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Backroom Dealings, Dictator Intervention and Sporting Treason: The Transfers of Figo and Di Stefano

How two of the biggest stars in El Clásico history moved from one rival to another

Barcelona fans

El Clásico week is here once again.

One of the world’s grandest sporting spectacles takes center stage this Sunday, bringing an onrush of memories for supporters that flow as fast as the world’s grandest rivers. Millions have lived through the triumphs, the pain and the absurd — all wrapped up into one. It’s now been 87 years since La Liga was founded and Madrid and Barcelona have been setting the table for sporting dominance ever since. The duo have combined for 56 league titles, 47 Copa del Reys, 16 European crowns and just for good measure — 16 player of the year winners.

Over 1 billion people from all corners of the globe will tune in to catch a glimpse of this rivalry’s latest incarnation, knowing full well that the league title may depend on the outcome. Many events have shaped and molded the D.N.A that make this match-up of Goliaths truly special, but you would be hard pressed to find any two that spawn such deep emotions as the transfers of Alfredo Di Stefano and Luis Figo. One would alter the course of a club forever, while the other proved that all is fair in love and war.

It’s the most confusing, controversial and famous transfer of all-time. Five clubs involved, in three different countries and, quite possibly, the personal intervention of a fascist dictator.

Just another day in the life for Los Blancos and La Blaugrana.

In a far away continent, at the tender age of 17, a boy with gazelle-like speed and locks as blonde as Achilles would sign for Argentine giant, River Plate. After being loaned to Huracán for a year, he returned and consolidated his place in the starting XI, instantly transforming the side from a slow and methodical attack to a direct and pulsating edition. However, in 1949, a strike by Argentine footballers opened the door for Alfredo Di Stefano to move to Colombian football – specifically, Millonarios of Bogotá. As his play continued to dazzle and rumors of his talents slowly swept the globe, a tournament was being planned in the capital of Spain to honor Real Madrid’s 50th anniversary. So in the spring of 1952, the 25 year old Argentine packed his bags and traveled to Spain for the friendly three-team tournament. As had been the case for much of his young career, his performance was jaw dropping, immediately catching the eye of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and seemingly every other club on the planet with a pulse.

As the year progressed towards finalization, Di Stéfano would go on revolt again - this time deciding to stay in Buenos Aires. Fed up with a Colombian league plagued by “treacherous plane journeys and local friendlies”, he abandoned Millonarios, and with it a debt of 4,000 pesetas he owed the Colombian team as a bonus he had received in advance of the upcoming season. With his status in limbo, Barcelona took the initiative and approached Di Stefano directly. Using little persuasion, he almost immediately agreed to sign, while River also agreed to a transfer fee of $80,000, of which half would be paid up front. On May 17, 1953, Di Stéfano arrived in Catalunya, immediately shifting the balance of power in Europe. Seen as a done deal in almost all crevices of the club, the Argentine would feature in a few friendly matches in the Barcelona shirt, while the remaining details of his signing would be worked out with Millonarios.

To ensure Di Stefano’s officially recognized arrival, the Catalans would have to come to an agreement with River Plate, the club of origin who sill owned possession of the player’s transfer from 1955 onwards, Millonarios, the club who held his rights until October of 1954 and the player himself. With only the Colombian side left to convince, Barca entrusted hard-nosed Catalan lawyer, Ramon Trías Fargas, who, besides being a lawyer and expert in commercial law, also happened to be the son of one of the share-holders of Millonarios. In addition, Barca club president Enric Martí Carreto also involved Barcelona chief scout Josep Samitier in the negotiations. Samitier, in his turn, brought in Joan Busquets-Baró, a Catalan acquaintance living in Colombia, to speed up the talks with Millonarios due to his proximity to the club. Unbeknownst to Barcelona, Busquets was the director of Millonarios’ biggest rivals, Sante Fe. His mere presence at the bargaining table made an already reluctant Colombian side even more-so, for fear of a public relations nightmare amongst its supporters.

Despite all of the chefs in the kitchen, each were dispatched to Bogota in an effort to hammer out a deal.

Millonarios president Alfonso Senior’s initial offer asked for a $40,000 payment, as well as the $4,000 Di Stefano previously owed, but Barcelona almost immediately refused, instead offering $10,000. After days of boiler-room like negotiations, the Colombian side dropped the figure down to $30,000. Trías Fargas was put in contact with Martí Carreto, who told him that the deal should be wrapped up with $25,000. The president of Millonarios wanted additional insurances, thus proposing that Barcelona, on tour in Venezuela, go to Bogotá to play three games for free in exchange for the footballer’s rights. Tired of all the back-and-forth, president Martí declined, instead demanding that the Colombian club travel to Venezuela for the friendlies. Finally, Trías Fargas reached an agreement with Millonarios: a friendly in Bogotá, with the expenses to be paid by the Colombians, while Barca would only have to cover the Argentine forward’s debts. Aside from this, the lawyer agreed to an additional friendly match against another team in Bogotá, for which the club would earn $7,000. In summary, Barcelona would depart Colombia with arguably the greatest talent in the world’s rights and their pockets lined with cash profits. Bizarrely, Martí turned the whole agreement down, instead issuing a final take-it or leave-it offer of $10,000 or, if need be, he would wait until 1954 when Di Stefano reverted back to a River Plate player and would be sold without resistance.

With seemingly all communication now cut-off with the Colombian side, Barca’s separate deal with River had still landed Di Stefano in north-east Spain. Meanwhile, FIFA had already signed off on the deal, despite not possessing knowledge that Di Stefano had left Millonarios without permission and still owing them money.

Undeterred, Real Madrid president, Santiago Bernabéu, continued to negotiate with Millonarios before finally sending their closer extraordinaire, Raimundo Saporta, to Bogotá to try and seal the player’s transfer for a fee of $30,000. The Colombian side accepted, leaving just one party left in limbo. Madrid sent team officials to Catalunya in an effort to persuade Di Stefano himself to change his mind and instead suit up for their eternal rivals. After giving the thought time to simmer, Di Stefano was convinced, all but giving Bernabéu the green light to complete the move.

With both sides filing grievances, the Spanish Football Federation stepped in and decided not to recognize the deal for either Barcelona or Madrid on the grounds that both clubs -- Millonarios and River Plate -- needed to be in agreement and give their consent for the transfer. Somehow, the news of the inner workings of the dispute became very public, playing out in the papers, thus pouring kerosene on a fire that had long been burning out of control. Both sides reverted to political measures seeking popular support in an effort to apply pressure for a favorable decision, something that deeply embarrassed Franco’s regime.

Wanting to squash the debate once and for all, the regime issued a ban on all foreign players from playing in Spain. Fed up with the never ending saga, Barcelona tried to sell Di Stefano’s rights to Juventus. Dual owned, Madrid had to relinquish as well in order for the sale to go through, but refused. Barcelona then tried to undo their agreement with River Plate in an attempt to get their money back, but they refused as well.

At an impasse, the Federation made an exception to the rule of signing foreign players. Cleansing their hands of the entire mess, the case was then tossed into the shivering hands of FIFA. Hiring Armando Muñoz Calero (former president of the Spanish Football Federation and key in Kubala’s signing for Barcelona) for the role of mediator, the RFEF eventually reached its verdict in September of 1953. In a startling declaration, they concluded that Di Stefano would play for alternate clubs over the course of four years. He would first play for Madrid in 53-54, Barcelona in 54-55, for Madrid once more in 55-56, and then for Barcelona again in 56-57. The costs for the player would be split and once the share deal was over the clubs would come to an agreement on his future.

Piece of cake, right?

Completely dismayed, president Martí resigned and a temporary commission made up of six former presidents took over until elections were held. The day after the share contract was signed, Di Stefano arrived in Madrid to begin his first year of the deal but he would never see the second. Barcelona’s new board decided to renounce their claim to him the same day, effectively signing him over to Madrid outright for $29,056. Two days after the deal was signed, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 5-0 with Di Stefano scoring twice and the rest is history.

Before Di Stefano arrived, Madrid had only won two league titles. Since, they have won 30 -- with the Argentine claiming 8 in 11 seasons. But far beyond the merits achieved domestically was what Di Stefano meant to the capital side on the European stage. With spearheading the line, Madrid won the first five editions of the European Cup with ‘The Blonde Arrow’ scoring in every final. His most famous victory was the 7–3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden Park, a spectacle many pundits and historians consider to be the finest exhibition of club football ever witnessed in Europe. He won two player of the year awards and scored 216 league goals in 262 games. Without him, Real Madrid would not be the most popular club in the world - or the most hated.

To this day, the actual events of what went down continues to be debated more than Messi vs Ronaldo. It certainly was true that Franco had dealings over the years with Real president, Santiago Bernabeu, and occasionally exerted significant influence upon the RFEF. Many Cules also speculate that one or more of Barca's negotiators were acting as double-agents for Real, deliberately sabotaging the deal to ensure Di Stefano eventually moved to the capital side. Real supporters feverishly brush aside the suggestion of shadow dealings and remain adamant that they simply took advantage of Barca's sloppiness, rather than enlisting the assistance of the Generalissimo. Where the truth lies is likely somewhere in the middle, something neither side particularly wants to hear, but the fact remains that Di Stefano’s transfer was history altering and something that will forever link the clubs.

First they threw the coins, soda bottles and lighters. Followed by mobile phones, half-bricks, a JB whiskey bottle and the infamous pig’s head, cut fresh from someones afternoon cochinillo. White handkerchiefs adorned the night sky, raised high by hands in a practice borrowed from bullfighting, only this time, there wasn’t any toro to be slaughtered. No, this gesture was directed at Real Madrid’s new number 10.

Luis Figo signed for Barcelona in 1995 after spending six years with Portuguese side Sporting CP. Starring alongside greats Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo, Figo won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Winners Cup in Catalunya. He appeared in 172 games, scoring 30 times in the process. Regarded as one of the best players of his generation, Figo was world renowned for his feints, step-overs and seemingly endless array of skills.

Quick, elegant and an exceptional leader- Barca fans revered him.

But more than his skill was what the mere image of Figo in a Barcelona jersey had stood to represent, a symbol of greatness that bestowed on the region a sense of external approval. The world's best player, in our colors, championing our cause. Coming off a league title in 2000, a parade was held as is always the custom, but this one held a special meaning deep in the hearts of culés. With his teammates huddled close, Figo was front and center on the balcony of the city hall in Barcelona, with his hair dyed blue and claret, mocking Real Madrid's fans after Barca’s latest triumph, boisterously chanting, "White cry babies, salute the champions!” For Catalunya, it was a scene straight out of a fairy-tale.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid were doing some celebrating of their own, having just come off a win in the Champions League final, claiming their second such trophy in a three-year span. President Lorenzo Sanz was up for re-election and was considered nothing more than a shoo-in. His challenger, Florentino Perez, was one of the richest and most powerful men in Spain, but the thought of the incumbent being supplanted was nothing more than an after-thought. Boasting a fortune of over $900 million didn’t hurt, but what Perez really possessed was an ace up his sleeve.

Perez knew Madridistas loved the taste of winning, but if he were able to add a side dish of revenge at the expense of Barcelona, his candidacy would be intoxicating. So, Perez polled Real Madrid fans, asking which player they most wanted to sign. The answer? Who else: Figo. As a result, he promised to bring the Portuguese man to the Bernabeu if elected. If that bold proclamation in itself wasn’t enough, he told the clubs 83,967 members registered to vote in the election that if he failed to make the signing, he would cover each-and-every one of their fees for the following season.

“The pledge he made to Real Madrid’s fans was intoxicating," says Diego Torres, a journalist for El Pais in Madrid. "This promise fulfilled all the superpower fantasies of Madridistas. Will he destroy Barcelona with a single cheque? They didn’t give a s--t for Lorenzo Sanz and his European Cups." "Real Madrid fans didn’t want to buy Figo to love him...[they were thinking] 'No, we will buy one of those Cules just to prove to ourselves that we can do it, to exercise our power, but deep inside we despise this guy because he’s a traitor. We will buy him just for the sake of f---ing the opposition.”

Once leaked to the press, Catalunya went ballistic. In an effort to fan the flames of the oncoming inferno, Figo gave an interview to SPORT in which he said:

“I want to send a message of calm to Barcelona’s fans, for whom I always have, and will always feel great affection. I want to assure that Luis Figo will, with absolute certainty, be at the Camp Nou on the 24th to start the season.”

In Spain, each player has a buy-out clause -- an official price at which a club is obliged to sell. The buying team deposits the money with the league and the selling club is seemingly powerless to prevent the departure. Knowing Barcelona would never sell Figo to Madrid, Perez found his needle in the haystack.

According to Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga, Perez offered Figo a guaranteed $2.4 million just to sign an agreement legally binding him to Madrid in the unlikely event he was elected. If Figo broke the deal, he would have had to pay Perez $6 million in compensation. If Perez lost, Figo would keep the money and stay at Barcelona. His agents looked at it as an easy payday, while also applying pressure on Barcelona for an improved contract they believed their client rightfully deserved.

On July 16th, the election results were announced. Florentino Perez was Real Madrid’s new president and it wasn’t even close.

Six days later, Figo knocked on Barcelona president Joan Gaspart’s door and pleaded with him to stay. The only chance of killing the deal was for Barcelona to pay $30 million to keep their own player. Making matters worse, Gaspar couldn't stomach the thought of himself being responsible for Madrid’s fans going to home games free of charge. Now all but a formality, Real produced the world record 10 billion peseta fee (£37.5 million) necessary to activate the player's buyout clause. The deal was complete, the betrayal done and another divisive chapter was written to a regional, cultural and political rivalry that supersedes all others in its wake.

Real Madrid v Real Sociedad Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Figo played five seasons for Los Blancos, igniting the Galaticos movement while winning two league titles and a Champions League. Barcelona subsequently went into free fall, suffering three trophy-less seasons while getting over his departure.

Despite everything that happened and all of the wrath he endured, Figo has no regrets about his decision.

"In the moment, one sees that it is a unique experience," he says. "I don’t think there’s another athlete that has played with a hundred-thousand-something crowd against only him. It’s good to remember that."

Since the Portuguese’s departure, no subsequent star man has ever threatened to cross the divide. Whether scared of the press or another charred pigs head projectile, Figo’s transfer shook the footballing landscape, forever altering the course in which rival sides do business.

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