It was the year 2000, when Messi and Ronaldo were teenagers, and Luís Figo was the favorite to win the Ballon d’Or. Barcelona had just won the league title, which had prompted Figo to dye his hair blue and purple and cry “White crybabies, salute the champions”. The “white crybabies”, on the other hand, had ended their 32-year wait for a Champions League title two years before in 1998, and had added one more for good measure in 2000. All seemed well for the giants of La Liga to continue their rivalry.
Then Florentino Perez entered the picture. The chairman of the construction company Grupo ACS, Perez was the underdog against Lorenzo Sanz in the election for president of Real Madrid, as Sanz had delivered the long sought-after Champions League title. Perez’s campaign was based on the promise that he would sign Figo if elected president, going so far as to say that he would pay for ticket costs for Madrid fans in the upcoming season if he failed to sign Figo. Of course, this presented Madrid fans with the unprecedented opportunity to crush the souls of their bitter rivals, not only by bettering their own squad, but by robbing Barca of the heart and soul of their team.
Perez, as a presidential candidate thus far officially unaffiliated with Real Madrid, was able to approach Figo without violating FIFA’s rules on other team’s player contracts. He made what seemed at the time a foolish bet; if he won the election, then Figo would have to pay a penalty of £22 million. Otherwise, Figo would keep £1.7 million and nothing else would happen. As Perez was the clear underdog, Figo seemed to have walked into free money.
Of course, word about this secret deal got leaked to the media. Because any indication of the validity of the deal would only serve to increase Perez’s chances of wining the election, Figo publicly denied the rumors several times, saying “I’m not so mad as to do a thing like that”. Unfortunately for Figo, Perez won the election by a few hundred votes, prompting him to go to the recently elected president of Barcelona, Joan Gaspart. If Figo refused to transfer, his agent who had negotiated the deal, Jose Veiga, would have to pay the penalty and would be ruined. Gaspart, on the other hand, would have to choose between allowing Figo to leave and paying for Madrid fan’s ticket fees for the season. Gaspart said “I couldn’t do it. I pay for Real Madrid fans to watch them every week, I would die”.
Unsurprisingly, Figo would go down as one of the most hated players due to one of the most controversial transfers in history. His return to the Camp Nou would be marked by death threats and fans throwing coins, phones, and other trinkets. His second return would be even worse, as the game had to be stopped for 16 minutes in the second half due to the ruckus, which included such objects as a knife and a pig’s head.
Perez used Figo’s transfer as an opportunity to launch the “Galacticos”, or the policy of buying the best and most expensive players in the world as part of his marketing strategy for Real. In the coming years, he would buy Zidane, Ronaldo, and Beckham, and include clauses in the deals so that Madrid would receive a cut of every jersey sold with their names. This would turn around the club’s financials, which had lost €50 million in the year before he was elected, and went on to top Deloitte’s Football Money League every year between 2006-2016. He would be re-elected for a second term in 2009, and continued his policy by buying players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Luka Modric. In many ways, Perez has defined the last two decades of Real Madrid, perhaps even La Liga and European club soccer. But it all began with Figo, all those years ago.