Figo prepares Beckham for the storm of Barça

Real's Portuguese playmaker offers England's captain a glimpse of the cauldron awaiting him in Spain's biggest grudge match
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The Independent Football

"This is unpardonable in the eyes of God," said Gonzalo Nevado, founder of Barcelona's Luis Figo fan club on the day he left for Real Madrid. "From this moment on, nobody is allowed to mention his name."

Luis Figo has been mentioned many times in the three years since his transfer to the Bernabeu, which in the words of the then Barça president, Joan Gaspart, "proves money can buy everything in life". Since his first return in October 2000, he has had everything from a pig's head to mobile phones flung at him in the Camp Nou. He is probably relieved that when the gran classico comes around on Saturday, David Beckham will be taking the corners.

"I don't know how they will react to him but it won't be positive," Figo said with some understatement. "The past shows it will be difficult. I knew what reaction would greet me when I first came back. It didn't surprise me. You expect the public to react like that and I wasn't afraid. It's an experience you remember in your career but it makes you stronger for the future."

As Figo remarked, the England captain endured so much abuse from the stands in the bitter aftermath of the 1998 World Cup that it seems inconceivable he will be overawed, especially as it unlikely he will understand too much flung at him in Catalan.

Beckham is, of course, the reason why the Barcelona-Real showdown is anticipated more than usual in England. Sky, which is screening the match live, has recorded a threefold increase in audience figures for its coverage of La Liga since Beckham's arrival in Madrid, where he has proved a more commanding figure than he was in his final, fitful season in Manchester. "I'm glad for him," said Figo, one of the few players who speaks English at Real. "He's really settled into the lifestyle here. He is improving because his mind is open to improve."

Many allege that Figo's move to Madrid was an accident. He signed a pre-contract with Florentino Perez, an outsider to become Real's president, as a bargaining tool to increase his wages at Barça. But Perez won the election, mainly by promising every season ticket-holder a refund if Figo did not sign, and then coolly informed the player that to break his pre-contract would cost €25m (£17.85m).

Since then, Perez has delivered one galactico per summer: Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and then, amid ludicrous scenes, Beckham. Now, they are promising another, maybe Thierry Henry, perhaps Michael Owen, when everyone knows Real need a central defender, never having properly replaced their captain, Fernando Hierro, who was sacked last summer along with his coach, Vicente del Bosque. In 18 matches in La Liga and the Champions' League, they have kept just five clean sheets.

"It's a political decision," Figo insists. "Maybe it's not what we need most. Look at what players we have in attack already and I don't think we need more but you have to respect the people directing the club." Even when they fire Del Bosque, who delivered two European Cups and who had just won La Liga?

It is a difficult question for Figo, who has known Del Bosque's replacement, Carlos Queiroz, since he took the Portuguese national side to two World Youth Cups in 1989 and 1991, creating what became known as the "golden generation", albeit one which never really fulfilled itself.

Queiroz was supposed to make Madrid a tighter unit but Figo says the remodelling has been gradual: "We've kept pretty much with what we've had, with a few little changes, but Carlos is getting us to play like a team. We defend from midfield. When players like me lose the ball in attack, I try to get close to the midfield to make us more compact. That's the difference between this year and last."

To cement his position in the Bernabeu, Queiroz will have to win the European Cup. Usually, the only English challenge has come from Manchester United. This season, however, there is Chelsea, under the control of Roman Abramovich, who can match Perez galactico for galactico, and Arsenal, whom Figo considers more dangerous than the other two.

"Chelsea have great players and the project their president [Abramovich] has started is great but I don't know if they can win the Champions' League this year. They don't have much experience in this competition; that is their only weakness which might stop them getting as far as the semi-finals. We mix young players with one big signing every year here. I don't know whether Chelsea are trying to do that. In terms of Real Madrid, that policy has clearly worked.

"We played Manchester United in the quarter-finals and they were two fantastic games but I think Arsenal would be the more difficult of the three. If I could choose to avoid one, it would be Arsenal. It is the characteristics of their players. The result in Milan was incredible and to score five goals against an Italian team shows how good they are. It sent a powerful message."

Next summer marks the last gasp of Portugal's golden generation when they host the European Championship. It will be Figo's final international tournament, one to be cherished after the humiliations of the 2002 World Cup, where they lost to the United States and South Korea. "It's a big responsibility for all of us but we have a team in transition, a team being renovated. There are a lot of young players and that makes it hard. I'm happy with my international career because we've qualified for the last few championships. In the past, Portugal did not always do that.

"I know we've won nothing but it's hard at that level and we have given Portuguese football the image it deserves." And Portugal could meet England in the quarter-finals. "Or France. If I could choose, I would rather play England because I've had some bad experiences against the French." In this, he is not alone.

Barcelona v Real Madrid is live exclusively on Sky Sports 1, Saturday, 8.00pm