x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The final whistle set to blow for Figo

Luis Figo was supporting Barcelona in the Champions League final last night, or so he said.

Luis Figo has lifted four titles at Inter Milan, but is leaving after becoming a peripheral figure.
Luis Figo has lifted four titles at Inter Milan, but is leaving after becoming a peripheral figure.

Luis Figo was supporting Barcelona in the Champions League final last night, or so he said. The Portuguese winger, 35, who plays his farewell match for Inter Milan at the weekend and possibly his last game as a professional, used to be a Barca player, so it stood to reason. He is also a good friend of the Barcelona head coach Pep Guardiola, which is how he explained his allegiance. In Barcelona Figo is widely loathed by fans, for the episode that history will probably most remember his brilliant individual career by.

It is not a dazzling run, a brilliant goal, a match-winning performance in an epic final, it is the act of betrayal he made by joining Real Madrid from Barcelona in the summer of 2000, his peak year. It made him probably the wealthiest footballer in the world at the time, and the protogalactico in the extravagant recruitment policy that would later take Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham to Real.

Barcelona fans still call Figo greedy, and far worse, for joining the old enemy. Inter supporters appreciate the cameo contributions he has made for their club. He has been in Serie A for four seasons, all of them in his 30s and while he was a regular in the team under Roberto Mancini for the first two of those campaigns, he has been more of a fringe squad member under the coaching of his compatriot Jose Mourinho.

He is associated with the club's revival. His four years there have coincided with four scudettos, the first of them - awarded after Juventus were stripped of the championship - was their first since since the 1980s. Figo is a footballer who carries success with him. At Barcelona he won two leagues before his controversial exit. He promptly won another two, plus the Champions League, with Real. He won the Ballon d'Or in 2000, and was World Footballer of the Year in 2001. As a young man he was a fabulous winger, with the same early background, at Sporting Club of Lisbon, as Cristiano Ronaldo. He may have been a better crosser of a ball than Ronaldo is, but, in the context of Portuguese football, had the same pre-eminence in his era as Ronaldo does in Portuguese football now.

He had some of the same self-regarding air about him, too. "He likes to dress well and 'does' his hair," says Steve McManaman, a colleague at Real Madrid. "He's also tidy and well-organised, and has a natural air of seniority. I'd say he was unteasable." He could, though, get wound up. Figo has always had an ego. It was manifest in the sulky circuit he made of the pitch after being substituted during a Euro 2004 quarter-final in Lisbon.

His temper was also vividly displayed in the angry aftermath of a Euro 2000 semi-final, when Portugal were knocked out by France. Playing for his country was usually as frustrating as it was rewarding. His golden generation - including Rui Costa, and Paolo Sousa - never quite won the big prize Portugal might have expected from them. Maintaining his high professional standards as a trainer, Figo's career has outlasted most of his contemporaries.

For a winger that is quite something. Like Ryan Giggs, he developed a game, as the years took the zip off his acceleration, which relied less on beating a marker by passing outside him to deliver a cross, but trusted the accuracy of his passing to make telling contributions. He actually began this, Inter's successful domestic season, playing behind the forwards. Picked less frequently than he would have liked in Mourinho's starting XIs, he announced he was missing being involved week to week. Hence his retirement.

He should get a decent send-off from the interisti at San Siro on Sunday. Talk is of a management position being offered to him by Inter. He would bring experience and intelligence to the job. And a little bit of ego, too. @Email:ihawkey@thenational.ae