As with almost every other rivalry in football, in fact in any sport, there is a heady mixture of geographic, social, and sporting history that defines a fixture. Brace yourselves, as Ham Mpanga brings you El Clasico.
Madrid. A city built upon royalty and cemented with pride. Madrid FC (we’ll get to that later) was formed in 1902 and consisted of several Cambridge & Oxford University graduates. They were also a founding member of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) in 1909, so it’s clear to see los Blancos had an impact on Spanish football from early on. They, along with Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, have never been relegated from the Spanish top-flight. In 1920, after achieving much early success, they were granted the ‘Real’ title by the King at the time, Alfonso XIII. When the inaugural La Liga season came around in 1929, Real Madrid led the table from the first match day until the last-or so they thought. A final day defeat to Bilbao meant that they would come 2nd to eternal rivals, Barcelona. Things improved shortly after for the King’s club; they had won the 1931-32 & 1932-33 La Liga titles, becoming the first Spanish club to win back to back league campaigns.
Fast forward another 65 years and we come to the beginning of the Florentino Pérez era. He had promised to modernize the club’s facilities and put them back on top of world football. Barcelona had been brewing something special in the Camp Nou and Pérez couldn’t sleep with the Catalan cauldron bubbling throughout Europe. He unveiled his mastermind project; ‘the Galacticos’. It was his plan to lift Madrid to the pinnacle by signing the world’s best players each summer and he stuck to his plan. Every summer window under their mercurial Chairman, Pérez, Madrid has purchased at least one player for 20 million Euros. Pérez has more than left his stamp upon the club because, in a way, it is his club. The players were bought with his approval and the facilities were upgraded upon his demands so it would be preposterous to suggest that Pérez is simply a chairman. The true measure of success for Pérez is the Champions League. Since 2002, Madridstas were left baying for their record 10th European trophy, also known as ‘La Decima’. Pérez scoured the globe for a winning formula by discarding those who didn’t bring him success like a spoilt child throwing away toys.
Meanwhile, Barcelona and La Masia are synonymous. Built in 1702, it was formerly a farmhouse and it was only from 1979 when it was used to house young Barcelona prospects from outside the city. La Masia was an idea created by football revolutionary Johan Cruyff, it was his idea based on Dutch youth development to improve the way Barcelona brought through their future talents. Players come through at the ages of 6-11 years old and there have been many success stories out the academy; Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdez and Carls Puyol have woven themselves into their club’s history with their contributions. Success can be found outside of Barcelona for many La Masia graduates too, with the likes of Pedro Rodriguez, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantra, Thiago Motta and Pepe Reina finding success at other top European clubs. One man made the most of La Masia was Pep Guardiola. The former Catalan midfielder was a favorite at Barcelona and took over the reins from Frank Rijkaard in 2008. His methods of swift attacking play and the popularized juego de posicion saw Pep’s side conquer all before them, winning trophy after trophy.
On November 25th 2012 Barcelona were playing Levante away from home when a spectacular moment arose. Dani Alves was substituted for Martin Montoya and for the first time in recent history, Barcelona had an entire 11 comprised of La Masia products.
This showed the peak powers of La Masia at the time & showed how superior they were to other clubs in terms of youth development and production.
Managers such as Johan Cruyff & Pep Guardiola have changed the way Barcelona-and the world-see football and this has kept Barcelona one step ahead in terms of tactical philosophy & Guardiola once said,’ Johan Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it.’
From this we can already see that the clubs differ severely with their approaches to football but their differences are more political than anything. Real Madrid has long represented Spanish royalty, pride & nationalism whereas Barcelona epitomise Catalonia’s long fight for independence which was has repeatedly quashed by the Spanish monarchy in the early 1900s.
The first encounter between the two took place on May 13th 1902. Barcelona were victorious 3-1 but what kicked off the rivalry was that Real Madrid’s match report included that Barcelona ‘had 6 foreigners lining up’, this can even be found on the Real Madrid website to this day.
The Spanish Civil war lasted from 1936-1939. General Franco captured Madrid in a successful coup but because the people of Catalonia had detested Franco & his rulings so bitterly, he held a large grudge on the region so he regularly used bloodbaths & ruthless acts of violence to scare the Catalans into obedience. Franco this to put down Catalonian culture & their modern way of living but with so many people from that region in Spain supporting Barcelona just to show their unity against Franco, he went out of his way to ensure the Blaugrana would fail. He did this by blocking transfers, giving his own club Real Madrid financial backing & virtually forcing Spanish football officials to rule in his favour. Left-wing Barcelona & Right-wing Real Madrid’s rivalry will always run deep politically, deeper than it could ever go on the pitch.
Key games down the years
23rd November 2002 – Barcelona 0-0 Real Madrid: This game will be remembered for an iconic football picture. The pig head moment. This was when a head of a dead pig was thrown in the direction of Luis Figo who was taking a corner at the time. Projectiles had been thrown at any Madrid corner taker that night but it seemed that a particular porky present was saved for a certain Portugese maestro. The interesting sub-plot to the game was that Barcelona darling Luis Figo had signed for Real Madrid the previous summer in a $60.1 million deal. Pérez said this move would signal the start of the Galactico era and it did. For Madrid to begin taking whoever they wanted was one thing but to take one of their rival’s shining jewels was another. This did nothing but fuel an already burning fire between the two Spanish giants.
7th May 2008 – Real Madrid 4-1 Barcelona: Prior to the game, Real Madrid were the league champions and the traditional guard of honor was to be performed. This is when a league winner is welcomed onto the pitch by the away team on the first home game after they become champions. What made this extra special was that the guard of honor had to be performed by none other than bitter rivals, Barcelona. Madrid fans lauded this moment, whilst the Barcelona fans had no other option other than to share the humiliation amongst each other. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Barcelona that game. Puyol’s handball led to a penalty, Xavi was sent off and Valdes looked nervous throughout and the gulf in quality couldn’t be more apparent. Barcelona finished 3rd that year; 10 points behind 2nd placed Villarreal and a staggering 18 points behind winners Real Madrid. Enough was enough for the Barcelona board, so they looked to a new man to bring about a new way of playing.
2nd May 2009 – Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona: Almost exactly a year on in the same stadium, the two teams couldn’t be further apart. Led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona made of mockery of any challenger including Madrid. They had scored 105 league goals that year (23 more than Madrid) conceded 35 (18 less than Madrid) and had 87 points (9 more than Madrid). They had beaten Manchester United 2-0 in the final of the Champions League whilst Madrid were eliminated 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool in the Round of 16. Barcelona completed an unprecedented treble by dispatching Athletic Bilbao 4-1 in the Copa final whilst Madrid stumbled out in the Round of 32, being eliminated on away goals after drawing 6-6 on aggregate. Pep had closed the gap from last season and had seemingly created a new one. He had taken Barcelona to new heights.
Lionel Messi: Lionel Messi is simply phenomenal. He -along with Ronaldo- are arguably the main attractions of the derby. The Argentine has the most assists, hat-tricks and goals in el clásico history which is an amazing feat for someone who is still playing this fixture. Some Real Madrid fans see him as the ‘hormone boy’ as a reference towards the growth hormones given to him as a child while some Madrid fans appreciate him for what he is and accept him as a suitable competitor to Ronaldo. He bagged his first clásico hat-trick against them in 2007 and his brace at the Bernabeu dumped them out of the Champions League in 2011 so any game without him results in sighs of relief from Madristas the world over. If Ronaldo is the ying to the fixture, Messi is the yang.
Alfredo Di Stéfano: His transfer saga was certainly an intensifier of hatred between the two clubs. General Franco’s tampering cost Barcelona the signing of a top player & many Barca fans were left appalled at how General Franco had blatantly blocked Di Stéfano’s move to Barcelona just to clear the path for him to join his favourite club, Real Madrid. FIFA had already sanctioned his move to Barcelona whilst RFEF didn’t, and they failed to give a clear reason why. Franco held a significant control over RFEF and Real Madrid so it was obvious a player of Di Stéfano’s class wasn’t going to slip under the radar to rivals, Barcelona.
Luís Figo: Figo arrived at Barcelona from Sporting Lisbon as a fresh-faced 23 year-old for a £2.25 million fee in 1995. The Portuguese playmaker had been making waves across Europe so a big transfer for him was expected. He made a name for himself with the Catalan giants, scoring 30 goals in 172 games for the club and being part of an attacking trident which consisted of Ronaldo Lima and Patrick Kluivert. He was adored by the club, with one club official even stating, ’Figo’s support for Catalonia meant more to Barca than Pep’s services to the club.’ Now that’s a huge statement to make. When Figo left to join Real Madrid, it was a feeling of betrayal which filled the hearts of Barca fans. To have such an integral figure leave for your rivals at the drop of a hat is treacherous at the very least. He again achieved massively with Madrid, but for switching allegiances he will never be forgotten.
Read all other articles from our Rivals series here
Ham Mpanga is 15 year old an aspiring coach and qualified referee who is obsessed with tactics and has numerous books on the likes of Bielsa, Klopp, Guardiola and Anchelotti. He also thinks that the Bundesliga has the best young midfielders in the world.
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