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Nov 25, 2010

Figo's great betrayal

On Monday, Camp Nou plays host to one of the most passionate and evocative fixtures in world football as Real Madrid visit Barcelona for el clasico. As a former employee and current provocateur of Barca, Jose Mourinho is expected to receive a hostile welcome, but it will be nothing compared to the one reserved for Luis Figo in 2002. Once a darling of Catalunya, the midfielder became Judas incarnate when joining Real in deeply divisive circumstances in 2000, and his return to Barca provoked fierce protests and one infamous missile.

Few saw the butchered lump of flesh as it flew from the stands of Camp Nou, hurtled towards the turf and before landing just metres away from where a hero turned traitor was preparing to take a corner. But when the lonely pig's head, stranded among a sea of bottles and rubbish, was spotted by the world's media, it quickly became the most prominent statement involving animal decapitation since the unfortunate Jack Woltz discovered a severed horse's head staining his satin sheets red in The Godfather.

It was a startling protest, and one that drew its inspiration from one of sport's great betrayals - a rancorous transfer the likes of which have rarely been seen in football. Figo's decision to swap Barcelona for Madrid in the summer of 2000 dented the pride of a region and plunged Barca supporters into a state of despair. He was the darling of Camp Nou, even considering the claims of Rivaldo, with his masterful performances across five years in the Barca midfield seeing him become a seemingly unassailable symbol of the famously partisan club. But then came Florentino Perez - at the time just a presidential candidate at Real - who destroyed all that with his golden tongue and a lucrative contract tucked under his arm.

For Barcelona fans, an epic betrayal of cinematic proportions was complete when Real Madrid made Figo an offer he couldn't refuse.

Despite warnings to the contrary from Perez, few really saw the transfer as a likely scenario before Real produced the world record 10 billion peseta (£37.5 million) necessary to activate the player's buyout clause. The completion of the deal was a brazen display of power, orchestrated by Real's incoming president. Eyebrows had been arched during Perez's campaign when the candidate claimed to have signed a pre-contract agreement with Figo's agent - a claim denied by both the player and the incumbent Real president, Lorenzo Sanz, who had overseen Champions League victories in 1998 and 2000. Though Sanz was sceptical, Madridistas were seduced - perhaps by Perez's pledge to refund all 70,000 season-ticket holders if Figo did not arrive - and the charismatic challenger won the election.

After 172 La Liga games for Barcelona, 30 goals, two league titles, two Copa del Reys and a Cup Winners' Cup triumph, the stylish, elegant midfielder and recent star of Euro 2000 provoked fury in Catalunya when honouring his agreement with Perez and invoking his buyout clause to join Madrid. New Barcelona president Joan Gaspart, who had pledged to keep Figo in his election manifesto, described the deal as "immoral", adding: "I'll not forget this. Whoever is responsible for this will pay for it. We'll see how and when. Figo gave me the impression this morning that he wanted to do two things - make more money and stay with Barcelona. He thinks money can do everything in this life."

This accusation of greed would resonate strongly with Barca's supporters, who were left aghast by Figo's betrayal. Just days before the shock announcement of his move, Figo posed in a Barca shirt in Sport and dismissed any speculation about his future. However, it was reported that in an attempt to seek leverage for a new deal at Barca, Figo's agent had agreed to a pre-contract with Perez that included a penalty clause dictating the player would have to pay a fine of 5 billion pesetas (£18.75 million) if he backtracked on the deal. With Perez unexpectedly sweeping to power, Figo had to fulfil his obligations.

Thus his defection was complete, and another divisive chapter was added to a very intense regional, cultural and political rivalry between Real and Barcelona. The transfer also ushered in a transformative era in European football that would reshape the landscape - the era of the galacticos. Figo was the first, and most audacious, signing, the coup that took Perez to power and set in motion a chain of events that would see Real invest vast sums of money in Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham in successive summers.

Though the great Zidane was the most expensive - and it was the Frenchman's name that came to embody the philosophy in the ill-fated phrase Zidanes y Pavones - it was the acquisition of Figo that best represented the brash materialism that had enveloped the club with Perez's arrival. Figo's act of treachery was quickly compared with the saga that saw Barca miss out on Alfredo Di Stefano, only for the striker to join Real in 1953. One thing was clear - Figo was now Pubic Enemy No. 1 in Catalunya.

His first chance to return to his former club came in October of 2000 in a Primera Division fixture at Camp Nou, and the judgement delivered by the 105,000 in attendance was emphatic. According to those present, Figo attracted the worst reception of modern times at Camp Nou, eclipsing that reserved for Michael Laudrup, who crossed the divide in 1994. As well as an visceral audible protest, Barca supporters made their feelings perfectly clear with a series of pointed banners - the most pertinent simply reading: "We hate you because we loved you so." A perfect expression of heartbreak and betrayal.

Two years later, and with Real reigning European champions following Zidane's goal against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow, the hatred had only intensified. The build-up to a league meeting between the sides on November 24 was coloured by debates over whether Figo would be detailed to take corners - a responsibility that he had been spared in 2000. It may seem like a trivial debate, but Real's decision to place him on set-piece duty - after Marca's front page demanded "Take Them, Luis" - would invite accusations of provocation and spark a shameful response from the massed ranks of home supporters. It would also result in the head of an animal being cast onto the turf.

In the second half, Figo strolled over to take a corner at the end of the ground populated by Barca ultras and was pelted by various missiles, including golf balls, lighters, plastic bottles and a glass whisky bottle. As Figo attempted to clear the pitch and held up objects for the match referee to see, more missiles rained down and it took the Portugal star two minutes to execute the corner. In a cruel twist of fate, his in-swinging delivery was tipped over the bar by Barcelona goalkeeper Roberto Bonano. Figo was forced to trudge across Camp Nou to the opposite side of the pitch to take another corner, this time from the right, and another showed awaited him.

As Carles Puyol tossed detritus off the pitch and appealed for calm, referee Luis Medina Cantalejo was forced to suspend play for 12 minutes and riot police shielded Real's players from further attack as they sat in the dugout. The final result - 0-0 - was fairly incidental as one aspect dominated the post-match coverage. Marca described it as "the derby of shame", while El Periodico de Catalunya shunned understatement by insisting "every corner [was] a Vietnam". In the aftermath of such scandalous scenes, a volley of accusations as dense as the wave of debris pouring down from the stands submerged the key protagonists, and dominating the debate was a shot of a pig's head, turned upwards towards the sky, a pitiful look upon its face.

Barcelona officials accused the pro-Madrid press of planting the offending item - "we don't even eat cochinillo (suckling pig) in Barcelona," director Jose Maria Minguella said - while it was clear who was held responsible for the controversy by the Catalan club.

"Figo provoked the fans," Barca coach Louis van Gaal said. "He walked over to the corner really slowly, picked up the bottle slowly, went back to the corner ... and all this consciously and deliberately, without the referee doing anything to stop it." For president Gaspart, "Figo's provocation was out of place and totally unnecessary. I won't accept people coming to my house to provoke."

Even a man as mild-mannered and respectful as Xavi felt his former team-mate "could have helped more", with those in Catalan colours convinced that by fulfilling his professional duty and taking set-pieces, the hated Figo had raised a red rag to a particularly enraged bull.

Barca's Great Judas was unapologetic. "I don't know if Gaspart is taking the piss," Figo said. In response to Van Gaal's comments, he added he was "plain surprised - after all, he never said anything when he was my manager for two years. And I've saved his arse more than once."

But Figo's days of being Barcelona's hero were a distant memory - a simple, evocative pig's head, discarded to the floor, was enough to demonstrate his new status in the eyes of his former devotees.

What happened next? Barcelona sought a legal injunction against a stadium ban imposed by the Spanish Football Federation and, in 2005, were finally fined €4,000 for the unsavoury incidents. In the same summer, Figo left Real to join Inter having won two league titles and the Champions League during his time in the Spanish capital. He remains a figure of hate at Barca and, when returning as an Inter official for a Champions League semi-final in April 2010, he was subjected to further abuse.

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