Continuing with our series on the greatest footballers of all time, here’s No. 17 on our list.
No. 17 – Luis Figo
They said he had the devil in his boots. If there was a ranking of the most underrated players in football history, Luis Figo would probably feature at or near the top. This man has had clubs fight bitterly over him, and he has played the highest level of football for over two decades, and yet his achievements are often given the short shrift.
In Figo, we have a quiet, simple footballer who gave everything to the game day in and day out. He possessed charisma and rugged good looks that easily won over the female populace. But he was never an over-the-top character, and more often than not, he preferred the shadows.
This may sound cliched, but it has truly been a rags-to-riches story for Figo. He was born in an extremely poor family in Almada, Portugal. But by the age of 10, he was up and about on the field, ready to take on the world, all the while hoping to catapult his family to greener pastures.
Figo’s career took off at Sporting CP in 1989 at the age of 17. By this time, he had already conquered the FIFA World under-16 championship, and he replicated the feat at 19 by winning the FIFA World under-21 championship. He went on to wear Sporting CP colors till 1995, before Juventus and Parma decided to ruin the party. The fracas over who would get to sign him up resulted in a two-year ban on any Italian transfer for Figo. This was a huge setback for the player who had dreamed of playing for an Italian club.
Fate did open another door though, a Catalonian door that is. Figo’s move to Barcelona in 1995, for $2 million, was a masterstroke by then Barcelona manager Johan Cryuff to replace the great Michael Laudrup. Figo started with a bang, and Laudrup was quickly forgotten, as the Portuguese midfielder helped his side win the Spanish Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup. Figo was bestowed with the captain’s armband in 1998, and his side continued piling up the silverware.
But Figo’s stint with Barcelona ended in bitterness as the Barca fan favourite decided to commit footballing hara kiri and join their bitter rivals, Real Madrid. After 30 goals in 172 appearances for the Catalonian side, Figo’s controversial move added his name to the ‘Clasico traitors’ list. His return to the Camp Nou in a league match saw a torrid vent of anger by his former fans, which included, among other things, a pig’s head hurled in his direction.
On the other hand, his signing officially began the ‘Galacticos Era’ for the then Real Madrid president Florentine Perez. This team was a star-studded assortment of high-profile players, ranging from Zinedine Zidane, who arrived for an earth-shattering $66 million from Juventus, Ronaldo (from Internazionale) and David Beckham (from Manchester United). But with the arrival of Beckham, it was clear that one of the wingers would necessarily have to play out of position. Figo won the La Liga with Madrid in 2001 and 2003 along with the 2002 UEFA Champions League, with Zidane scoring that blinder of a goal in the final.
On the international front, Luis Figo was at the fore of Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’. His conquests as a youth team player were a precursor to his potential as a national player. But sadly, the highest achievement that Portugal managed was reaching the final in the Euro 2004, where a fiery Greece took them apart. Figo decided to retire after that disappointment, but then reversed his decision to play in the 2006 World Cup. A supposed rift between him and the national coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was swept under the rug, and he captained his side to the quarters, where they bowed out to France. This was Portugal’s best finish since the Eusebia term in 1966. Figo’s international career ended with a total of 32 goals in 127 appearances.
In 2005, Figo finally realized his dream of playing for an Italian club by joining Internazionale on a free transfer. .His time at Milan was fairly understated until his retirement in 2009, on the same day that Inter won the 2009 Serie A title. Luis Figo had hung his boots up one last time, but he clearly stated that his retirement was from football and not from Inter. He continues to be the face of the club internationally.
Figo bagged quite a few honors along the way to greatness. He won the Ballon d’Or at the turn of the millennium. He was the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2001, and won the Portuguese Player of the year award for 6 consecutive years from 1995 to 2000. He also made the list for the top FIFA 100 players of all time. His softer, humane side has also played a huge part in his associations, and he is currently an ambassador for the Stop TB Partnership.
Luis Figo has been a gem in the crown of international football, and only a few can match his achievements. The few setbacks at the international level were more than compensated by his laurels at the club level. His departure from football was met with sadness around the globe, but his occasional appearance at the sidelines is invariably met with huge cheers. As for the devil in his boots, he’s now languishing in a closet at an undisclosed location.
And now, a video tribute to the legend:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – David Beckham
No. 19 – Oliver Kahn
No. 18 – Jurgen Klinsmann
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: