Barca v Real: The rivalry behind ‘El Clasico’
The eternal battle to be the world’s greatest club continues this Sunday with Real Madrid travelling to the Camp Nou in search of a victory over arch-rivals Barcelona that would earn them a commanding lead at the top of La Liga.
The Sport Review looks back at the intense rivalry and ahead to the biggest football match in the world.
For the Spanish nation, Barca-Madrid is much more than a game of football. It is a game billed as nation versus state. Castilians versus Catalans. The freedom fighters against Franco’s Fascists. The late former Barcelona coach Bobby Robson once said: “Catalonia is a nation and Barca is its army.”
Real are seen as representatives of the Spanish Centralized State and Barca of Catalonia, which yields implications for the sociology and politics of the country.
The rivalry, in a political sense, heightened during Francisco Franco’s regime of dictatorship at the helm of Madrid’s socialist party in which all regional languages and identities – both of which Catalans held close to their hearts – were suppressed.
The rivalry, in a football sense, intensified during the 1950s following legendary striker Alfredo di Stefano’s controversial transfer to Real Madrid.
Both Real and Barca tried to sign the player and both believed they owned his registration after confusion caused by a players’ strike in di Stefano’s native Argentina. Barca backed down following intervention from the Spanish FA and rumours circulated that the Catalan club were forced by Franco to surrender the player.
Real, with the talismanic di Stefano in tow, went on to end a period of Barca dominance to win eight of the next 11 La Liga titles, as well as the first five of the club’s nine European Cups – an era that defines the club to this day.
Between 1986 and 1990, armed with a generation of players known as ‘Quinta del Buitre’ (the vulture squad) led by the deadly Emilio Butragueno, Real were again to cast a shadow over their arch-rivals by clinching five successive La Liga titles.
Johan Cruyff was to become the man to transform Barca’s fortunes, not so much on the field – although he led Barca to a first La Liga title in 14 years following his arrival in 1973 – but off the field, as club coach, where he created the ‘Dream Team’ that won four titles in a row and the club’s first European Cup in 1992.
The last of the titles was to be won in 1994. This was also to be the year that saw Michael Laudrup, a pillar of the ‘Dream Team’, fall-out with the Dutch coach and trade allegiances, controversially, to Madrid.
The move shocked the nation and Real immediately won La Liga and, having lost an ‘El Clasico’ 5-0 the previous season, were inspired by Laudrup to emerge 5-0 victors and return the shame in 1995.
Real were the 20th century’s most successful club; the 21st century is a different matter entirely.
Not only did Cruyff endear himself to the Barca faithful (known as ‘Cules’) by snubbing Real in favour of a move to Catalonia by stating that he could never play for a club with ties to dictator Franco, but the visionary went on to lay the foundations for the football philosophy – known as ‘Cruyffismo’ – that has earned Barcelona the mantle of world’s greatest club.
The identity and fundamental stability of Barca as a football institution are ingredients of which Real are in desperate need and are envious of.
The Madrid club have astonishingly sacked their last European Cup-winning coach and their previous three coaches that had superseded their rivals to claim the La Liga title.
Manuel Pellegrini – installed at the helm during the summer – became the club’s tenth coach in just six years. Barca have seen the departure of a single coach, Frank Rijkaard, in the same period.
Seven of the past nine winners of the prestigious Balon d’Or have been on the books of Real Madrid – not one has received the award for their achievements in the famous white of Real – which only serves to suggest that the club know who to sign, just not how to employ them harmoniously on the field.
The turn of the millennium saw the appointment of Florentino Perez as club president. His first act was to lure Barcelona darling Luis Figo to the Bernabeu in a deal that would infuriate the Cules to a greater extreme than Michael Laudrup’s similar act of betrayal in 1994.
On his return to the Camp Nou, bike chains, glass bottles, mobile phones, and, notoriously, a pig’s head were hurled from the crowd towards the vicinity of their once beloved Portuguese winger.
The coup was to be the first of Perez’s mission to build a side of ‘Galacticos’. Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo followed as Real went on to win the European Cup in 2002 and a La Liga title in 2003. David Beckham left Manchester United for the warmer climate of Madrid after the La Liga triumph in the following summer.
The gamble to field a team full of individual brilliance didn’t yield the results that Perez was hoping for and the following three years saw the side finish each campaign empty-handed. It was Barcelona’s time to ascend.
Intriguingly, it was to be Perez’s deal to bring Beckham to Madrid that resulted in Barca completing the acquisition that would transform the club’s fortunes.
Club President Joan Laporta had promised to bring Beckham to the Camp Nou but when the move failed to materialise, Barca entered the running for Paris Saint Germain’s Ronaldinho.
They beat Manchester United to the signing of the flamboyant Brazilian in 2003 and he ended a six-year silverware drought in his second season by leading the club to successive La Liga and Copa del Rey doubles.
He also recaptured the imagination of the football world and drew the spotlight back onto the Catalan giants. Barcelona’s midfield talisman Xavi recently proclaimed that Ronaldinho ‘changed our history.’
An unprecedented treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey under the guidance of rookie coach Pep Guardiola last season – including a 6-2 destruction of Real in Madrid – has elevated the club to new heights and forced Real into immediate responsive action.
The close-season saw Perez – in his third term as Real president – immediately steal Barcelona’s thunder by continuing with his ‘Galacticos’ policy in exuberant fashion as he embarked on his mission to assemble ‘Galacticos II’.
The influx of superstars overshadowed Barca’s treble-winning achievement and also hiked up the price of Barca coach Pep Guardiola’s summer transfer targets.
Real have to make strides this term. They must break the Catalan club’s apparent stranglehold on domestic and European football and victory in an ‘El Clasico’ will provide them the perfect platform.
Real enter this Sunday’s El Clasico a point ahead of Barca at the top of the table. However, those that say that ‘the table never lies’ are lying.
The Madrid side share the league’s best home record alongside Mallorca – six wins from six games – and this is more than a coincidence. Both sides have hosted and beaten four of the bottom five teams in La Liga, which puts their achievements into perspective.
Bar an opening game 3-2 victory at home to Deportivo, Real have succumbed to the challenge when facing sides of any quality – losing to both Sevilla away in La Liga and at home to AC Milan in the Champions League.
The club have, however, received a huge boost ahead of the crunch clash with Ronaldo’s cameo appearance from the bench against Zurich on Wednesday, signalling an end to weeks out with a mysterious ankle injury.
Barcelona will have been hugely disappointed to have been forced to settle for a point in two of their last three La Liga fixtures having totally dominated possession in both games, but still boast La Liga’s only unbeaten record.
They are facing a huge injury crisis with Lionel Messi looking set to miss out due to a suspected thigh tear and big-money summer signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic also a doubt with a thigh injury after missing Saturday’s trip to Athletic Bilbao and spending the entire game on the bench during midweek’s hosting of Inter.
Xavi has described Real and Barcelona as being ‘like two sides of a scale’ – it’s impossible for both to be up at the same time, even when they are up.
With Barca and Real, it is always about each other. If Barca are successful, those sporting the white of Madrid will deem it as their failure and vice versa.
Which of these two football behemoths will be cursing their failure at the end of the season is tough to call. As we awake on Monday morning, it will become much clearer.