El Clasico: Why Real Madrid & Barcelona Aren't That Different

Billed as the crown jewel of the Spanish footballing calendar, Real Madrid vs Barcelona means so much more than just the final score. But the two sides have more in common than they'd like to think.
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Billed as the crown jewel of the Spanish footballing calendar, Real Madrid vs Barcelona means so much more than just the final score. But the two sides have more in common than they'd like to think.

Billed as the crown jewel of the Spanish footballing calendar, Barcelona vs Real Madrid means so much more than just the final score. But the two sides aren't quite as different as they'd like to think.

Locals joke that the Camp Nou’s loudest noise comes at half time when Burberry-clad ladies unwrap the tin foil from their cured ham sandwiches. Either that or when news comes through that Madrid are losing. The Camp Nou does match the hype a couple of times a season, though. When the Catalan national side plays one of its non-FIFA recognised matches, the stadium is a feverish amphitheatre of Catalan flags. The other occasion is when Madrid comes to town. Watching Real Madrid walk out at the Camp Nou is one of the great moments in world sport. Resplendent in all white, their starting 11 run out to the centre circle and applaud the crowd, prompting further anger. When Figo returned, that anger was multiplied - hell hath no fury like a football club whose star player has defected to its most hated rival.

With 16 minutes left and the game goalless, Figo attempted to take a corner in front of a sea of contorted young faces - the Boixos Nois (crazy boys) ultras. Objects were hurled towards him, a barrage of beer cans, lighters and plastic bottles rained down, plus an empty glass bottle of J&B whisky - the company were later said to be delighted with the free advertising - and a pig's head. Television showed several Barça directors laughing, grins which faded as the players were led off the field by the referee to “cool things down”. Barcelona were ordered to close their ground for two games, a ban that was never enforced.

"The police stopped us on the outskirts of Madrid and told us that they were going to protect us. They led us into a trap where we were stoned with bricks and bottles. We travelled back with no windows through the freezing night. It took eight hours."

In Barcelona there’s a widespread conviction that the Madrid-based authorities, both regional and national, have assisted the club because they see them as a major draw for the city. To clear Real's £200 million debt, Florentino Pérez, the president who oversaw the Galatico era (as in they must be so talented that they are from another galaxy), called on his contacts in high places. He negotiated a deal to sell their prestigiously located training ground, which they’d acquired from the local council for next to nothing 30 years before. Admirable council support or unfair assistance? Barça, of course, have at times enjoyed an equally cosy relationship with the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government as well as Catalan banks who would never close their lines of credit.

Whilst Barça have long pleaded persecution, there's a history of hostility going the other way. In 1916 there were reports of Madrid players being showered with missiles in Barcelona. In 1930, Madrid played a Cup final against Athletic Bilbao in Barcelona, the Basques and the Catalans combining to vent their derision of all things white. Madrid had a perfectly legitimate winner disallowed by a Catalan referee and Bilbao won the game in extra time, the Madrid players pelted as they returned to the changing rooms. In 1936, just a month before the Spanish Civil War broke out, Real Madrid met Barcelona in the Cup final in Valencia, Real's Catalan goalkeeper Zamora pulling off one of the greatest saves in Spanish football history in his team's 2-1 victory.

In the 1936-9 Spanish Civil War, Barcelona was a Republican stronghold, Madrid the base for Franco's eventually victorious Falangist rebels. After the war, Atlético Aviación, the air force team later to become Atlético de Madrid, initially benefited more from Franco's rule than Real. But not for long. Madrid's official history lists the club's biggest domestic cup win as an 11-1 victory over Barça in 1943. It describes the result as 'majestic' and the players that day as 'heroes'. What it doesn't say is that having lost the first leg 3-0, before the second leg Barcelona's players were treated to a terrifying changing room visit from Franco's Director of State Security who ominously reminded them that they were only playing due to the 'generosity of the regime'.

Barça's whole identity has been shaped by its persecution by Madrid. For 40 years under Franco, Catalonia was repressed, its language and culture outlawed. In those dark times Barça embodied the spirit and hope of Catalans. It had a club president executed by Francoist troops and the team banned from playing for six months after the fans booed the Spanish national anthem. Barça's Les Corts stadium and later the Camp Nou became a focal point for Catalan nationalism, a vehicle for a powerful collective identity in defiance of a dictator, one of the few places where the language could be spoken without fear of repression. Barça and Catalonia have been inseparable ever since. As former coach Bobby Robson put it, “Catalonia is a country and FC Barcelona is their army.” In the light of history and its legacy of pride and resentment, Barça's motto “mes que un club” (More than a club) is no exaggeration.

Real Madrid as we know it today only began to take shape when Santiago Bernabéu took up his post as club president in 1944. Bernabéu had fought with Franco's forces and aligned the club with the new regime, although his first act as president was to send a telegram to Barça saying he hoped for good relations with them. And yet the story of how Real's greatest player, Alfredo Di Stéfano, came to be at the club still causes arguments. Barcelona agreed a deal to take the Argentinian in 1953 and Madrid entered a counter-offer but was too late. At Madrid's request, the Spanish Federation intervened and Franco's General Moscardó passed a law banning the importation of foreign players. Barça were forced to relent until Moscardó brokered a deal for the two clubs to 'share' the player.

Barça were outraged, and washed their hands of the whole affair. Real got Di Stéfano and in his first season won the league for the first time in 21 years, going on to win its first five European Cups. Real Madrid became
standard bearers for Spain at a time when the country was relatively poor and treated as a pariah abroad because of its dictator.
Barça had a fine '50s team too, but government control of the media meant their exploits were overshadowed by Madrid's - another cause for resentment.

Despite its standing as a beacon of Catalan pride, many of Barça's greatest managers and players have been foreign. Indeed the club was actually founded in 1899 by two expatriate businessmen, a Swiss, Hans Gamper, and an Englishman, Arthur Witty, who wanted to formalise their weekend kickabouts.

In recent decades players like Ladislao Kubala, Diego Maradona, Gary Lineker, Hristo Stoichkov, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco, Messi and Johan Cruyff have joined a list of successful foreign coaches including Helenio Herrera, Rinus Michels, Terry Venables and Frank Rijkaard. In Madrid, meanwhile, a mostly homegrown team lead by outstanding imports (in the '50s Di Stefano of Argentina and Ferenc Puskas of Hungary) is a formula that has been successfully revived again and again.

Fans are loathed to admit it, but Barça and Madrid have more in common than they don't – like a propensity to dispose of successful managers. Both teams benefit from an obsequious media and both are expected to beat all who have the audacity to turn up against them. The flip side is that when either side loses, the media seldom credit the victors, but would rather magnify the mistakes of the losers.

Figo attempted to take a corner in front of a sea of contorted young faces. Objects were hurled towards him, a barrage of beer cans, lighters and plastic bottles rained down, plus an empty glass bottle of J&B whisky... and a pig's head.

Madrid's 2002 centenary year was a cringe inducing, backslapping celebration. Barça's, three years earlier, was not dissimilar. And both are similar in structure too, with fierce rivalries contested in basketball, ice hockey and handball sections along with many other sports.

However Madrid have prided themselves on a level of consistency that Barcelona have been unable to match. Barça have frequently had the more stylish attacking teams, but they won the league just once between 1960 and 1984. Madrid won it 14 times over the same period.
Just as signing Di Stéfano was crucial to Madrid, signing Johan Cruyff was vital to Barcelona. (Cruyff's transfer fee from Ajax was financed by the Banca Catalana - so much for Madrid's unfair advantage). Madrid had tried to
sign Cruyff after he had destroyed them playing for Ajax in April 1973, but he reportedly resented the right wing connections and was seduced by the idea of living in and playing for Barcelona, where he still lives, the power without a position behind the Barca throne.

In Cruyff's first game for Barça in the Bernabéu, he scored one and set up three of the other four as his new team won 5-0. Madridistas refer to it as the Black Night and Barça were champions that year. Still, Real Madrid won five of the next six league titles with their 'Ye-Ye' team of Santillana, Pirri, Camacho, Ångel and Del Bosque. Madrid hated Cruyff. He called his son Jordi - ostensibly because he liked the name – but when he went to register the birth he was refused as it was an outlawed Catalan name. Authority backed down when they realised they couldn't really afford to upset the most popular man in Catalonia - which only made him a bigger hero.

In the '80s, it was Real's 'vulture squad' who dominated. Emilio Butragueño, Michel, Martín Vásquez, Manolo Sanchís were all products of Real's youth system, with foreigners Hugo Sánchez and Jorge Valdano brought in to score the goals. Despite domestic success, they couldn't progress beyond the European Cup semi-finals, which they reached three times. And when Cruyff became manager in 1988, Barcelona achieved the kind of consistency that Madrid had become famous for.

There’s a party atmosphere in a rain soaked Bernabéu, with its tighter, steeper, vortex of seats than the Camp Nou. Despite having 23,000 fewer seats, the Bernabéu appears more imposing as it towers into the Iberian sky. It's from the inside that both stadiums impress, their outer exposed tiers of concrete contributing little of aesthetic note. Barca plan to change that with the English architect Lord Foster having won a competition to cover and remodel the stadium, expanding the capacity to a dizzying 104,000.

Watching Real Madrid walk out at the Camp Nou is one of the great moments in world sport. Resplendent in all white, their starting 11 run out to the centre circle and applaud the crowd, prompting further anger.

The Barca players have to soak up the Bernabéu atmosphere as they form a guard of honour for Real Madrid. The home players emerge from the tunnel, but don’t take their opportunity to rub their foes noses in it, instead shaking hands. The Ultras Sur holler their anti-Catalan insults - "Separatist b******s", "Polish s***s" (they class Catalans as a mongrel race) – which are drowned out by the rousing club anthem Hala Madrid a grandiose effort more opera house than stadium. Officially, the Ultras Sur are self-financing, but rumours persist that they receive tickets and travel assistance from club officials. The same was true of the Boixos in Barcelona until president Joan Laporta cut all assistance, receiving death threats for his troubles. The Ultras argue that without their presence, the atmosphere would be far flatter in the stadium, although there’s little chance of that tonight as Madrid celebrate their league title triumph in style by crushing Barca 4-1.

It’s the first time Madrid have done the double over Barca in 24 years and a result which helps deprive the Catalans of an automatic place in the Champions League. Despite every goal being greeted by awful rock music and a public address announcer in love with his own voice, the 78,000 crowd create a party vibe and love seeing Barca reel. They sing ‘El Viva Espanya!’ and ‘Barca, you twats, salute the champions!’ When Barca won the league in 2005, striker Samuel Eto’o sang the same song, only with anti-Madrid sentiments. The 800 Ultras behind the goal then offer fascist salutes before singing ‘campeones’ and songs against Laporta, but at board level, both clubs enjoy cordial relations.

An otherwise dire Thierry Henry finishes superbly to net Barça’s consolation goal, but there are just six Barca fans in the stadium to celebrate according the club officials. And Jordi from the train, of course, who will have slipped under any figures. While Barça and Madrid fans claim with some justification that it would be unsafe for them to go as away fans to either ground in any serious numbers, their arguments mask an embarrassing truth: their away support is minimal. Different reasons are given. There's the theory that in buying a ticket for an away ground you are financially enriching a rival club. Then there's the distance argument. Barcelona to La Coruña, for instance, is 16 hours by road. English teams regularly take ten times as many fans to Europe as Barca or Madrid.

Still, in the '90s, Barça's Boixos Nois obtained tickets and organised coaches for the Bernabéu. "The police stopped us on the outskirts of Madrid and told us that they were going to protect us," remembers one who made the journey. "They led us into a trap where we were stoned with bricks and bottles. We travelled back with no windows through the freezing night. It took eight hours."

As Luis Suárez, one of Spain’s leading historians says of el gran classicó: “It feels as if we are reliving the arguments that generated the civil war all over again, with the politics of nationhood and regional aspirations influencing a football match in a way that should best be kept outside the stadium.”

You can read part one here.

This was part of a chapter in Mad For It (Harper Collins), Andy Mitten’s 2008 book on world football derbies.

Mitten’s new book, The Rough Guide to Cult Football, is out now and published by Rough Guides/Penguin, priced £9.99.

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You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten