Sport

Spivs and charlatans: the murky tale of Luis Figo’s transfer to Real Madrid

Research conducted by Edward Geiselman, a former Professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, corroborated the theory that somebody who is lying will often break eye contact and glance away at a crucial moment during interrogation. Although it’s easy to read far too much into somebody’s tics or mannerisms, it is quite telling that in the recently released Netflix documentary The Figo Affair, on two separate occasions when the eponymous subject is asked directly about his seismic transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid, he gives one-line replies during which his normally inscrutable stare is broken by a noticeable glance off camera.

The two answers came 22 years apart. “Look I have a contract and I expect to fulfil it,” he told one inquisitor in July 2000, before his extremely contentious departure from Barcelona, his eyes flicking sideways towards the end of the sentence. Over two decades on, as a more than willing participant in the documentary that chronicles a deal that heralded the beginning of Real Madrid’s galáctico era, Figo is asked directly if he’d meant it when he’d insisted he would not be leaving Barcelona just a few days before his departure. “Yes at the time I thought so,” he says, glancing away to his left, with the hint of a smile playing on his lips.

Of course the Portuguese international may well have been hurling truth bombs on both occasions, as The Figo Affair makes it abundantly clear that he seemed a reluctant participant in the scarcely believable transaction that made him a pariah at Barcelona. At his unveiling as a Real Madrid player, Figo could hardly have looked more miserable as he was presented with his shirt by club legend Alfredo di Stéfano, looking not so much like the world’s most expensive footballer as a hostage posing for photos his kidnappers needed to use as proof of life. “I wasn’t in the frame of mind to express my happiness,” he tells the film crew. “I was there but I wasn’t there.”

Seeking to be elected president of Real Madrid ahead of the incumbent Lorenzo Sanz, who had just delivered two Champions League titles in three years after a long drought, Florentino Pérez promised Real Madrid fans he would pay the €60m release clause on Luis Figo’s contract to bring the player from Barcelona upon election, or else pay for the renewal of their season tickets in the event of failing to land his man. This, it should be noted, was back in 2000 when that kind of money would buy you a lot more than a half-decent Premier League full-back.

With Figo feeling undervalued at Barça, where he was the undisputed team talisman, his agent José Vega was approached by the former Portuguese player turned intermediary Paolo Futre, who was working on behalf of Pérez. He rejected the overtures. Despite this, Futre told Pérez a deal was possible but Futre wanted €10m commission. “And that was the day the Luis Figo saga began,” he explains. “It’s incredible it began with a lie.”

Or is it? The makers of The Figo Affair have assembled all the major players in that particular saga to explain their recollections of a tumultuous few weeks in the 2000 Spanish off-season and it quickly becomes apparent that many of those recollections are sketchy at best and dishonest at worst. Figo, Futre, Pérez and Vega all present their own often contradictory accounts of the move, along with Joan Gaspart, whose unenviable first task as that summer’s newly elected Barcelona president was to inform the club’s incandescent fans that their best player had just been stolen by their fiercest rivals, Real Madrid.

With or without his client’s consent, Vega had signed a contract with Pérez that meant if the player didn’t go to the Spanish capital somebody – most likely Figo’s terrified agent – would be on the hook to the Real president for £19m. Figo claims he knew nothing about this, while Vega insists he did it with his client’s consent. While Barcelona could have paid the penalty clause and kept hold of their Figo, paying that much for a player they already owned would have reduced them to the status of international laughing stock, not least because it was this money with which Pérez planned to renew the season tickets of Real’s fans if the transfer fell through.

“The main reason I left was because they valued me and genuinely wanted me,” reveals Figo. “In the end I thought about myself. Was it selfish? Maybe. Did I earn more money? Yes but if I’d stayed I’d have earned the same.” Not only that, he would also have avoided the trauma of being roundly abused and labelled a traitor among other more unsavoury epithets by 120,000 banknote-waving Barcelona supporters, many of whom rained bottles, coins, cigarette lighters and a knife down upon him on what his traumatic return to Camp Nou three months later. It would be another two years before the infamous pig’s head was hurled his way as he went to take a corner.

“Things went too far, a line was crossed” says Pep Guardiola, who is among a supporting cast of former teammates in The Figo Affair. “I must be one of the very few sportsmen to have had to perform with 120,000 people against me – and focused on me, not the team,” Figo would later tell the Guardian’s Sid Lowe as he recalled Real’s 2-0 defeat.

The Figo Affair is the entertaining story of a high-profile transfer reeking of subterfuge, clouded in almost relentless uncertainty and conducted by the kind of duplicitous chancers, spivs, and charlatans that have since come to epitomise such horse-trading. Despite having the benefit of 22 years’ hindsight on an ultimately successful career decision into which he was rather railroaded, the subject of the documentary seems to remain a little torn over his move even now. “I try not to have regrets because I don’t think they’re of any use to anyone,” he says of unspecified mistakes he has made in life moments before the closing credits, his dark eyes staring unflinchingly down the barrel of the camera.

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