El Gran Clasico: Real Madrid v Barcelona Means More Than Victory

They meet today for the sixth time this season... here's why Real Madrid v Barcelona is so much more than just a game.
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Billed as the crown jewel of the Spanish footballing calendar, Real Madrid v Barcelona means so much more than just the final score. Here's why...

The elderly Catalan on the new high speed AVE between Barcelona and Madrid doesn’t realise he has an audience.

“Luis,” he shouts, loud enough for people in the adjoining carriages of the sleek train to hear.

“It’s Jordi. I’m nearly there. Are you still sleeping? You lazy Madrid a***hole. Not a good day’s work in any of you.”

Fellow passengers giggle and while it’s only possible to hear one side of the conversation, they’re able to decipher that Jordi’s daughter has treated him to a trip to Madrid to see his old friend and his beloved Barca play Real Madrid. And that Jordi is suspicious of Luis’s claim that he’s only been sleeping because he’s been celebrating Madrid’s Spanish league title at the fountain of Cibeles for three days.

There’s more laughs as stereotypes are traded, with Luis retorting with something about Jordi not paying for his train ticket himself because Catalans are parsimonious. However, the rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid is not always expressed with such good humour.

It’s May 2008. Just two years ago, Barcelona were champions of Spain and Europe. Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Carles Puyol, Deco, Xavi, Iniesta, Henrik Larsson and Lionel Messi all shone in a world-class team coached by Frank Rijkaard. They deserved every superlative lavished on them as they stayed true to Barça’s attacking 4-3-3 beliefs, playing incisive, passing football topped by the individual talents capable of deconstructing even Milanese defences. Barca remained hated in Madrid, but respected. When they demolished their arch-rivals 3-0 at the Bernabéu in November 2006, Ronaldinho wheeled away after scoring a superb individual goal to unprecedented applause from Madridistas. David Beckham looked crushed, like he had joined the wrong team. Yet in the summer of 2003, when Madrid beat Barcelona to sign Beckham, Barça fans could only shrug their shoulders. Such was the depressed state of their club that few in Catalonia could muster any outrage. There was a huge gulf in success between Spain’s two biggest clubs and historically ferocious rivals.

"Barcelona are like the shit from a dog that sticks in your shoes when you walk in by mistake. Sometimes we have to shake it off. They don't see themselves as Spanish and reject anything that comes from Madrid because it's the capital."

The Spanish media are obsessed by the changing cycles of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance. Everything is black and white; it’s victory or failure, boom or bust, first or second. And for Barca or Madrid, when second constitutes failure, the line between love and hate is fine. That November 2006 triumph saw Barcelona’s fortunes peak, for in the five games which followed with Rijkaard as coach, they would not beat Madrid again.

Yet the Barça/Madrid rivalry has always run deeper than results. Far deeper. The clubs represent two languages, two peoples and, in the view of many Catalans, two countries. And each of those two countries invests enormous national pride and vast sums in their flagship clubs. Which is why the game they call the el gran clasico remains, whatever the relative positions of the two sides, probably the most emotionally charged yet glamorous domestic club fixture in the world.

May 7th 2008. It’s three days since Madrid won their 31st Spanish title (against Barça’s 18) and not even the heavy rain dampens spirits in Europe’s highest capital. White Madrid flags hang limply from apartment windows and the headlines in the Madrid supporting Marca and AS sport papers are joyous. Both are excited at the humiliation about to be heaped on the Barca players who will form a guard of honour to applaud their hated enemy as the new champions.

From my hotel room on Gran Via, Madrid’s main thoroughfare in this fast growing city of four million, I watch the local channels. Spanish television is routinely awful, but the interview with Mariano Rajoy, the right wing leader of the opposition, is amusing. One minute he is being asked about politics, the next for a score prediction of tonight’s game.

“2-1 Madrid,” Rajoy, a Madrid supporter, says confidently. Rajoy has lost the last two Spanish elections to left wing José Luis Zapatero, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Spain to declare himself a Barca fan.

The channel cuts to a group of actors wearing Barcelona shirts outside the exit to the Santiago Bernabéu metro. Forming a mock guard of honour, they are applauding passengers. Given that the Bernabéu sits on the wealthy Paseo de la Castellana (formerly the Avenida del Generalísimo Franco), a wide, leafy thoroughfare lined by skyscrapers in the heart of commercial Madrid, they greet suited uptown girls enthusiastically - less so the male northern European tourists in replica shirts. Madrid, like Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona and Milan, are clinical in exploiting the tourist dollar. And given it’s only really tourists and kids who wear replica shirts to games, they change them every year.

The actors have long gone by the time I leave the same metro station three hours before kick off. Instead, I’m greeted with stalls selling pro-Madrid and anti-Barcelona merchandise. “This is Spain,” announces one slogan over a map of the country, “If you don’t like it, go!” Catalan nationalists would not approve.

The Madrid team bus nudges through the crowd to rapturous applause.

“I saw Robinho!” screams a girl to her boyfriend. There’s no such warm welcome when Madrid visit Barcelona, even though Madrid is the second most popular team in Catalonia, because hundreds of thousands of Madridistas fans from all over Spain were encouraged to move to the region in search of work – and to dilute the Catalan identity - between in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

“Once we got to Barcelona, it was mad with thousands of fans at the airport and up all night outside our hotel," recalls former player Steve McManaman. “We had so much security but the bus windows get smashed in every time on the way to the ground. Everyone got out the window seats. We closed the curtains and edged into the middle with some in the aisle but there wasn’t room for all of us there. If you stood you knew what was going to happen. I've was never hit and thankfully the windows were reinforced. They had two layers so if the outside smashed, the bricks didn't come through."

Glamorous television presenters loiter outside the Bernabéu with microphones hoping to grab a word with smiling celebrities. But they are celebrities of a lower order and spend most of their time posing for photos with fans. Madrid’s home crowd are largely middle class, but their profile is very different just a hundred yards away in a street of nondescript mid-rise apartments. There, lads in Londsdale and Harrington jackets, snide tight jeans and Doc Marten's boots stand around drinking the local brew, Mahou, and singing. The road has been blocked off by the Policia Nacional (the national police force who are not allowed to police Camp Nou for their own safety) as members of the extreme right wing Ultras Sur set off fireworks, drink alcohol and sing anti-Catalan songs.

The Spanish media are obsessed by the changing cycles of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance. Everything is black and white; it’s victory or failure, boom or bust, first or second.

The humid air smells of stale sweat. Some Ultras wear paramilitary regalia and caps that wouldn't look out of place on a traffic warden. They also sing Que Viva España and one ultra swings the blue and white scarf of Español, Barcelona's local and historically non-Catalan rivals. There's a black van with their neo-fascist logo on the side, brought to transport their paraphernalia of flags, banners and flash bombs, which regularly puncture the air. On my last visit there, I met Pablo, a Madrid socio for 40 out of his 41 years. "Barcelona are like the mess from a dog that sticks in your shoes when you walk in by mistake,” he told me. “Sometimes we have to shake it off.” Asked for his view of Barca, Pablo’s father said: “They don't see themselves as Spanish and reject anything that comes from Madrid because it's the capital.

"I know Barcelona is very pretty and that most of the people are fine, but others have an inferiority complex about Madrid. We supported and contributed to Barcelona's Olympics and we were proud that they took place in Spain, but they are against Madrid's bid for 2012. Why?"

Madrid has tried to replicate Barcelona’s Olympic games success by staging their own. Alongside Paris, they were favourites for the 2012 games, but were beaten by London. You can now buy ‘Madrid 3012’ t-shirts in Barcelona.

Having divided his time between Barcelona and Madrid for over a decade, Lancastrian Michael Turner has an interesting perspective. "Even people who know nothing about football will watch the Barça v Madrid game. If it was between two countries it would be called racism, but because it's between two regions it's called rivalry. Catalans believe that Madrileños are superficial and too big for their boots. They believe that Barça players are playing for an ethical cause, unlike those who play for Madrid. They consider themselves better educated and superior beings. Catalans think they embody the upright nature somebody like Gary Lineker or Bobby Robson demonstrated - that's partly why they were so highly thought of.
"Barceloneses are proud of their city, whereas Madrileños tend to complain more about the local administration, the traffic,” adds Turner. “There's actually a lot of respect in Madrid for the way in which things are managed in Barcelona. The dislike is definitely more from the Catalans and that's because of the political history of repression. That said, the majority of Catalans are reasonably happy with their lot. They would like respect within a federal framework and a little more autonomy, but not complete autonomy from Spain."

“I will always hate Madrid. There’s just something about them that gets up my nose. I would rather the ground opened up and swallowed me than accept a job with them. In fact, I really do not like speaking about them because it makes me want to vomit.”

Not the words of a febrile Barca ultra, but of Hristo Stoichkov, the tetchy Bulgarian striker whose sublime skills thrilled Catalunya for much of the 1990s. The 1994 European Football of the Year tells it like he sees it. And how he is loved for it. Wearing Barca’s proudly corporate free carmine and blue striped shirt (the club pay UNICEF £1.6 million a year to show their logo), he backed up his words with the type of unflinching commitment every fan demands. Against Madrid, he scored extravagant last minute winners and received two yellow cards, not to mention a two-month suspension for stamping on a referee’s foot. Against Madrid. Stoichkov didn’t disappoint. To this day he remains a hero.

“Once we got to Barcelona, it was mad with thousands of fans at the airport and up all night outside our hotel," recalls former player Steve McManaman. “We had so much security but the bus windows get smashed in every time on the way to the ground."

Stoichkov has been honoured by two of Barca’s 1,828 penyas (supporters’ clubs) taking his name. Just eight of the clubs many foreigners have been granted this honour. Gary Lineker has one – he became an instant hero after scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Madrid in his first season, 1986-87. And despite being played as a winger, he also netted in Barça’s win in the Bernabéu later in the season. Ladislao Kubala, often rated as the best ever Barca player has two. Only Johan Cruyff - the man who revitalised Barça on the field in the 70s and did even better as manager in the '90s when his 'Dream Team' won four successive championships and the European Cup - has more with three.

There was another foreigner with two, but Luis Figo was quickly dropped after events in the summer of 2000. Figo’s move to Real Madrid still has repercussions. Easily Barça’s best player and European Player of the Year in 2000, he moved for a then world record £38 million fee after signing a speculative deal with Florentino Pérez, a Bernabéu presidential challenger. Given that Madrid had just won their eighth European Cup under the incumbent club president, few gave Pérez a chance, but the influential construction magnate promised the impossible: vote for me and not only will I clear this club's preposterous £200 million debt, but I'll also deliver the best player from our rivals. Pérez was soon president, each year delivering to Madrid another franchise player - Figo in '00, Zidane '01, Ronaldo 02', Beckham '03.

Figo first returned in November 2000 to a welter of abuse. Every time he strayed close to the edge of the pitch - which, given that he played on the wing, he was inclined to do - a rubbish truck seemed to empty its contents in his direction from above, including, among the bottles and oranges, five mobiles, unused credit and all. “It was impossible to concentrate,” sighed team mate McManaman as Barça won 2-0.

Figo wasn't the complete traitor that the Catalan media portrayed. Barça officials were sending him mixed signals about a new contract, and he called their bluff. He claims that the media and certain Barcelona officials conspired against him and that he still has happy memories from his time in Catalonia. Figo returned to the Camp Nou for a second time in November 2002. Most expected the hatred to have eased. It hadn't...

You can read part two 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