Figo defects to Real Madrid for record £37.2m

Real Madrid triumphantly presented their latest, starriest acquisition yesterday, the Portuguese international Luis Figo, whom they whisked from Barcelona for a record 10bn pesetas (£37.2m), making him world's costliest footballer.

Real Madrid triumphantly presented their latest, starriest acquisition yesterday, the Portuguese international Luis Figo, whom they whisked from Barcelona for a record 10bn pesetas (£37.2m), making him world's costliest footballer.

The signing, celebrated in the trophy room at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, is not only the most expensive in footballing history but also possibly the most acrimonious. Barca regards the defection of their idol to their bitterest rivals as treachery of the deepest dye.

"I'm happy to be here," Figo said. "I hope to be as happy here as I have been during my years at Barcelona." Then he put on white jersey bearing the number 10 that he is due to wear for the next six seasons. The former Barcelona captain was presented by Real Madrid's new president, Florentino Perez, flanked by the club's legendary Argentinian striker Alfredo di Stefano, making his first appearance as president of honour.

The dismay around Nou Camp is hardly surprising. In his five years with Barcelona Figo was a leader, the team's drving force. He even agred to play in spite of a leg muscle injury when Barca trailed 4-1 from the opening leg of their Champions' League semi-final against Valencia, a match Figo had missed due to suspension. In 172 league games, he scored 30 goals and helped Barca to two league titles, two Spanish Cups, the European Super Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Cup-winners' Cup. He was one of the stars of Euro 2000, leading Portugal's fightback to beat England 3-2 from 2-0 down and scoring a marvellous goal.

Figo became the trophy in a tug of war between Spain's two top clubs, which were each gripped by elections for president within the last 10 days. Joan Gaspart, elected president of Barcelona on Sunday, yesterday launched a furiousattack on Real and Perez, who was elected the previous Sunday after promising to bring Figo to Madrid. "I'll not forget this. Whoever is responsible for this will pay for it. We'll see how and when," Gaspart threatened yesterday, white with fury.

He then turned his wrath upon Figo. "Figo gave me the impression this morning that he wanted to do two things - make more money and stay with Barcelona. He thinks money can do everything in this life." He told reporters Barca might have improved his contract, and added that the thought of Figo clad in white made him sad.

The man at the centre of the hurricane took a private flight yesterday direct to Madrid where he underwent a medical check-up, then had a good lunch before his first public appearance as a Real player.

The bitter imbroglio bubbled up weeks ago when Perez announced his pledge to bring Figo to the club as the main plank in his campaign to oust Lorenzo Sanz as president of Real. Perez insisted, in the face of denials by Sanz and Figo who said he was "lying" and "fantasizing", that he had signed a pre-contract with Figo's agent, Jose Veiga. Perez even promised to pay the annual subscription of every one of Madrid's 70,000 or so season-ticket holders if Figo failed to don the white jersey.

That deal is understood to have included an indemnity clause whereby if Perez won but Figo dropped out of the move, the player would have paid Real a "fine" of 5bn pesetas. With Perez's victory, Figo seemed to have no option but to jump ship. Gaspart yesterday condemned the contract as "immoral".

The campaign for Barca's presidency that culminated in Gaspart's victory centred on the candidates' insistence that the Portuguese midfielder would not be allowed to go - and to Madrid of all places. But for Madrid to swipe Figo from Barca is comparable only with the defection of Di Stefano in the 1950s, a move engineered by the dictator Franco that Barca has never forgiven.

There remains the niggling detail that Madrid does not actually have the 10bn pesetas it placed yesterday in the vaults of the Spanish league to buy out Figo's commitment to Barca. Real Madrid is probably 7bn pesetas in debt. But Perez has that minor problem sorted out, it seems. Figo has apparently ceded to Madrid the rights to his image (for a 10 per cent cut) and Perez has set up a company to sell them. Spain's telecoms giant, Telefonica, has pledged 1bn pesetas already, which is set to quadruple next year. Others cannot be far behind.

Binding him still further, Figo has a buy-out clause in his contract amounting to a dizzying 30bn pesetas.

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