Figo returns as a fallen hero

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The Independent Football

The football was the least of it at the Nou Camp on Saturday night. The atmosphere evoked images, rather, of the bullfight, of Greek tragedy, of Christians at the Colosseum. The bare sporting statistic, Barcelona 2 Real Madrid 0, masked the true nature of a spectacle that played out the grand classical themes of love and hate, of betrayal and revenge.

The football was the least of it at the Nou Camp on Saturday night. The atmosphere evoked images, rather, of the bullfight, of Greek tragedy, of Christians at the Colosseum. The bare sporting statistic, Barcelona 2 Real Madrid 0, masked the true nature of a spectacle that played out the grand classical themes of love and hate, of betrayal and revenge.

The 105,000 souls packed into Europe's mightiest amphitheatre (all but 30 of them Barça devotees) bayed not so much for victory as for a blood sacrifice to requite and ease their pain. For the object of their rage was not so much the ancient enemy Real Madrid, this time, as the solitary Portuguese player who had dealt the most painful blow in living memory to Catalonia's giant, prickly, fragile pride.

Luis Figo - for five years the Barça faithful's favourite son - had left to join Real Madrid in the summer for a fee of £40m and a salary (after tax) of £4m a year. He could have gone to Milan or Manchester United, and the fans would have been humiliated, hurt. But they might have forgiven him, in time. To quit Barcelona for Real, and to have done so for a few pesetas more, that - as 100 banners at the Nou Camp proclaimed - was a sin so epically unpardonable it could only be compared to Judas' betrayal of Christ.

One banner said it best. One banner captured the poignant essence of the fans' outraged trust. "We hate you so because we loved you so". Every time Figo touched the ball the decibel level at the Nou Camp broke all records of frenzied intensity. Yet, demonstrating the most amazing moral courage, the Portuguese superstar did not shirk his responsibilities, did not shy away from the game, kept playing the full 90 minutes. The curious thing was that, on a bad night for Real, he played better than most of his team-mates.

In fact, in the second half Real, who had hitherto played superb football this season, gave their worst performance in years, their passing and control reminiscent of England's at Euro 2000.

The whole Real team had made Figo's shame their own, it seemed, had collectively been worn down like a bull by a toreador - goaded, bloodied, dizzied by the hatred seething from the stands - until they were helpless to resist the kill.

In the end, though, in the very end, love conquered all. After the final whistle blew and as the fans gloated over Real's bloodied white carcass, each and every Barcelona player sought out Figo and pointedly embraced him.

The fans may not have understood it, and they may never want to understand it, but that was the worst, most enduring betrayal of all. Never mind the fantasies of the football follower, they were saying, professional footballers are not a people apart. They are like everyone else. Their first loyalty is not to their team colours any more than the average football fan's first loyalty is to the company that employs him. Before that comes your loyalty to your bank account and to your friends.

The Barça players, without necessarily meaning to, were reminding the Barça fans not to kid themselves. Figo remained their old pal and if the right, improved offer came along they too would sin as he had done.

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