out his entire career at the club, so why the hatred towards him?

It’s quite simple - Figo mattered more to them.

Luis Figo, Celestine Babayaro
Luis Figo in the iconic red and blue of Barcelona | Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

He had been taken in as one of their own, an adopted son of Catalonia who was idolised both on and off the pitch and who meant so much to them. To see him in the colours of Real was a betrayal that can never be forgiven.

The Portugal international was revered in Barcelona. Having been bought by Johan Cruyff following collapsed moves to Juventus and Parma, Figo was allowed time to settle in his new surroundings. However, any hopes he had of skirting under the radar for another season were shattered following his Euro 96 performances as part of Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’.

Under Bobby Robson the following season there would be no hiding, as a Barcelona side powered by the wizardry and creativity of Figo notched the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Copa del Rey.

Despite the impressive trophy haul, the league title would elude them for the third consecutive year, with manager Robson ultimately paying the price after just one season in charge and Louis van Gaal named as his successor.

Luis Figo, Luis Garcia, David Beckham
Figo on his return to Barcelona | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The football under the Dutchman was far from what Figo had become accustomed to at Camp Nou, with Cruyff and Robson’s fluid, attacking style of play replaced with a much more pragmatic approach.

However, while the system had a clear impact the on the midfielder’s output - notching just a single league assist for the season - he would continue to work for the good of the team and was rewarded with the maiden league title of his career.

The adaptation in the midfielder’s game was not lost of Van Gaal, with the veteran tactician replying 'Figo' when asked during an interview with the Guardian back in 2019 which player he most enjoyed managing during his career, before adding: “He’s a winner. He was always there in training, on the pitch, in a game.

"These kinds of players I like the most because they are very open for you but also winners, and on the pitch they speak.”

Despite retaining their league title in 1998/99 - with Figo instrumental as he recorded seven league goals and 17 assists - a barren campaign the following year would see Van Gaal pay the ultimate price as he was relieved of his duties.

Luis Figo of Barcelona...
A young Luis Figo at Barcelona | Ben Radford/Getty Images

Upheaval had become second nature by this point at Camp Nou, and the Barcelona faithful would yet again turn to their genius midfielder to steer them through the period of uncertainty. However, little did they know, he too was heading for pastures new.

“I thought that Barcelona were not treating me properly by not paying me according to my importance at the club," Figo told FourFourTwo when asked of his departure from the club. "The chance of joining Real Madrid came up but the directors of Barcelona assumed I was bluffing them.

“In the end, when I already had a deal with Real Madrid, it’s true they agreed to give me what I was asking for and there was a chance for me to stay. But it was too late and I ended up going to Real Madrid to avoid problems for my agent, who had a commitment with them.”

And that was that. Figo would become the catalyst for Real Madrid's Galacticos, winning everything there was to be won at the Santiago Bernabeu while Barça endured yet another trophy-less spell.

Figo's time at Camp Nou may have been erased from the memories of Barcelona fans, but that's not to say it should be forgotten by the rest of us. A truly magical time in the career of one of the greatest players to ever grace La Liga's stage.