‘I was a guinea pig,” says football’s first galáctico, the hint of a smile creeping across his face. At his peak Luis Figo was the world’s best player, its most expensive too. Across 20 years, he played more than 900 games, earned 127 caps, scored more than 150 goals and won eight league titles, a European Cup and the Ballon d’Or. He also took his country to their first final, carrying Portugal into a new era. In fact, he carried the entire game into a new era.
There’s a case that the super-club age, modern football, starts with Figo: a pioneer, a guinea pig. Cobaya is his word and his was the transfer that changed everything, his 10bn peseta (€60m) move from Barcelona to Madrid in 2000 like something from a thriller, constantly shifting, so astonishing, so dramatic and just so big that it sometimes seems to eclipse everything else. “I’d like more value given to my whole career than one episode that marks an age and altered the market, the philosophy of football,” he says, yet there is a certain pride too, a reason he has at last decided to tell his story in a Netflix documentary about the move. “It was and is history.”
After all, if it was so big, it is also because he was. So here he is, sitting at a terrace in north-eastern Madrid, the city he hadn’t intended to become his home, talking about the transfer and a lifetime in the game before Madrid host Barcelona in Sunday’s clásico. About the rise and fall of the most ambitious project in football. Why his nation’s most painful night was perhaps his best. And how close he came to joining Liverpool. Even his bid for the Fifa presidency. “That was an ‘experience’,” Figo says, grinning. “You could write a book about that.”
He could write lots of them, packed with intrigue as well as inspiration. The doubt would be where to start. Ask for his best moments and there’s a pfff and a pause. “Happily, there are so many; you can’t choose,” he says. And the worst? Losing the final of Euro 2004, perhaps? “No,” he replies swiftly. “We experienced something unimaginable, unrepeatable. I’ve never felt such consensus, support, happiness and joy around a national team.
“When I started with Portugal, we played not to lose. We went from that to turning up at tournaments as favourites, so although we didn’t win titles, we won notoriety, respect, status, helped following generations. Maybe football took something from us then but gave it back years later. Everyone expected us to be champions and then in 2016, against France in France, you win it without your best player. You see?”
Sort of. By then Figo had gone, but that idea of progression, legacy, is a recurring theme, reflected in his choice of key moments being “doorways”: “Portugal winning the Under-20 World Cup in 1991, which allowed us to enter a professional world. The first time I left home, for Barcelona. The transfer to Madrid. Going to Inter. Every change there’s uncertainty but you always think it’s for the best.”
Uncertainty is one word, if sometimes inadequate. And, for the best? When Figo joined Madrid, he wasn’t so sure. It is 22 years since he stood at the Santiago Bernabéu holding a No 10 shirt and wearing the look of a condemned man, two decades since he had a pig’s head thrown at him. The transfer was seismic, the fallout extraordinary, the success of the documentary – The Figo Affair – testament to its impact, the enduring fascination. It was also one Figo hadn’t sought. “The person who decides if I’m going or not is me,” he says, but he admits that was a decision conditioned by circumstances not of his making. Not welcomed, either.
In the documentary, Figo emerges almost as a victim of an elaborate heist carried out by the Madrid presidential candidate Florentino Pérez, his agent José Veiga and Paulo Futre, who was brokering the transfer. His destiny not in his hands, he is faced by a legally binding deal the increasingly terrified Veiga had signed which included a €30m penalty clause if broken. “Only I could save them, by going to Madrid,” he says, a certain honour in his refusal to relinquish responsibility and blame others. At times, he says, he has paid for not knowing how to say no. Why not tell Veiga to get lost? It was after all his mess, not yours.
“Yeah, I know,” Figo says. “But it was the only way to fix it. I was very calm about my own position although at the same time I had a [duty of] care for those working with me. But the decision, I take. I’m the one responsible for it, for my actions. The decision to pull them from that responsibility is mine alone. And a year later I stop working with my agent. Because of some situations that emerged. I said: ‘OK, I’ll take responsibility again. From now on, you have your life, I have mine.’”
Figo’s life changed. Much was made of what he gained, especially financially – and he talks about the “unhappy” need to be selfish in a world where “if you don’t have a status you’re a bargaining chip, where if you don’t perform, it’s finished” – but while he doesn’t linger, there was much lost. A home. A future. “Friends that I no longer …”
He stops. “Maybe it was good because I thought they were friends and they weren’t. You realise. When it happened, they no longer want to appear with you because of how it looks [in Barcelona].” There’s a sigh. “It’s complicated, but I understand. Well, I don’t understand but I don’t care. In the end, I have a very strong concept of friendship, so it surprises you; you suffer because you have a relationship with people you think are genuine and it doesn’t turn out that way.
“I had everything in Barcelona, but you think: ‘It’s not like I’m going to a second-rate club.’ If it hadn’t been Madrid, maybe I wouldn’t have gone. It’s a challenge, a decision based on feeling valued, convincing me I was going to be an extremely important piece. It could have been a cagada, a cock-up, but it wasn’t, thank God.
“These days, there’s more protection. It felt like I was doing a press conference every day. That takes its toll. We were starting to tour, a new idea, there was the rivalry, the pressure, the price.” The hatred too. “Not everyone likes God, how is everyone going to like me?” he says, but the footage of his return to the Camp Nou is still shocking. “My only concern was if something happened physically, some madman. But go and play football? Nah! In football there’s no reason to be scared.”
There’s that toughness: at times Figo can appear impenetrable. “That’s my personality. I coped with pressure; it kept me alert. I’ve always had that competitiveness, that ‘blood’: you want to win, win, win.” By the end of the year Madrid were champions, Figo the league’s outstanding player. Soon he was joined by Zinedine Zidane, then Ronaldo, then David Beckham. Football was entering a new dimension and he had started it. Did he feel special, responsible?
“For Pérez winning the elections,” he says. “Maybe I was the pioneer of a new project, but not the club. There was an expectation. I knew the president’s ideas. At that stage we talked a lot. I was his promise, his ‘insignia’. I didn’t always know who was coming but I knew the plan.”
The man having to make sense of it all was Vicente Del Bosque, who Figo calls “one of the best people and coaches I’ve encountered. Managing 25 egos is the hardest thing in the world. It’s not about imposing, all ‘argh, argh’, like a child, he understood. There were egos, there are always egos, but there were great professionals who wanted to compete, win, who respected each other’s space. If everyone’s like, ‘No, I’m the world’s best, you run’, it’s chaos. We had a good atmosphere.”
Something though was shifting, an entire culture, Madrid in uncharted territory. Del Bosque was sacked and success deserted them. “In my opinion, a new world began around football: image, marketing, publicity, blah, blah, blah,” Figo says. “Maybe the professional part, the football, was sometimes overlooked for other elements that were growing. Because we were pioneers, maybe decisions were taken out of sync with the football.”
Age 32, slipping from the team, Liverpool came. “I would have liked to go,” Figo admits. “We talked a lot. One week they say, ‘No, wait, we can’t do it just now’ and then they sign a player. Then, ‘Wait a few more days, we need to sort this first’ and they sign another. I think: ‘Bloody hell, are you messing with me, or what?’ Inter appear, I go to Milan, meet [the club president Massimo] Moratti and take the decision. I loved Inter, it was exactly what I needed.”
Four consecutive titles later, time was up. Why did coaching not call? Because of those egos? Figo cracks up. “Yes. because I know players too well! I would like to try it, you know. I don’t know if I would have the ability. My challenge would be putting my footballing ideas into practice, communicating, reaching people. I don’t have the badge. The course is like studying medicine: six years. Come on, madness.
“And I’ve always been drawn more to the executive side, fascinated by producing, being an entrepreneur. I don’t sit still. I like people with playing experience being in the game – but only if they have the ability. I’m totally against ‘names’.”
Which helps explain Figo running for Fifa president in 2015. “It’s a long story,” he grins. “Uefa proposed becoming a candidate. I could see [Fifa] was full of corruption, a mafia. In the European confederation, we felt we needed to move, even if there wasn’t really a chance – to at least make a stand, take a position.
“They threw me into the fire a bit because there were already two candidates. One from the Uefa executive committee, [Michael] van Praag. The other was Prince Ali [bin Hussein], who was the first to stand and had [the Uefa president Michel] Platini’s support. Uefa suggested a third: me. ‘OK.’ I was like their excuse not to choose between them, although their hands were tied. I built my candidacy, saw how things work, learned what it’s like inside – you could do a documentary – and a week before the elections they call from Zurich, inviting me to a meeting to see which candidate would continue [with Uefa backing].
“Everyone met. ‘Right, who thinks they should continue?’ And of course ‘me,’ ‘me’, ‘me’. We didn’t reach any agreement. After, my federation calls. They, and Uefa, want me to step aside. In theory, they were my backers.”
Figo scoffs. “I say: ‘I’m not going.’ I. Won’t. Step. Back. I don’t care if I have one, two, three, four, five, or zero votes. But without the support of those who had asked me to stand in the first place, I dropped out. And thank God – maybe it’s destiny – because the following week, the FBI raids the Fifa congress, puts I don’t know how many in jail, they cancel the elections. A scandal. And I think: ‘Pff, good job.’”
So now what? Could he have another go? “I want to keep working with Uefa but maybe more actively, with greater responsibility. If I have the right support, real support, and see I can help, do something worthwhile, I think I have the capacity to do good for football. If it’s interesting and I can be useful, I won’t say no. But I don’t know; I don’t make plans. I’ve never programmed my life. It’s destiny. Things happen, and then you decide.”