Football Nostalgia

Remembering the November 2002 El Clasico: Luis Figo pig head incident stuns a nation

Next month will mark the 21st anniversary of the November 2002 El Clasico which produced one of the defining images of world football’s most famous rivalry. 

The sight of a pig’s head on the pitch at Camp Nou, one of dozens of missiles thrown by home fans in the direction of Real Madrid’s Luis Figo, summed up the rage that Barca fans felt for their former hero.

Luis Figo and Pep Guardiola
Fernando Couto, Ivan de la Pena, Luis Figo and Pep Guardiola of Barcelona celebrate winning the 1997 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup Final (Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport )

Only a few years earlier, those same supporters idolised Figo. For five seasons, he was one of Barca’s most talented and most influential players. One of the outstanding midfielders of his generation, Figo won seven trophies with the club and was vocal about his love for Barca and how he and his family felt at home in Catalunya.

It felt like a match made in heaven with the classy Portuguese international lighting up Camp Nou throughout the second half of the 1990’s. However this was a love affair that was heading for a very bitter ending.

Road to the November 2002 El Clasico and the Luis Figo pig head incident

There are many different versions of the story as to just how Luis Figo ended up leaving Barcelona to join the club’s fiercest rivals, and set a course for the infamous act.

The transfer that shook football – Why did Luis Figo join Real Madrid?

Instrumental to the controversial transfer was Florentino Perez, who at the time was a relatively unknown Spanish businessman who was bidding to become Real Madrid’s new president in elections in the summer of 2000. Perez campaigned on the premise that he would sign Luis Figo should he be elected and duly ousted two-time Champions League winning president Lorenzo Sanz.

Luis Figo protests
A Barcelona fan shows his feelings about the transfer of Luis Figo to Real Madrid (PA Images / Icon Sport)

Many were still sceptical that Perez could pull off the transfer with mixed messages coming from Luis Figo throughout the summer of 2000. Figo felt undervalued by Barcelona and would ultimately seal a huge pay rise by moving to Madrid, but only after a bizarre series of events with the midfielder seemingly reaffirming his commitment to Barca only to seal one of the most controversial transfers of all time a matter of days later.

Real Madrid paid Figo’s €65m buyout clause, with the July 2000 transfer a world record at the time, adding further to the might of the glorious ‘Galacticos’ era.

Barca fans vent their anger

Luis Figo made his first return to Camp Nou just three months after his shock move and the reception was predictably hostile as Barca fans and ultras hurled abuse and objects in the direction of a player they branded a traitor.

“The fans reacted that way because the press really stirred things up” Figo later said in the Netflix documentary The Figo Affair: The Transfer that Changed Football.

“It was no longer just a question of being angry because of a transfer, which I could understand. It was a personal attack and an attack against my family. So after that, I drew a line. It was over”.

Luis Figo for Real Madrid
Real Madrid’s Luis Figo battles for possession with Barcelona’s Xavi in 2002. Credit: PA Images / Icon Sport

Why did Luis Figo get a pig’s head thrown at him?

Over two years would pass before Figo returned to Barcelona again. As far as the home fans were concerned, time had clearly had little impact in cooling the anger. Figo’s reception was every bit as ferocious the second time around, with Barca fans being provided ample opportunity to abuse their former legend given the midfielder was on corner kick duty.

The volume of missiles hurled in his direction whenever he took corners was so great that the referee suspended the game at one point for 16 minutes to “let things calm down”. It was during the break in play that cameras picked up a pig’s head which was among the objects near one of the corner flags.

As for the game itself, it was one of the worst Clasicos in recent history, ending 0-0, with the Luis Figo pig head incident ultimately being what the match is best remembered for.

Signing for the enemy – Figo’s defection remains the greatest

Over two decades on, Luis Figo remains public enemy number one in Barcelona. While many players have represented both clubs, direct transfers between the two are extremely rare occurrences.

Current PSG boss Luis Enrique’s move from Real Madrid to Barcelona in 1996 is one of the best known. However no senior player has moved directly between the clubs since Figo’s transfer 23 years ago, although Javier Saviola did join Real Madrid after his Barca contract expired in 2007.

Barca fans Figo
Barcelona fans vent their anger towards Luis Figo. Credit: PA Images / Icon Sport

The ferocious reaction that Figo received may put other players off from following in his footsteps in the future, no matter how much money is on the table.

That sense of betrayal still runs deep in Barcelona with former Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho perhaps the only other figure who even comes close to rivalling Figo’s unpopularity in the Catalan capital in the 21st Century.

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