There are few events on the sporting calendar that every fan makes the effort to see. The FA cup final, the Superbowl, the Wimbledon final, the Ashes and the World Cup final all come to mind. But there is only one fixture consisting of the same two teams that comes into that illustrious category: El Clasico. Real Madrid versus Barcelona; the establishment versus the oppressed. The team that buys Ballon d’Or winners versus the team that makes them.
It is a rivalry that is political – geographically they couldn’t be further apart. But like the Basques of Athletic Bilbao there is real hatred of Madrid for the establishment that they represented. Barcelona, like Bilbao is the capital of a separatist region of Spain. Catalonia strives to be seen as a separate state, free of the constraints of the Spanish leadership. So much so that even during the Spanish World Cup triumph extremist Catalans refused to join in the celebrations. The oppression of Catalonia began in 1923 when, under the rule of General Primo de Rivera, all aspects of Catalan nationalism were banned. There was to be no Catalan flags and the Catalan language was outlawed. The oppression was continued under General Franco, whose forces executed the Barcelona president Josep Sunyol in 1936. Franco also forced Barca to change their name from FC Barcelona to the Spanish derivation Club de Futbol Barcelona. It was during these oppressed years that Barcelona became ‘mes que en club’. The club was a symbol of the Catalan people’s struggle for freedom. Joining the club became a chance for a Catalan to express his dissidence at Franco and his regime.
Franco and his dictatorship ploughed their support into the Madrid side and the use of Real as a powerful propaganda tool saw them dominate the Spanish League and Europe during his years in power. In a famous incident during the semi final of the Spanish cup Franco used every inch of his influence to ensure Madrid’s progress into the final. Barcelona won the first leg of the semi final 3-0 at home. Just before the return leg at Madrid, Director of State Security José Finat y Escriva de Romani allegedly made a visit to the Barcelona dressing room to inform the team that he could not guarantee their safety if they were to progress to the final. Barca then capitulated and were trailing 8-0 at half time. The game finished 11-1 to Madrid. Who then went on to lose in the final to the other separatist side Athletic Bilbao.
Real Madrid became the embodiment of Franco’s fascist regime; an idea that grew as Santiago Bernabeu, whom the famous stadium is named after and one of the club’s most esteemed presidents, fought alongside Franco during his military coup. It was Santiago Bernabeu who further stoked the fires of this rivalry during his presidential term. In 1953 Barcelona believed that they had secured the signing of the young Alfredo Di Stefano for a fee of four million pesetas. Di Stefano had even turned out for Barca in a number of friendly games. Just as the deal was about to be confirmed, Bernabeu used his contacts in the government to force through a new ruling in which every Spanish side could only have one foreign player. Barcelona subsequently had to choose between the untested Argentine or their established Hungarian star Laszlo Kubala. The Blaugrana opted to stick with their star man and Madrid swooped in to sign Di Stefano. Di Stefano then went on to prompt an era of Madrid dominance, winning five consecutive European cups and scoring a record eighteen times against Barcelona in the Clasicos.
It has to be stated that the majority of the theories regarding Madrid and their dictator benefactor have been widely exaggerated. The club also suffered at the hands of Franco. Real Madrid’s president during the civil war was Rafael Sanchez Guerra who was a strong republican. After Madrid was overthrown Guerra was imprisoned and then exiled to France during Franco’s reign. It was hardly austere times for the Catalans under Franco, Barcelona managed to win eight titles and nine cups during this period, Madrid only won five more league titles and became much more domestically successful after Franco’s death.
In more modern times the rivalry has been less political but still as venomous, with Luis Figo and Michael Laudrup both making the switch from Barca to Real invoking fury amongst the Blaugrana. The rivalry is more to do with on-field events now and even without the history behind this colossal clash it would still be an unmissable occasion. It is a who’s who of the world’s best players, with numerous different duels on the pitch; Messi v Ronaldo, Iniesta v Ozil, Valdes v Casillas and of course Mourinho v Guardiola. The Mourinho factor should be downplayed, as the important thing is what happens on the pitch not the usual soundbites that the Portugese provides. Hopefully the game will live up to its superstar billing; history tells you it will. Let the best team win.