As the casual observer casts an eye over the distinguished career of Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo, his four-year stay at Internazionale that brought a close to his playing days may initially resemble a relative footnote.
It was at Barcelona, after all, that Figo would first rise to global prominence, helping the Catalonians to two La Liga titles, the same number of Copa del Rey successes, and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup; and then at arch-rivals Real Madrid where, after one of the most controversial transfers in footballing history, he picked up the Ballon D’or and his only Champions League winner’s medal in 2002.
After the ‘Calciopoli’ scandal of 2006 had seen most of Inter’s competitors relegated or heavily handicapped, taking part in the Nerazzurri’s march to Scudetto victory in each of Figo’s participating seasons could be interpreted as a serene pre-retirement pastime. But a sift through some of the notable events that lined those four seasons - from refusing to take to the field in a Champions League knock-out tie to being accused of deliberately running over a cat at the club’s training ground – reveals this is far from the case. ‘Il Paso Doble’ may not have spent his prime at the Giuseppe Meazza, but the unique figure he represented in the Milanese club’s history secured him a special, if slightly conflicted, place in the hearts of Interisti.
When Figo arrived at Inter from Madrid in 2005, his new team were not the Serie A dominators they were soon to become. Having finished third the previous season, owner Massimo Moratti was at the helm of an Italian giant that had not enjoyed a league title for over a decade. Moratti had been publicly courting the services of Figo since missing out on David Beckham in 2003, and delighted in taking him on a free transfer after he was deemed surplus to requirements at the Bernabeau. Ostensibly, it was an acquisition more aligned with the recruitment policy of Inter’s cross-city rival’s AC Milan; an aging pro, not requiring a transfer fee, who would perhaps contribute as much in terms of brand image as on-field prowess. Known for a deft touch, devastating dribbling skills and a penchant for a dead ball situation, the Portuguese international also offered something very different to the midfield graft of Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic and Javier Zanetti.
Figo’s first season in an Inter shirt was an impressive one. He added verve and guile on the wing, prompting eccentric Inter channel commentator, Roberto Scarpini, to dub the midfielder ‘Il Paso Doble’ for his stylish step-over moves. But his efforts weren’t initially enough to bring Il Biscione their elusive championship, as they finished a distant second to Juventus. The events of the following summer, however, saw the season’s Scudetto retrospectively handed to Inter by default, after Juventus were identified as the main beneficiaries of a network of relationships between team officials and referee organisations. The ‘Calciopoli’ scandal was to have a marked effect on the years Figo spent at Inter, and as became a recurrent theme throughout that time, it was an off-the-field debacle that arguably represented his most significant act of the season.
After a fiery Derby D’Italia, Figo scandalously claimed he had seen Juve’s managing director Luciano Moggi in the referee’s dressing room. “I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never known anyone quite like Moggi. He acts as if he is the grandmaster of football.” The player had history with his adversary. Back in 1995, he signed for both Moggi’s Juventus and then Parma in the same summer, claiming his Juve contract was invalid. The consequence in this case was a two-year ban from Italian football which facilitated his successful move to Barcelona, and he was unsurprisingly fined by the Italian football authorities for dressing room accusations ten years later. When phone recordings revealed Moggi as the main architect behind ‘Calciopoli’, Figo was left with a wry smile on his face; “I hope they’ll give me my money back.”
Back on the pitch, and coach Roberto Mancini began to deploy Figo as a more central playmaker in his later years, as Inter swept to successive Scudetti following the one that had been handed to them by the courts. The no.7’s underrated passing intelligence made him a good fit for this role, as he was able to turn provider for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hernan Crespo and Adriano. Midfield fluidity has not, however, always been a characteristic of Mancini sides, as is evident in his current Inter squad. Though he was used to great effect against weaker sides, Figo was often sacrificed for the dogged Dejan Stankovic in the attacking midfield position. This decision was not taken particularly well by the former Real Madrid ‘galactico’, who vented his frustration upon being substituted on a number of occasions.
The extent to which the relationship between coach and player had deteriorated did not become fully evident, though, until a Champions League tie with Liverpool in 2008. With his side in a hopeless position, needing four goals to qualify for the quarter-finals with twenty minutes remaining, Mancini called on Figo to come on from the bench. Just as Carlos Tevez would later refuse to warm up for the Italian at Manchester City, an indignant Figo said no, furious at being omitted from the starting line up in the first place.
Such insubordination divided the previously adoring Inter fans who, along with the persuasion of Moratti, had earlier convinced Figo to rescind an agreed move to Arabian outfit Al-Attihad with roars of “Figo resta a Milano!” (‘Figo, stay in Milan!’). Just months after the Liverpool incident, his standing wasn’t helped when journalist Vittorio Felta bizarrely accused the player of deliberately running over the supposedly unlucky black cat that resided in Inter’s Appiano Gentile training complex. Despite his categorical denials, animal-loving Interisti booed him as he arrived for training, carrying banners reading “Figo, shame for Inter, justice for the cat.” The man who had so endeared himself to his black and blue public by standing up to their nemesis Moggi was steadily losing his popularity.
It seemed like the end of the road for the now 35-year-old midfielder, but his career with the club had developed a stubborn durability, crucially aided by Moratti’s unmoving affection. Figo publicly announced he would not be staying at the San Siro if it would mean continuing under Mancini’s regime, but fate dictated that it was Mancini who made way for Figo’s Portuguese compatriot José Mourinho, and a one-year contract extension quickly followed. Though interrupted by injury, his last season saw him used frequently by Mourinho despite his age. Upon finally announcing his retirement after another league title was clinched, he was given a guard of honour for his final match, in which captain Zanetti forced the armband into his protesting hands. Figo waved goodbye to a cheering Curva Nord, whose jubilation at another Serie A victory was enough to put aside any ill feeling from years.
And yet, implausibly, there was to be a final twist in the tale of Luis Figo’s passionate affair with Internazionale. On the way to the club’s historic treble in 2009/10, Inter were drawn against Barcelona for a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final. In a typically devious move designed to divert heat away from his players, Mourinho brought Figo onto the bench in a coaching capacity for both legs. Having crossed the Catalan-Madrid divide, there was no love lost between Figo and Barca and the Blaugrana fans had even thrown a pig’s head onto the Camp Nou upon the Portuguese man’s first return with Real in 2002. Figo happily soaked up the derision of the Barca fans while his former team battled to a 3-2 aggregate win to reach the final. The history books will tell you that Inter finally won their second European Cup the year after Figo retired, but he can boast a small contribution.
Though no saint, the iconic status occupied by Luis Figo secured him an ambassadorial role at Inter following his retirement, which did plenty to smooth over his reputation with the club’s supporters. On the field, meanwhile, the fact remains that with the exception of treble-inspiring playmaker Wesley Sneijder, no Inter player of the 21st century has surpassed ‘Il Paso Doble’ in providing the all-important link between midfield an attack. As Interisti watch on in despair as another talented strike force attempts to retrieve the ball from a creatively blunt midfield, they will look back with fondness on the years in which a former Ballon D’or winner could be called on to make the difference – should he agree to do so that is.
Follow Tom Guerriero-Davies on Twitter: @TomGDella