Luis Figo: The Big-Money Signing That Kick-Started the Galacticos Era

Luis Figo, Ivan Helguera, Hierro
Luis Figo was the first signing of the Galacticos era | CHRISTOPHE SIMON/Getty Images

Football hasn’t quite been the same since June 2000.

With Luis Figo’s world record €62m move from Real Madrid to Barcelona, the fee alone had a seismic impact – as did the near civil-war he instigated between the El Clasico giants – as Barça fans spat fire every time a Figo-led Real entered the pitch at Camp Nou.

More significant than all of that, however, was what it represented. The contentious, maniacal signing was the perfect pace-setter for Florentino Perez’s first reign of madness, and kick-started an era where branding would come to define football.

The sport’s marketing potential had of course already been laid bare by Sky Sports’ record-breaking TV deal in England, while UEFA’s decision to morph the European Cup into the Champions League – logo, colours, theme tune and all – underlined the benefits of a recognisable identity, even for a competition which could already boast immense prestige.

With the signing of Figo, however, Perez’s Galacticos took these principles to a new level, and immediately shot to fame as the notorious face of a new footballing landscape.

Real’s approach, spending big at virtually every turn, came with an avalanche of criticism. Viewed as unsporting and unsustainable, they were at least unapologetic as they went on to break the world record transfer fee four times in less than ten years. From the signing of Figo, through to the signings of Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, and Cristiano Ronaldo, Real held the transfer record for 17 unbroken years, and 20 years on from Perez’s arrival, their spending power is only just now being matched.

Perez’s balls-to-the-wall approach was by no means universally backed even within his own club. His attempts to interfere with management to ensure his Galacticos made the team led to the departure of two-time Champions League winner Vicente del Bosque, while Claude Makelele called time soon after, citing Perez’s refusal to raise his salary. The owner was famously more interested in his attacking stars; defensive-minded players were not as fashionable.

2000 – Luis Figo (Barcelona) – €60m
2001 – Zinedine Zidane (Juventus) – €73.5m

2002 – Ronaldo (Inter) – €45m

2003 – David Beckham (Man Utd) – €37.5m

2004 – Michael Owen (Liverpool) – €9m

2005 – Robinho (Santos) – €24m

2005 – Sergio Ramos (Sevilla) – €27m
2006 – Fabio Cannavaro (Juventus) – €7m
2006 – Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United) – €14m

This brand-focused philosophy was later derided by Steve McManaman, who was himself a pre-Galactico shortly before Perez had acquired the club. ‘Macca’ helped the club win the Champions League just before the Galactico era took hold, and would describe what followed as the ‘Disneyfication of Real Madrid’ – hinting that the club had become a cartoon parody of itself.

It was a view that would later be vindicated, at least partially, when Perez stepped down from the club in 2006. Two La Liga titles and a Champions League within three years of his arrival proved to be something of a false dawn, and his first quadrangle of major signings all headed off for pastures new. Beckham joined LA Galaxy after Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo had called time, and after Perez stepped down, a period of sanity and stability – at least relatively – followed.

Sanity and stability, however, were not what Real, who had become accustomed to being the centre of attention, were used to. When it became apparent that it Perez’s outlandish spending was not the great hindrance it was perceived to have become, over the next three years there was a growing clamour for a second Galactico era. That was something that Perez’s successor Ramón Calderón couldn’t deliver, and by 2009 – with the help of some corruption allegations – he had stepped down.

We’ll give you three guesses as to who was re-elected, and the first two don’t count.

Perez was not messing about upon taking the reins for a second period. Within a month of arriving, he’d already broken the world transfer record twice: once to land Kaka from AC Milan, and then again to sign one Cristiano Ronaldo. The £80m spent on the latter was so significant that it would stand for eight years; the longest run for a record since Bernabe Ferreyra’s £23,000 move to River Plate in 1932.

Where the second era differed from the first was in its balance; where Perez previously put his high-profile attackers above all else, he was now more willing to trust his manager with the purse strings, and the result was the building of a formidable, carefully measured group.

2009 – Kaka (Milan) – €67m
2009 – Karim Benzema (Lyon) – €30m
2009 – Cristiano Ronaldo (Man Utd) – €94m
2009 – Xabi Alonso (Liverpool) – €34.5m
2010 – Angel Di Maria (Benfica) – €24m
2012 – Luka Modric (Spurs) – £32m
2013 – Gareth Bale (Spurs) – €100m
2014 – Toni Kroos (Bayern) – €24m
2014 – James Rodriguez (Monaco) – €76m

The first Galactico era may have failed to sustain its early success, but this one did not. It had its ups and downs, of course, but whether it’s been José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, or Zidane in the hotseat, success has never been far round the corner.

The 2018 Champions League win was in many ways the Endgame of Perez’s cinematic universe; Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale came together to secure the trophy for a third straight year, proving that spending big – however risky and controversial – can, in the right circumstances, be the way forward.

Former Real Madrid football club presideFormer Real Madrid football club preside
Florentino Perez: the visionary behind Real Madrid’s success | PHILIPPE DESMAZES/Getty Images

Much has been said of Real since the term Galactico, in its modern definition, was first used back at the turn of the century. 20 years on, however, they are the richest club in the world, not owing to Perez’s individual wealth, but to the immense branding and marketing revenue that has come as a result of his obsession with big-name signings.

And while they may not have won as many trophies as many hoped (or feared), Perez’s presidency has earned them five Champions Leagues, and just ousted Barcelona for its seventh La Liga. Whichever way you spin it, that’s no failure.


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