More than a club

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El Clásico is one of the biggest sporting rivalries in history. Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona demonstrates how sport is often no mere test of virtuosity. It's a sociopolitical phenomenon...

Barcelona is “more than a club”. You couldn't throw a stone in football fan circles without hearing this slogan. But what does it really mean? Is it just a statement of brand braggadocio or does it run deeper than that? This is what Carles Rexach, the man who is said to have famously signed Lionel Messi “on a napkin” at Barcelona, had to say on the subject during a fascinating interview with British journalist Sid Lowe for football quarterly Blizzard:

“Barcelona is a feeling. Years ago, the political element was central and it’s still there: Catalanism, separatism, nationalism. Even people who didn’t like football took an interest in football through Barcelona, because it meant something, hence more than a club. Its politics and football wrapped up together.”

Jorge Valdano, who handed the legendary Raul Gonzalez, then a 17-year-old, his debut at Real Madrid, when asked what then did he make of the Real versus Barcelona rivalry, said, “As a club versus more than a club. Real Madrid is a club that has defined its social relevance through its results. Its history and identity has been constructed through what it did on the pitch.”

“Madrid starts and ends with football, even if over the years it has cultivated a hatred of its rivals.”

 

This in more ways than one perfectly encapsulates how the rivalry, and its on-field avatar, El Clásico, have played out several decades. Barcelona FC has always been synonymous with Catalan nationalism and Real Madrid always with General Franco’s dictatorship and his attempts to instill Castilian supremacy.

Real, the conformist, versus Barcelona, the rebel; Real, the authority, versus Barcelona, the victim. As Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most distinguished leftist thinkers, wrote about football in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “In soccer, ritual sublimation of war, eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighbourhood, the city or the nation.”

 

Most rivalries in sport, the engaging ones at least, are a clash of fundamentally opposing identities. How deep and intense they turn out to be is often decided by factors outside the arena. In the case of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the geopolitical equations and the accompanying culture struggles were the ones that shaped the rivalry at the outset.

Galeano writes, “When General Franco, arm in arm with Hitler and Mussolini, bombed the Spanish Republic, a Basque team was on the road in Europe and the club Barcelona was playing in the United States and Mexico. The Basque government had sent the Euzkudi team to France and other countries to publicise their cause and raise funds for defense; Barcelona had sailed for America with the same mission. It was 1937 and Barcelona’s captain had already fallen under Franco’s bullets. On the soccer field and off, the two wandering teams embodied democracy under siege.”

   

But there is also this counter-view of Real Madrid; when Franco ruled Spain, it projected an idea of the country that the outside world never knew of  — a poor and depressed nation had finally found a club which could “conquer the world”, it was said. Santiago Bernabéu Yeste, president for 35 years from 1943 and the man after whom Real’s home ground is named, is credited with having built the gigantic stadium and “seduced” the world’s biggest stars to come and play.

If Barcelona’s identity was in part wrought by the sheer size of its rival, the latter took pride in the very grandiosity itself. So much was the one-upmanship on both sides that even as Madrid, the city, stood for the one-language, one-culture and one-nation theory, many a conflict within the Catalan region was sought to be projected as a triumph of democracy where multiple voices could be heard.

Yet, if seen dispassionately, it’s unmistakable that both clubs literally fed off each other and continue to do so. It is quintessentially a symbiotic relationship. Even Valdano tells Lowe that they are like “cathedrals in the Middle Ages; you compete with the nearest town. The size of their tower makes yours bigger and so on.” In fact, Raul, after winning the Champions League in 2002, is said to have remarked that it didn’t actually seem very good because Barcelona was so down and out.

 

Such prejudice, as deeply entrenched as it is, doesn’t obviously vanish in a jiffy. Yet, its shelf-life, amid the erosion of social identities in traditional societies, is astonishing. Earlier, much of the sentiment was built and sustained by a bunch of predominantly home-grown players. Even Franco, when he saw talented players from abroad, sought to nationalise them and make them turn out for Spain.

But even in the aftermath of the ruling in the Jean-Marc-Bosman case in 1995, which made it illegal for clubs to stop players from moving on a free transfer once their contracts had expired and removed restrictions on the number of European Union players, it has remained unchanged.

 

Players, even when not from the neighbourhood, have been co-opted and ones who crossed the bridge between the two clubs severely loathed. The best example is Luis Figo, the Portuguese maestro, hero at Real Madrid, the first of the Galacticos, who helped them achieve continued success. But an out-and-out traitor at Barcelona, for leaving the club for Real, and once welcomed by a severed head of a pig by the Catalan fans.

Perhaps the only thing that has changed, even as the Catalans, as recently as September this year, voted in yet another independence referendum, is that their concerns have caught up with times and are more 21st century.

“Catalonia is a motor: people are hard-working here,” Rexach says. “We feel like Germany must with Spain. We pay. We pay a lot but we get little say. They build new roads in Andalusia for four cars a month. Here in Catalonia we have always been pioneers: industry, technology, the first cars, food, ideas... bit by bit, that reaches Madrid and they take it from you. Take flights to New York for example: you can’t get a direct flight there from Barcelona anymore; you have to go via Madrid. That kind of thing pisses people off.”

So how does all this seem to a neutral like me, whose country has seen neither a dictatorship nor a civil war to render an equivalent backdrop? One whose country has a near-zero footballing culture and practically nothing to relate to other than the love for the televised game?

 

Would the rivalry be rendered somewhat superficial to a spectator who doesn't have the historical prism to view it through? Someone who's in it for a glimpse of sheer virtuosity? A Cristiano Ronaldo–Lionel Messi clash rather than anything else; a tug of war between a more direct and counter-attacking style and a pass-to-death approach?

Well, maybe not entirely superficial. Those who watch Ronaldo and Messi attest that the two men represent are how their respective clubs are widely perceived to be. Ronaldo, the man so much in love with himself against Messi, the genial genius; Real, a club run almost despotically by Florentino Perez against a more democratic Barcelona; Real, a club which revels in “seducing” and poaching world-class talent from other clubs against Barcelona which produces its own.

 

There are those on the other side of the divide too, vehemently arguing that Barcelona isn’t holier than thou. Barcelona, it is reported, spent more on transfers during the summer of 2011 than Real Madrid they say; a Barcelona which was canonised for chosing to sport Unicef logo on the club jersey and thereby losing out on millions of dollars, but later sold its soul by entering into a shirt-sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation worth £25m a year for five years; a Barcelona, of La Masia fame (its academy), buying Brazilian star Neymar and the notorious but outrageously talented Luis Suarez for jaw-dropping amounts and even getting slapped with a transfer ban for irregularities.

What these tell one is that football rivalries are much more layered than widely thought. They sustain themselves on history, but need a new narrative or a development to thrive. The remarkable thing about the El Clásico is that there just seems no dearth of things which keeps it from deflating.

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