El Clásico – When “simply beating the other side” is not enough

Sid Lowe and Graham Hunter talk El Clásico at the London Sports Writers Festival, Lord’s 2013.

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Lord’s Cricket Ground, July 2013. Day 4.  At close of play, England have crushed Australia by 347 runs. The 2nd Test is won – it’s quite literally, a whitewash.  By August, England have won the series, another chapter in one of the most bitterly contested, high profile rivalries in sporting history – the Ashes; all 131 years of it.

It was English cricketer, Jim Laker, who said, “The aim of English cricket is, in fact, mainly to beat Australia.” In this anatomy of rivalry, a side becomes great when facing its most worthy of opponents – without the other, an essential part of its identity, its raison d’être, might shift; dilute; weaken.

‘If Barcelona didn’t exist, Real Madrid would have to invent them,” once famously remarked Florentino Perez, current President of Real Madrid FC.

Fast forward to October 2013 and the London Sports Writers Festival.  Once more the backdrop is Lord’s, this time it’s to discuss another great world sporting rivalry, perhaps the greatest in world football: Barcelona v Real Madrid or ‘El Clásico’ as we know it.Our commentators for the evening are Sid Lowe and Graham Hunter – both well established and respected writers on the Spanish game and of course, this fixture. Hunter is the author of 2012’s award winning, ‘Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World,’ whilst just prior to the October event, Sid Lowe had published ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’ to wide acclaim – a work which Hunter describes as, “the definitive book on El Clásico,” its author, a “genius.”

When it comes to this particular fixture, “simply beating the other side is not enough,” remarks Hunter. This, a game that is never just about football, where Barça are “more than a club” according to their historic slogan – a rivalry captivating a country famed for that bloodiest of duels; the bullfight.

This is the fixture that has provided us with some of the most sublime football ever played by some of the greatest players to ever wear a football shirt. Kubala. Raul. Zidane. Cruyff. Guardiola. Hierro. Di Stefano. Roberto Carlos. Ronaldhino. Romario. Puskas. Ronaldo. Messi. Maradona. Iniesta. Beckham. Figo. Stoichkov. I could go on. And on.  For lovers of football the El Clásico roll call is breathtaking.

Lowe’s ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’ is the true story of El Clásico in glorious technicolour and a beautifully written history; not only of this footballing duel, but to a certain extent, of modern Spain.

His book charts the rivalry between the two clubs against the backdrop of the battle of the ‘two Spains’; of two cities; of Catalonia v Castille; Centralism v Federalism; and most crucially; that bloodiest of battles – Fascism v Republicanism, as was manifested in the Spanish Civil War of the mid to late 1930’s. A war that ripped the body of Spain apart, Madrid; its bleeding heart.

Lowe’s book establishes facts and dispels myths; poking at over-simplistic readings of what Real Madrid FC and FC Barcelona are seen to represent in popular history and particularly, I would argue, by football followers outside of Spain.  Those of us on the outside should perhaps be aware of over- generalisations about what the two Spanish clubs might now represent. I have a close friend who is a Madridista (a Real Madrid fan), and a true full blooded proud Madrileño (from Madrid) born from a long line of Madrileños and I learnt this lesson first hand. That war ripped Spain and families apart and its resonances are still felt.

For example, Lowe is quick to reject any inaccurate notions that somehow Madrid stood for or represented the side of the Fascist cause during the Spanish Civil War – something he argues is a gross insult to the people of the city. Madrid was on the frontline throughout, and in March 1939, along with Valencia, one of the last cities to surrender to Franco’s troops.  Lowe argues in his book, “ There is an inescapable fact which has too often eluded football fans…. Madrid and Barcelona were on the same side in the war; fighting against Franco’s troops, even if their relationship was not always an easy one.”  In fact, both cities suffered horribly, as did the rest of the country. The Civil War was not Barcelona v Madrid – this reading is entirely false.

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This brings us on to the “heroes v villains” tag that is often attributed to these two sides or as Hunter jokes at the Lord’s event, “the Death Star v the Jedi Knights,” type narrative which permeates the Real v Barça story. You can guess who the ‘baddies’ are supposed to be.  There are however, some difficult truths to be faced. During Franco’s 36 year dictatorship, there was without doubt, a close relationship between the Real Madrid management and the regime, manifesting itself on the pitch in accusations of pro-Real refereeing decisions, their somewhat ‘ambassadorial role’ for the Franco era Spain and perhaps best summed up by the bizarre story of the Alfredo Di Stefano transfer.

So what of the more recent history of the fixture and what of its future?

“You can never have too many El Clásicos,” states Matt Dickinson, the Times Sports Writer when chairing the Lord’s discussions, but can you? Are we at a point where one of the most famous football rivalries of all time and one of the most anticipated fixtures in the football calendar is at risk of being diluted?

The evening’s discussions move on to the point in the 2011 season, where due to the Copa Del Rey, La Liga and Champions League fixtures, the two teams famously faced each other 4 times in 18 days. At the time, even though some of the football was not at its greatest, the panel agrees that the rivalry was in no way diminished. During those four El Clásicos, temperatures soared on and off the pitch, there were four red cards and a total media frenzy. It was even reported in the Spanish press at the time that, off the record, Vincent del Bosque, Spain’s national team coach was concerned of possible damage to the cohesion of the national team as a result of the bad feeling between the two sets of players. So – familiarity does breed contempt.

By the time of the October 2013 meeting of the two sides, Hunter was reflecting on perhaps a new era in the fixture’s history in his ESPN match report, where he comments that at the end of the game, “…far, far from the vitriol and petty nastiness which devalued the Jose Mourinho era of Clasicos, there were handshakes and embraces between all creeds and colours.”  Is the fixture ever renewing itself?

And what of the politics of today? At the 17th minute of the October game, familiar applause was to fill Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium- accompanied by chants for “Independencia!” – independence for Catalonia from the Spanish state. If Catalonia get the independence they desire what would be the impact on this mightiest of fixtures? Could it be lost?

Sid Lowe was asked exactly this as the evening’s discussions drew to a close at Lord’s. Lowe thinks the prospect of these sides ever not wanting to play one another is an impossibility, even if Catalonia were to become an independent state, he argues that no one and especially not Real Madrid would want to see Barça leaving La Liga. They would be bereft without their mightiest of foes. And so we come full circle.

As for Hunter, the long term future of El Clásico is assured, for one reason and one reason only, “the sheer level of football”.  I’m not sure any of us would argue with that.

Visça Barça? Hala Madrid?

I’m staying out of it.

© LRM November 2013

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