By Ben De Buen
I remember 17 years ago when I had blind faith in the sense of belonging that only football clubs are able to elicit (love thy colours, they say) and refused to accept that Figo would be capable of signing with Real Madrid for money, for career improvement, or for whatever reason. Was I wrong.
Two decades later, with a full perspective of how that transaction eventuated, we can better determine whether Luis Filipe Madeira Caeiro, Figo, was right in becoming the greatest traitor known to football. Figo’s move ended up being positive for him and Real. Far from failing or losing any of his effervescence while wearing Madrid’s 10, Figo and the club prospered and he eventually became a key player in one of football’s most spectacular eleven. I would dare say that few teams have been as intimidating as Real Madrid in 2000-01, when Figo, Roberto Carlos, and Raul were the biggest stars (and before the “galaxy” was complete with Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham).
On the other hand, Figo has since been fully absent or omitted from the blaugrana sphere, even in retirement, when most clubs and players put their differences behind them. We’ve seen how other stars like Rivaldo and Kluivert, Figo’s teammates (who also left the club at some stage) have been invited back for legends matches while others become club references or even have a voice in the team’s public consciousness. Nobody expects Barcelona to approach Figo or vice versa. Figo’s best years at Camp Nou have been literally whited out and it is unlikely that Figo and Barcelona will ever reach any kind of reconciliation. Who knows if Figo, looking back at his life and career, will actually care about any of this—all those realists, who understood his move strictly in financial terms, will say he won’t.
Today, as Neymar leaves Barcelona, many have labeled him “the new Figo”. Some even speculate a stop in Paris in what is actually a Barcelona-Madrid journey. (It wouldn’t be the first time that the most indirect route is the most feasible, I recently read about someone who found the cheapest way to travel between two places in England was catching budget-airline flights with a stop in Ibiza).
Neymar’s move will reignite debates on the power of money over loyalty and the sense of belonging to a club. Reading about Neymar’s latest actions, as filtered by the press, loyalty and belonging seem notions possible only in the mind of an infant.
Money is boss, 220 million is 220 million, football is business. This is how realists (as in reality, not Real Madrid) explain these things: in terms of maximizing convenience and looking for the best possible transactions. Meanwhile, those of us who are naïve and childish, who are stuck on believing that a sense of belonging, of love thy colours is at least possible in the highest level of competition, are forced to accept another defeat (maybe it’s because we compete at the lowest possible level).
It could be said that Neymar’s move is a career choice, that he doesn’t want to live under Messi’s shadow any longer, that he wants to be the best. It’s no secret that the French league is a step down from La Liga. At this point, given the tight competition between Madrid and Barcelona, the only valid and possible choice for Neymar if he wants a better job is to join Real Madrid, as Figo did in his time (though he wasn’t competing with Bale or CR7, who next to Messi, still stand between him and the Ballon d’Or).
Back to the topic of Figo, now that all is said and done, we can acknowledge that his career—though not his legacy—benefitted from his decision. He moved to a team that was ascending while Barcelona, in that dark time between Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, was lost amongst poor signings and managerial experiments.
In response to the “football is business” folks, it must be said is that the amount being paid for Neymar reveals the lack of world awareness that has become trademark in professional football. The price being paid for Neymar is offensive. While deemed a new high in the business of football, some of us will see it as a new low. It is too much money.
The greatest difference between Figo and Neymar is that Neymar does not exult “barcelonismo” the way his teammates do and the way Figo, when he owned Barcelona’s number 7, once did. Also, upon hearing that someone is willing to pay 220 dollars for Neymar, many will agree that PSG is being shortchanged.
The biggest winner in this transaction can only be Barcelona. Not only will they fatten their accounts considerably, no one will accuse them of being interested in only money, with their apparently passive role (like collateral damage) in all of this.
Hopefully, 15 years from now, Neymar will be invited back to the Camp Nou for a legends match and hopefully he will accept the invitation. There seems to be no better indicator of a decent career.