21st Century Greats: Luis Figo

In 1999, Pele and Diego Maradona were voted the best players of the 20th Century in a FIFA poll.

While few would argue with the selection, the vastly different conditions which players have been subjected to over the years means comparisons between eras are not always so straightfoward.

With that in mind, we have decided instead to look exclusively at the players who have graced a century that is now almost 15 years old.

This is the first of a series by David Gorman and Gregory McNally which pays tribute to the best players of our generation.

The Season Ticket Team

luis-figo-real-madrid

A severed pig’s head lying on the side of the pitch at the Camp Nou – that is likely to be the prevailing image of Luis Figo’s career.

The Portuguese winger’s world record transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 and the venomous bile which greeted him upon his return to the Catalonian capital is one of the most famed episodes in modern football.

However, the sad thing is that this story is today only dug up to emphasise the vigorous antipathy between Spain’s two giants.

We often neglect the real reason for the anger his departure stirred up in Barca fans: Luis Figo was an amazing footballer.

This wasn’t Boudewijn Zenden or Winston Bogarde whom their archrivals had stolen from them. This was their best player, their captain and the heartbeat of the team…and it hurt.

Presidential elections at Spanish football clubs essentially are contested and won upon the principal of which candidate is able to bribe the fans.

Despite winning the Champions League twice in three years under the stewardship of Lorenzo Sanz, local businessman Florentino Perez was able to trump his rival and assume the Real Madrid presidency with the promise to sign the star player of Los Blancos’ great rivals.

Figo’s arrival was to mark the beginning of the Galacticos policy at Madrid as each summer a new world superstar was to arrive at the Bernabeau in the hope of creating a football and commercial juggernaut.

Initially, it seemed to work.

In his first three seasons at the club, Figo impressed as Madrid clinched the league title twice as well the ninth Champion’s League title in the club’s history. The Ballon D’or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards also found their way onto the Portuguese’s mantelpiece during this period.

However, the Galacticos’ success did not endure. As the side became more and more bloated with big names, the cohesive and dynamic side with which it had found early success collapsed under the weight of its egos and general imbalance.

By the time Figo’s contract expired in 2005, it was simply an opulent mess only useful for selling replica shirts in Southeast Asia.

This cannot be blamed on Figo though. Like his team-mate Zinedine Zidane, he performed to the best of his ability and is still warmly remembered in Madrid. He also stood out as the crown jewel of his national sides’ “Golden Generation” during that period.

From 2000 until 2006, Portugal enjoyed their most consistent success since the Eusebio era, despite failing to capture a major title.

Boasting hypnotic dribbling skills and a wonderful range of passes & shots, Figo was able to overcome a relative lack of pace.

But more than this, it was his demeanor on the pitch which was his real value. A born leader, Figo was always able to take control of the ball and walk others through a game.

During his twilight run at Inter Milan, the veteran Figo was a shining influence upon his team-mates and had a crucial role in setting up that side’s Serie A dominance in the latter half of the 2000’s.

This is how we should ultimately remember Luis Figo, as a truly great footballer rather than a footnote in Spanish football’s intertribal bickering.

By Gregory McNally

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