As one of his Barcelona teammates simply put it: “Give the ball to Luis Figo. He never ever hid.”
That was the talent the Portuguese matador was born with. Defenders had a nightmare. Snatching the ball away from him was such an arduous task, as he would easily glaze past them, seemingly at will. Having led Portugal’s Golden Generation to the Fifa World Youth Championships in 1991, the mid-nineties saw the emergence of an exciting talent on the international stage.
He looked set for a move to the Serie A, a league which was a dominant force in European football back then. Italy had everything – the biggest teams, fans, history, and the biggest names. But with rivals Juventus and Parma battling for his signature, he made a mess of the opportunity by signing a pre-contract agreement with both clubs; resulting in a two-year Italian ban for him. You wonder what happened next.
It was Barcelona who cashed in with a £2.25 million deal with the Sporting CP midfielder and that was where Figo‘s career really took off. Managed by Johan Cruyff, it didn’t take him much time to settle. The Dutchman’s departure was followed by the recruitment of Bobby Robson but that one year had enough impact to shape him into one of the best players.
“Cruyff was one of the legendary football players and coaches in the world. One of the reasons I decided to go to Barcelona was because of the opportunity to work with him. Unfortunately, I just worked with him for one season but it helped me for the rest of my career. After 20 years, I can still say that he is with many of us, in terms of philosophy and training methods. It’s a pity that he is not there with us anymore. I always have great memories of my times with him,” he revealed during a Uefa Champions League event in Mumbai on Friday.
The same year, Ronaldo headed to the Nou Camp and Figo kept feeding him the goals. Although the Brazilian would leave a year later when Inter came calling, the goals never dried up. With Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo leading the line this time, Figo would flourish as the chief orchestrator in the La Liga.
The love and the adulation Figo received from the Cules was unparalleled. But in the summer of 2000, he turned his back on them by controversially signing for Real Madrid. Emerging as the most expensive footballer back then, at the peak of his abilities, he would become an essential cog in a star-studded Galactico team.
“It is always difficult to put together so many superstars in a team. For us, we enjoyed those moments, those years. But we also spent those moments when you don’t win, you are not happy. It was a mixed feeling because as football players, you can’t be happy when you are not winning. So when you are winning, it is fantastic. Being together was a moment in football. We respect each other and the position each one of us had in the team. Because of that, we still have a good relationship. Those are some moments we can remember for all our lives,” the Ballon d’Or winner said.
Times have changed for Real. After dominating the European stage with an unprecedented three back-to-back Champions League titles, the wheels have fallen off now with Santiago Solari at the helm. Just in a span of a week, they have crashed out of the Championship League and Copa del Rey, with their hopes for the La Liga title up in smoke.
But Figo believes this is not the time to slam the team pointing out the combination of factors that led to his former club’s downfall.
“I think it’s not the moment to criticise because it was really a tough week for Real Madrid because they lost everything in one week. About Zidane, it was a personal decision he took last summer. They [Real] did not have much time to settle because they had little time to find the new coach after Zidane left. And this season unlike earlier did not start so well, then they changed coach, the players, they had the World Cup, different players joined the pre-season at different times. It is not always a good thing, they didn’t rest enough and so the results were not good.”
What it takes to win the Champions League
Having lifted the coveted trophy in 2002 with the Los Blancos, along with multiple other honours, Figo says it the big moments that define the competition. Asked what’s missing with teams like Manchester City and Paris Saint-German on the European stage despite absolute domination in their respective leagues, Figo says: “Money doesn’t assure you that you will win a competition. Of course, it makes you stronger when you compete against others that don’t have the financial strength but doesn’t make you win anything. I think they are doing well domestically but sometimes the history of the competition and the club helps.
“In the last four editions, Real Madrid won the Champions League. Sometimes it’s those key moments that make a difference and helps you go further. When you have history, it helps you in a positive way. Real Madrid came big in those key moments during the previous editions. Because of course, they have quality, history and experience,” he concluded.