Barcelona vs. Real Madrid – El Clásico: Football's greatest rivalry


For both its sustained tension and the worldwide popularity, only a few sporting events in the world can be compared to Spain’s ‘El Clasico’ matches. Those matches, with its glittering array of stars and the quality of football it produces, had always captivated the hearts of millions including many who are originally immune to the allure of the beautiful game.

However, it’s not just the battles they endure on the field that makes this match-up so extraordinary but also the history that trails behind it.The story behind this rivalry stretches past the establishment of either football team or the creation of La Liga and FIFA; it goes even beyond the Spanish Civil War(1936-39).

The two clubs had for long represented the political and cultural tensions between two regions of Spain—Castile and Catalonia, who had been battling for the political control of Spain with the Catalans generally on the losing side. That friction still remains true between the two clubs with an official study in 2002 revealing that Barca supporters tend towards left-wing ideologies and Catalan independence while the Madrid fans are generally inclined with right-wing centralists.

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The Political History

Official football matches between FC Barcelona and Madrid FC began as early as 1902, and in those days, the most intense of their clashes happened in the Campeonato de España, the current Copa del Rey, which was organised to celebrate the coronation of Spanish King, Alfonso XII. The two clubs came representing their respective leagues, the Campeonato Regional Centro, and Campionat de Catalunya, and the games were often played with more than a victory at stake.

The biggest turning point of the rivalry, though, happened in 1913 when King Alfonso XIII bestowed his patronage to Real Madrid FC, and the Catalonians soon began identifying FC Barcelona as a symbol of their protest against the policies of Madrid-based governments. Those emotions delved deeper levels during the regime of the dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-30), who outlawed the use of Catalan language and imposed severe restrictions on the freedom of Catalan people. For the oppressed Catalonian population, FC Barcelona now stood for more than their beloved football club but one of the few ways they could express their national identity.

Then in July 1936, Spain’s military leaders ordered a coup at the kingship which ended in a three-year civil war between the nation’s left-wing party and the right-wing militia led by General Francisco Franco. The war ended in a victory for the General and soon into the power, Franco declared the use of Catalán as a crime worse enough to be punished with torture and/or execution. Later in 1940, he appointed Santiago Bernabéu as the new president of Real Madrid, which established the role of Real Madrid as the sporting representative of Spain and the Francoist regime.

The Di Stefano Episode

As if it wasn’t already bad enough, then followed the Di Stéfano affair. The Argentinean legend was a target for both sides after impressing for Los Millonarios in Colombia, and the Columbian club allegedly made separate deals with both the Spanish clubs. Real Madrid and Barcelona both claimed his ownership which lead to a legal tussle that ended with a ruling to make Di Stéfano available for each club in alternative seasons. Barca claimed that the Franco regime pulled strings from behind to ensure ‘their’ club Real acquire the player, and in protest, Barcelona gave up all their rights on the Argentinian.

The Blonde Arrow, as De Stefano was fondly called by the Madridistas, soon began his love affair with the new fans by finding the net twice in a 5-0 thrashing of Barcelona. From there, he largely changed the dynamics of Spanish football as Real Madrid dominated the 1950-60s with four consecutive Ligas as well as the first five editions of the European Cup from 1955-56 to 1959-60.

By 1960, Barcelona lost some of their former glory and was soon dethroned by Atlético de Madrid who shared with Real Madrid most of the domestic trophies between 1960 and 1970. With Atletico now posing as the main rival to Real Madrid, the significance of El Clasicos faded behind the Madrid derbies.

However, the decade ended with one of the most hostile matches in world football when Barcelona and Real Madrid contested the quarter-finals of the Copa del Generalísimo on June 6th, 1970. The Madrid side won the first leg 2-0 but was trailing 1-0 behind the Blaugranas in the second leg when the referee blew a penalty against Barcelona. The Barça fans responded with throwing cushions into the pitch and Eladio, the then Barcelona captain, joined the protest by yelling at the referee, “you’re a Madrid supporter, you have no shame” and was promptly sent off. Few minutes later, the referee failed to call a clear penalty against Madrid and the Barca supporters invaded the pitch causing the game to stop five minutes before the final whistle.

The Arrival of Johan Cruyff

In 1973, a Dutchman walked into the Spanish football altering its dynamics once again. The then record signing arrived at the Catalan club with many controversies when he publicly called Real Madrid a fascist team, and later, christened his son Jordi, the Catalan for George, at a time when Catalan names were illegal in Spain.

In 1973-74 season, the Barcelona side inspired by Cruyff claimed their first league title since 1960 and along the way, thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 at their home ground. The victory brought Barca fans pouring into the street in celebration where they shared a collective belief of “with Cruyff, the team felt they couldn’t lose”.

The three-time Ballon d’Or winner left Barcelona in 1978 but returned as their coach in 1988 to create the ‘Dream Team’ that ended five seasons of Madrid domination with the 1990-91 title, and stayed there for four consecutive seasons until 1993-94. FC Barcelona would win two more Ligas and two Copas before the end of the decade but after Cruyff left Camp Nou in 1996, the dominance would return to Madrid who was now led by a young Raúl González.

The Galecticos and Pep Guardiola

The decade culminated with the formation of Florentino Pérez’s ‘Los Galácticos’ which featured global superstars like Luis Figo, Raúl, David Beckham, Roberto Carlo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo amongst other big names. The capture of Luis Figo from the arch rivals produced a lot of controversies when Madrid met his $60.1 million buy-out clause and Barca fans never forgave the Portuguese for joining their arch-rivals. On his return to Camp Nou, he was received with banners saying words like “Traitor”, “Judas”, “Scum”, and infamously a pig’s head thrown on the pitch when he was trying to take a corner kick.

The Madrid side won La Liga in 2000-01 and 2002-03 and Barcelona reacted with the signing of Ronaldinho who guided them to two consecutive Ligas in 2004-05 and 2005-06. But they failed to sustain their dominance during the next two years until the young and inexperienced Pep Guardiola returned to Camp Nou as their new coach. The Spaniard proceeded to build one of the finest Barcelona sides in history, led by a young Leo Messi and supported by the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué and Busquets amongst others.

His second season at the helm of the Catalan club saw them becoming the first side to win all six possible trophies in a calendar year. The unchallenged ride also included a brilliant 2-6 victory in El Clásico over Real Madrid, which was followed a season later with another 5-0 drubbing.

The appointment of ‘Special One’

Humiliated Los Blancos appointed Jose Mourinho in 2010 with the hopes of fighting Barcelona dominance in the league. The Portuguese manager began his tenure with a humiliating 5-0 defeat on his first El Clasico encounter but would avenge his loss in the Copa del Rey final where Madrid trumped their arch rivals to end an eighteen-year-long Copa del Rey drought. Mourinho would then outclass himself in the next season when Real Madrid went on to win their first La Liga title in four years, and setting along some impressive records of most games won in a La Liga season (32), most away wins (16), most points obtained in any of the top European leagues (100), improving the most goals scored record they already had set earlier (121), and finishing the season with the highest goal difference (+89)

The arrival of Mourinho once again set ablaze the rivalry which was soon becoming tedious. But the Portuguese manager is often criticised for making the fixture became less about artistry and more about cynicism and spite, which produced on-pitch brawls, off-pitch word wars and infamously Mourinho poking Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.

With the return of Jose Mourinho to Chelsea, El Clasico lost a large part of it’s hostile sheen. And both sides entered a rebuilding period which further pulled the sting out those clashes. The rebuilding, though, didn’t go as planned for Madrid as the continuing managerial changes buckled their star-clad squad from reaching its true potential. Barcelona, on the other hand, created a quintessential side under Luis Enrique which features the deadly trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar up front.

Real Madrid had trailed behind the rejuvenated Barca side in the league for past two seasons, which crippled the El Clasico’s habit of defining the season. It’s the same this time around as well where Barcelona is at comfortable seven points atop Los Blancos. There will be some consequences to tonight’s result but nothing enough to define the seasons for either team.

However, El Clasico remains to be the most closely contested grudge football match in the world, and with a furious history of rivalry behind, which could bring the best out of the players even when they have only their pride at stake to fight for.