The Figo Affair: The Transfer That Changed Football
In 2000, the unthinkable occurred: only a short time after insisting he would not do so, Luis Figo, one of the most beloved players of Barcelona, signed a deal to join arch-rivals Real Madrid. The aftermath was ugly as Nou Camp fans united in a moment of almost total hatred for their former idol. The post-mortem was ugly too, as the various people involved – the player, his agent, journalists and respective club leaders – have never been able to come up with a conclusive timeline of events. Why did Figo do it? And was it as big a betrayal as it seemed?
It’s apropos that we should have a look at this one now, a week removed from the end of 2022’s Summer transfer market. The amount of money spent continent-wide, but especially in England, was once again at record levels, as the worlds most popular sport tripped over itself in pursuit of that one player, or players, who can transform everything. In a sport awash with storylines, nothing quite captures the imagination like a beloved player choosing to go work for the arch-rivals of the club he once represented: Sol Campbell, Roberto Baggio and Carlos Tevez are just some of those whose entire careers revolve around such a change of jerseys. But none of them, in terms of notoriety, comes close to Luis Figo’s transfer from Barca to Real Madrid in 2000. Fans of the game who had never watched a minute of Spanish football heard that news and dropped their jaws.
Luis Figo was a very special player, and if The Figo Affair ha a flaw it’s that they don’t do enough to really get across how special a player he was. He was a brilliant attacking midfielder, an accomposiehd goalscorer, and an established leader of any team that he played for. Roberto Carlos, one of the interviewees, puts it best when he says “to play against Luis Figo was misery”. It is not to be wondered at that some of the richest and most powerful clubs in the world during the late 90s and early 00’s would have been interested in his services. But why Real Madrid, of all the clubs?
Those expecting an answer other than that which Figo gave at the time and since might be disappointed by The Figo Affair, but the investigation is fascinating nonetheless. It was a time before social media and “in the know” nonsense infecting every aspect of similar sagas today, but still the will he/won’t he aspect of the drama dominated the Spanish public consciousness at that time. Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn, they of 2021’s Pele (a lesser film, with The Figo Affair doing better at not becoming a veneration), craft a fairly complete portrait in terms of giving all of those involved at the time the chance to give their opinion, taking us on a helter skelter journey from club Presidential elections, to sensationalist tabloid interviews to the titular man himself, who sticks resolutely to the unsurprising line that he simply felt under-valued and under-appreciated by Barcelona, and the opposite when he got talking to Real.
The skulduggery is apparent elsewhere though, in the demented parlour games of agents (one admits to faking a phone call with his client in the presence of Real’s President, in order to jack up his own commission), the utilisation of press as a means of applying pressure and the unique situation in Real and Barca regards their leaderships, with Presidential candidates making signings of players they weren’t in a position to sign yet part of their election campaigns. The last part brings us to the towering figure of Florentino Perez, who gets his own separate introduction as a talking head, and as ever he appears cool, calm, collected and utterly unflappable in his recollection of how he was able to pull all of this off.
Strip everything right down to the bare bones, and The Figo Affair seems essentially to be a dispute about an employee. Said employee didn’t feel like he was paid enough by his employer, or given enough respect, and when the opportunity to go to a different company came along, one that could fulfil what he felt was his proper worth, he jumped. Put that way, there’s nothing remotely controversial about the transfer, and if describing a different industry you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But this was Barca and Real, the two greatest enemies in sport: one the representation of regional self-identity, the memory of Spanish democracy pre-1936 and survival under fascism, and the other the representation of Spanish centralism, of Franco and of success achieved under all of the most favourable conditions. That, and the obscene amount of money involved – Figo’s transfer fee was the record at the time, though it was broken, by Real again, in less than a year when they bought Zidane – makes one think that it was all an ethical wasteland anyway. If Figo felt undervalued, he still didn’t have to go to Real Madrid. Those expecting apologies are not going to get them, and indeed Figo maintains to this day that his favourite Spanish club is Real Madrid: the rabid hatred, Emmanuel Goldstein-like, that he got at the time when he came back to the Nou Camp, and to this day from a lot of quarters, is not hard to understand, but is still remarkable in its re-presentation here.
Another thing that is notable is the way that all of these different stakeholders attempt to present themselves. More than one deems themselves to be, Tenet-like, “the protagonist” of the story. This is an interesting idea I suppose, one that calls back to the notion that everyone likes to present themselves as the hero of their own narrative. Everyone presents has their own version of the truth, and their own accusations of others lying: the justifications are plentiful, as are the dismissals of criticism. The final picture is a blurred one, and it seems as if this is a story that we are never really going to get a satisfying answer for: Barca fans are never going to get the admissions of guilt and shame they want out of Figo for one thing, even if the miserable look on his face at his Real Madrid unveiling certainly paints a picture of what he was thinking at the time (footage of an early training session in Madrid, where onlookers urge Figo to “cheer up”, are certainly eye-raising).
It all worked out for Figo of course. The majority of The Figo Affair is dedicated to this recordation-style of story-telling regards the transfer, and I appreciated the scope of the project in that regard, very little is left undisturbed and undocumented. But there is also appropriate time given to the aftermath: the positively dangerous atmosphere at the first game where Figo returned to the Nou Camp; Figo’s years of success at Real, which from a narrative standpoint feels strangely unsatisfying; and everything else that came out of that period, not least the aggrandisement of Perez, who remains Real Madrid President to this day (his counterpart at the time, Barca’s Joan Gaspart, was not so lucky).
In a larger sense, the Figo transfer really altered the picture of what money could do in football. It was probably inevitable really, but the money paid for Figo, and the so-called “galacticos” era that the transfer ushered in for Real Madrid, was certainly something that helped to progress and encourage the modern-state of footballing transfers where billions spent every Summer has become normal, and where such transfers serve both an on-pitch purpose but also a promotional one: Manchester United didn’t get Ronaldo back into the club last year just because he is a great footballer, as just one example. More than that, it was a moment where the ties between football and a greater pursuit of profit and success through the spending of outrageous sums became so apparent as to be an intrinsic part of the professional game: one can easily trace a line from the Figo affair all the way to the European Super League, and not just because Perez was instrumental in both situations. Perez himself helps to close off the documentary by stating that one’s career is “all about the money you make”: such a mercenary attitude is repulsive, but for many people involved in football brutally honest. The Figo Affair gives us a great view of the starting point, and is highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).