What do you do with your life if you have retired at the age of 36 after reaching the pinnacle of your profession? That was the question facing Luís Figo, the Portuguese midfielder, after two decades of success on the football pitch. His answer was to go to back to school.
Mr Figo wanted – and still wants – to finish his education and do some kind of postgraduate course, but like many sports professionals he had a problem dating back to the launch of his career. He shot to stardom so early that he never completed his school education, let alone a university degree.
“I had to reconcile my school life with my professional life, so basically I was a year and a half short of finishing,” he says over breakfast at the Iese Business School’s campus in Madrid.
“I only managed to reconcile it until the age of 17 when I had my first professional contract, and from then on it was extremely difficult to study.”
That ruled out an MBA or the advanced marketing course he thought he needed to help him run his clutch of post-football businesses and his charitable foundation. However, a friend told him about the general management course run by Iese in Madrid, where he now lives with his wife, the Swedish model Helen Svedin and their children.
It suited him not only because he qualified for the nine-month course, but also because it is near his home; a further bonus is that the teaching is in Spanish, which he says he speaks better than English.
More importantly, the course should supply Mr Figo, now aged 38, with the grounding in business practice and strategy that he has hitherto lacked.
Not long ago, before the rise of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mr Figo was Portugal’s most famous footballer and an international star. Unusually, he has played for both of Spain’s top clubs – the bitter rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid – as well as for Lisbon’s Sporting and for Inter Milan, where he still works as an adviser. He helped win numerous trophies, became Portugal’s most-capped player and was named Fifa world player of the year for 2001.
In common with many sports heroes, however, he retired relatively young and turned his attention to investing his sports-based wealth in a range of businesses.
So it is that Mr Figo, on a chilly Thursday morning is sitting in the Iese canteen and poring over the day’s schedule. It includes lectures and discussions on net present value and internal rates of return, information technology, distribution strategies and the highly relevant topic of “managing in times of crisis”. It is all a far cry from the sport they call “the beautiful game”.
“I looked for something that could help in the future in the world of business, that would let me learn directors’ responsibilities and a little about the strategies used in business and how to manage in the short and the long term,” he says.
“I had no idea about these things when I began the course. It covers many areas – finance, accounting, planning and strategy, human resources, publicity, new technologies.
“When you have an open mind you learn a lot and for many of these areas I had not the slightest notion of what they involved or the importance they had in a company, so it’s very useful to me.”
Perhaps because they can leverage their fame to bring in customers, or perhaps because they enjoy the ambience of luxury and the finer things in life, film stars and sports personalities often invest in the entertainment sector and in vineyards and Mr Figo is no exception.
His businesses include a café-bar in the Algarve and a hotel, as well as property, commodities and an investment in the photovoltaic energy sector. He is particularly proud of his stake in a wine called D+D – the two Ds stand for Douro and Duero, the Portuguese and Spanish spellings of the river renowned as a region of wine and port – a cross-border Iberian joint venture of two companies.
But it is not all about making money. He is also proud to use his name for charitable ends and is one of the ambassadors for Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund. In Portugal, the Luís Figo Foundation focuses on helping disadvantaged children in health, education, sports and social integration, and is currently working with the education ministry on developing sport at schools and reducing truancy in troubled districts of the big cities of Lisbon and Porto.
Neither fundraising for charity nor making a profit from a restaurant are easy at the best of times and the global economic crisis means that Mr Figo will probably be examining with particular interest the business case studies presented during the Iese general management course to help him steer his Portuguese operations.
“It has affected us all. Portugal at the moment is going through a very difficult time,” he says, reflecting on the tense political negotiations that have now led to a fragile cross-party agreement on the latest economic austerity plan.
“With the cuts there have been, it leads people to consume less and everything is linked to consumption – in my case, hotels and services.”
As he nears the end of the course, Mr Figo says he is delighted with what he has learnt in Madrid. His only regret is that he did not have the chance or the will to complete his education earlier in life.
“When I was young, I didn’t have that much desire to learn, and didn’t give that much importance to the future, to preparing myself,” he says. “But afterwards, as the years pass, you see the importance and the necessity of training and educating yourself.
“When times are hard and you need to find a job, if you don’t have this education and these capacities and this knowledge it’s much more difficult.
“Life is a continuous education. I had this possibility of more time and the desire to learn. So I’ll do this course – and others besides.”