Loyalty. In sports it is an interesting concept. Teams, while local institutions and sources of immense civic pride, are little more than corporate employers. Beyond the services for which they are compensated, and a certain modicum of professionalism, those that represent them on fields of play owe them nothing. Similarly, the players, employees- extremely well-compensated and widely adored, but employees none the less- are entitled to little beyond the salary and perks explicitly guaranteed by their contracts.
Sounds good in theory, doesn’t it?
Enter the fans. Very often, a team’s supporters possess a greater sense of ownership and entitlement than either of the aforementioned, physically and financially interested sides. We demand the expenditure of millions by management in the name of remaining competitive, while expecting our incoming heroes to take up arms in rivalries that they know little of and often predate their (and ours as well) birth. It’s absolutely crazy. And yet, thanks to management, in pursuit of our discretionary dollars, and players, vying for our adulation, we often get (the appearance of, at least) exactly what we want.
On occasion, however, the relationship between player and fans extends beyond the mere alignment of interests, and achieves a special level of genuineness. It consists of more than swapping cheers for on-field triumphs. It is Johan Cruyff naming his son Jordi (Patron Saint of Catalunya) during the days of Franco. It is Hristo Stoichkov:
"I will always hate Real Madrid. I would rather the ground opened up and took me under than accept a job with them. In fact, I really do not like speaking about them because when I do it makes me want to vomit."
So powerful is the impact of such love affairs between player and cause, so treasured is that relationship, that we, fans, come to expect such commitment from every star that dons our team’s colors. When the perception of such a bond is shattered by the cold reality of the business world, anger and betrayal quickly ascend to the top of the emotional totem pole.
We’ve seen it in other sports. In the summer of 2010, LeBron James ended his relationship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, announcing that he’d be "taking his talents to South Beach," and joining the Miami Heat. He might have dodged some vitriol had he simply rendered a decision rather than taking part in "The Decision," though it’s highly unlikely that any departure would have placated the devoted, title-starved fans of Cleveland, who were forced to watch a local hero cast them aside in favor of a city so clearly not their own.
Now imagine that Miami and Cleveland, and consequently the Heat and the Cavaliers, are sworn enemies. Imagine that Miami had once been home to a brutal dictator that had oppressed the local culture in Cleveland, banning the language and the flag. And if all that weren’t bad enough, he’d been a fan of the Heat. Which brings us to the subject of Luís Figo.
In 1995, Figo, then a 22 year-old budding superstar with Sporting CP, was on the cusp of leaving his homeland of Portugal to join one of Europe’s bigger leagues. It initially appeared that a pair of Italian clubs, Juventus and Parma, had the inside track. However, when news broke that Figo had signed contracts with both clubs, a two-year ban on any transfer to Italy was placed on him. As tends to be the case in such matters, the player escaped relatively unscathed, as Figo winding up in Spain, signing with FC Barcelona for a miniscule £2.25 million fee.
It was in Barcelona that Figo began to realize his superstar potential. A fan favorite at the Camp Nou for five seasons, he scored 45 goals in 249 appearances for FC Barcelona (30 in 172 league games) and was the catalyst for sides that captured two La Liga titless (1997-98, 1998-99), two Copas del Rey (1997, 1998), a Supercopa de España (1996), a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1997) and a UEFA Super Cup (1997).
However, on the heels of his most productive individual season at the Camp Nou (1999-2000; 14 goals in 47 games in all competitions), the Portuguese winger, now undoubtedly among the world’s greatest players and Barça’s captain, dropped a bombshell on legions of Culés across the globe.
With the front offices of both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid locked in brutal presidential elections, Figo became the summer of 2000’s Holy Grail. Incoming Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez insisted, in the face of vehement denials by, among others, Figo himself, as well as his agent, that the player had signed a pre-contract (contingent on Pérez’s election) with the club. However, despite the denouncements, Pérez’s promises to deliver Figo to the Bernabéu persisted- including one to pay the annual subscription of every one of Madrid's ~70,000 season-ticket holders if he failed- culminating on July 25, 2000, when Luís Figo became the first of Pérez's original "Galácticos," leaving Barcelona for a then-record £37.2 million.
While the saga brings to mind the contemporary examples of LeBron and Cristiano Ronaldo, it served to reopen a wound from nearly six decades earlier. Real Madrid's acquisition of one of history's greatest players, Alfredo Di Stéfano. In spring 1953, Di Stéfano, then starring for Millonarios of the Colombian league but jointly owned by River Plate of Argentina, agreed to a contract with FC Barcelona, though without the permission of Millonarios. FIFA, previously unaware of the situation regarding Di Stéfano’s rights, issued its approval. After the details were brought to light, FIFA left the matter in the hands of the Spanish Football Federation. It appeared the deal would be allowed to stand, but then on 13 May 1953, when Di Stéfano arrived in Spain to sign his contract with Barcelona, in a move widely rumored to have been orchestrated by Franco himself, then-Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu convinced him to sign in the nation’s capitol instead.
Meanwhile, returning to Figo matter, newly-elected FC Barcelona president, Joan Gaspart, whose victory was due in some part to his repeated insistence that Figo would not be departing for greener pastures anywhere- much less in Madrid- was left holding the bag. He launched scathing verbal attacks against Real Madrid, Pérez and Figo, saying about the later:
"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."
While his career arc continued its ascent in Madrid, Figo had surrendered his opportunity to become a true icon. Where he had been a leader and a signature star in Barcelona, Real Madrid already had an unquestioned leader in Raúl, and added Zinédine Zidane, Ronaldo, and David Beckham over the next three years. Figo certainly tasted his share of success in his half decade in white, winning a Ballon d'Or (2000) and FIFA World Player of the Year (2001), as well as another pair each of La Liga (2000-01, 2002-03) and Supercopa de España (2001, 2003) winner’s medals, along with a Champions League title, another UEFA Super Cup and an Intercontinental Cup in 2002, but was just another member of an ensemble cast. In the summer of 2005, in what could only be deemed a case of karmic payback, Figo’s Spanish career came to an unceremonious end, as Real Madrid allowed him to join Inter Milan on a free transfer after his contract with the club expired.
In the final act of his professional career, Figo would finally play for a major Italian club, something he’d attempted prior to his move to Barcelona. And it suited him. Now in his mid-30s and no longer possessing the brilliant individual skill of the past decade, he emerged as a veteran leader and club talisman. In his four seasons with the club, Inter captured the Serie A title four times (2005-09), the Supercoppa Italiana three times (2005, 2006, 2008) and the Coppa Italia in 2006.
On May 16, 2009, the day Inter clinched the 2008–09 Serie A title, Figo announced his retirement from professional football. He would play his final game on May 31, donning the captain’s armband one last time, in a 4-3 home win against Atalanta. After his last game, it became clear that at his last (and ironically shortest) professional stop, Figo had finally discovered the love that can exist between player and club:
"I am leaving football, not Inter… I hope to be able to help this club to become even greater also after my retirement. I will certainly work for Inter in the future in the club board. I never imagined that I was going to remain here for such a long time. What I will never forget is the love that I have received since my first day here from my teammates and president Massimo Moratti. I will never forget it; Inter have given me the chance to start a winning cycle with some extraordinary people."
Until next time...
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