El Clásico: The History And Politics Behind Football’s Biggest Rivalry

Two of the world’s truly elite sport teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s monopoly within football is big. No club outside of the two has lifted the Champions League trophy since 2013; in this century alone, they’ve won 13 out of the 17 possible La Liga titles. And this weekend, the pair face each other at the Santiago Bernabéu in a huge match that can make the host champions elect, or bring the away side right back into contention in the title race that means everything to their fans.

Regardless of the connotations, though, and whatever happens during the ninety minutes, people around the world will celebrate, suffer and complain. It’s a rivalry that splits all. In a year like this, El Clásico is probably the biggest game outside the Champions League final. So what’s behind it all? What are the deep-rooted causes that make the Madridistas despise the guys in red and blue so much? What has happened on and off the field since the foundation of both clubs to make culés hold so much hostility for the current Champions League title holders?

Carles Puyol and Raúl, two of the most iconic faces of Barça and Madrid in their long and colourful histories, showing some slightly surprising unity during a Clásico.

Carles Puyol and Raúl, two of the most iconic faces of Barça and Madrid in their long and colourful histories, showing some slightly surprising unity during a Clásico.

To better understand the rivalry between Barça and Madrid, you have to start way back before the foundation of either club – September 11 of 1714, to be precise. That was the day Catalonian forces were defeated in the War of the Spanish Succession and the region became integrated into the centralized Kingdom of Spain. The Catalans lost much of their independence that day, and even though they’ve made significant progress over the years, it’s still a very sore spot. If you have any doubts, next time you see a game at the Camp Nou, just listen to the crowd when the game clock hits 17:14.

But those 300 years of resentment are far from the only thing behind the rivalry of the Spanish giants. The events of the 20th century played a big part in shaping the animosity that still divides the majority of football fans. And as established, it didn’t all happen on the pitch. The next big event came to pass in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War started. It divided Spain in two: the Loyalists and the Nationalists, the latter led by General Francisco Franco, who eventually won the war and went on to rule Spain as a dictator for decades.

Soon after the start of the war, Francoist troops assassinated Josep Sunyol, then president of FC Barcelona and a well-known left-wing politician who opposed the Nationalists. When the war ended in 1939 and Franco assumed power, he was quick to ban all other languages and symbols that didn’t represent a centralized Spain. FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao, for example, were forced to become Barcelona CF and Atlético Bilbao, Spanish versions of their traditional names. The Catalan and Basque languages were banned, and as were their flags.

It was during this period that Barça evolved into més que un club (“more than a club”). With Franco oppressing their identities, the Catalan people rallied around the football club. Their stadium was one of the few places where people felt safe enough to speak Catalan. Franco, meanwhile, though not an actual fan, had adopted Real Madrid as his favoured club, since they represented the Castilian Spain he wanted the world to see. For this and many other details, Madrid has usually been associated with the right-wing, centralised establishment, while Barça resonate more with the left-wing liberals. That’s still true to this day, as studies show that even in modern Spain a big majority of people who self-identify as supporters of the right list Madrid as their club while the left-wing heavily favours Barça.

Independencia - still a sensitive and very important topic to the Catalan people.

Independencia - still a sensitive and very important topic to the Catalan people.

Following on from Franco’s initial part in the building and evolution of the rivalry, next up on the long list of incidents between the two came in 1943 during the Copa del Generalísimo (the Copa del Rey, or King’s Cup, as renamed by Franco). Barça and Madrid were paired against each other and the Catalans had won the first leg comfortably, 3-0. But before the return leg, Franco’s chief of security reportedly (there are still some doubts of the legitimacy of the story) paid the Barça players a visit in the dressing room to remind them that they were only allowed to live because of the generosity of el Generalísimo – and the second fixture ended 11-1 to Real Madrid. It’s still the biggest margin of defeat in the history of El Clásico.

That marked a significant point in the more directly football-based part of tensions between the two sides. Sport continued to grow as a platform from which to fight the historic and political battles that were tough to exercise elsewhere. Competition grew fiercer. And so, naturally, the fight for success on the field would eventually turn into a battle for ownership of the world’s best players who could help them to achieve that superiority over the other.

Perhaps the most iconic of those was the journey of Alfredo Di Stéfano to Europe. Now widely considered one of the greatest of all-time, especially inside of Spain, the Argentine’s transfer proved to be another turning point in the Madrid-Barcelona relationship. You see, because of Juan Perón’s dictatorship in Argentina and the economic turmoil caused by it, there was a massive exodus of their native players to other countries. So Di Stefano landed in Bogotá, Colombia and played for Millonarios, with whom he played against Madrid in 1952. It was there where he dazzled President Santiago Bernabéu.

But due to the chaotic nature of his flight from Argentina, there were doubts about who had the rights to the player. River Plate, his Argentine club, claimed they still had them. So what followed was a very contrived transfer, in which Madrid negotiated with Millonarios and Barça, who were looking to sign him as well, with River Plate. Both Spanish clubs then thought Di Stefano was theirs. He even played a couple of friendlies in red and blue before the Spanish government (i.e. Franco) and FIFA ruled that he would play four seasons in Spain, alternating between the two clubs each season.

Di Stéfano with the five European Cups he helped bring to Madrid. It's fair to say that the confusion and hassle of the transfer was worth it in the end.

Di Stéfano with the five European Cups he helped bring to Madrid. It's fair to say that the confusion and hassle of the transfer was worth it in the end.

Barça felt this was unfair and instead decided to renounce the player on the condition of getting their money back. Madrid happily paid them and never looked back; Di Stefano played the best football of his career for them and led them to win the first five European Cups in succession. Some 20 years later, though, culés were able to gain some long-awaited revenge.

Johan Cruyff would become the next giant that both clubs competed to sign. And Franco again played quite a notable role as the Dutchman refused to play for Madrid – citing Franco’s connections to them as one of the reasons he chose Barça. That would change their future forever; they were totally transformed by Cruyff. Rarely has a single person had so much influence over a club. His ideas of youth training and how football should be played has been a huge part of shaping the club we know today.

When he returned as a coach, he laid the foundations for the team that is visiting the Bernabéu this Sunday. He oversaw not only the main squad, but all the youth teams as well. His ‘Dream Team’ was full of homegrown players, and he named his son Jordi, a Catalan name. He coached a variety of players including Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup that have gone on to become famous managers in their own right too, and, even more importantly, led the team to their first ever European Cup in 1992. Cruyff made Barcelona his home and culés embraced him as their messiah. The deep connection he held with the region and its people was a dream for the fans.

The (sadly) now late, great Johan Cruyff played an enormous part in shaping Barça into the club that we know today.

The (sadly) now late, great Johan Cruyff played an enormous part in shaping Barça into the club that we know today.

Over the next decade the rivalry would continue before hitting another important milestone: the transfer of Luís Figo. While players such as Laudrup and Luis Enrique had switched one club for the other during the 90’s, Figo was a completely different case. He was beloved by Barça fans as one of their own. He was one of the team’s captains and leaders. When Madrilenian presidential candidate Florentino Perez promised he’d get Figo if elected, most culés dismissed the idea straight off the bat. When it actually happened, that disbelief turned into pure undiluted rage at Figo’s apparent betrayal.

Once he returned to the Camp Nou wearing the white jersey, fans jeered and threw objects at him constantly. Then, in 2002, things escalated. In what is now known as “the derby of shame”, Barça supporters threw a bottle of whiskey and a pig’s head at Figo. His transfer marked the beginning of the galácticos policy, with the likes of Ronaldo, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane gradually joining him in Madrid, and started the new century by bringing the rivalry to its most heated point thus far.

But the struggle for dominance would get yet more interesting around the end of the decade. After Barça wowed audiences worldwide in Guardiola’s inaugural season in charge and won the first treble in Spanish football history, Madrid were quick to react. Florentino Pérez was re-elected, and with him came spending like even they had never seen before; the Galácticos mark two, almost. To combat Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi, they broke the transfer record twice in quick succession – first with Kaká, then with Cristiano Ronaldo.

This was particularly poignant because it represented each club’s philosophy (and even the political elements of the rivalry) so well. Madrid’s policy, particularly under Pérez, has largely been about recruiting the biggest stars for astronomical sums of money, creating a squad full of talented players from all corners of the planet. Barça, on the other hand, until the last couple of years at least, have preferred to develop their stars at home. Xavi was 11 when he joined them. Carles Puyol, the face of the club for many years, was 17. And Messi was famously 13 when he signed a contract on a napkin to move there from Argentina.

One of the most iconic trios in football history.

One of the most iconic trios in football history.

Not only did most core players of that famous Barça side come from the youth categories, even their coach had joined them as a teen. It was a sensational team in itself but, just as importantly for their fans, it was one that spoke to and represented their values – and identities – as Catalonians.

It was a year after the arrival of Kaká and Ronaldo when José Mourinho, who’d managed to knock Barça out of the Champions League in 2010, was brought in to put an end to their recently established domestic dominance. Madrid had endured enough pain at the hands of their greatest rivals in those couple of seasons. And so the next two seasons would see some of the most intense and heated games in the history of El Clásico, as well as the development of a narrative that changed the rivalry and made it even more extreme.

One could say that it can all be traced to that tie between Mourinho’s Inter and Guardiola’s Barça. Following a 3-1 win in the first leg, the Italian side dropped all pretence and travelled to Spain with the sole intention of defending for 90 minutes. It was almost insulting for the fans at the Camp Nou. Besides embodying Catalonia, this Barça team was the standard bearer of beautiful attacking and entertaining football – living proof that you could win and thrill fans at the same time. Inter, that night, were the complete opposite. They had no interest in playing football in the way people at the ground understood the sport. But it worked, and Messi and company were knocked out.

And, so, after claiming the treble that year, Mourinho left the San Siro to fight against Guardiola’s team at the helm of the (then) 9-time European Champions. It didn’t take long for a narrative to be formed by the press, clubs and managers, where the free-flowing football of Guardiola’s small-framed, home-grown midfielders were faced with the athletic, counter-attacking and results-minded marketing superstars of the Portuguese manager.

The relationship between Guardiola and Mourinho during their years in charge of Spanish football's two biggest clubs was, it's fair to say, not particularly great.

The relationship between Guardiola and Mourinho during their years in charge of Spanish football's two biggest clubs was, it's fair to say, not particularly great.

For all the talk of him coming in to stop Barça, their first meeting was decidedly one-sided; Mourinho suffering one of the most embarrassing nights of his career as they fell to a devastating 5-0 defeat. In a bid to avoid anything like that happening again, that would prove decisive in Madrid’s tactics against them for the next few years. Later Clásicos would commonly see Mourinho deploying very defensive, destructive midfield selections to counter the technical threat they faced, feeding and fuelling the total football vs. anti-football perspective that was imposed.

It didn’t even matter that Madrid under Mourinho established the record for most goals in a season, or that Barça gradually began to more commonly spend exorbitant amounts of money on players like Zlatan Ibrahimović, David Villa or Dmytro Chygrynskiy. The story was set, and only the facts that supported it were echoed by the press. The focus was on the multiple Spanish, homegrown players that started most games for Barça, and that Iker Casillas was the only local player that Madrid fielded regularly. It all had to fit the narrative.

After months of build-up, it all climaxed in April of 2011 when the two teams faced each other four times in the span of 18 days. Each team won once and tied twice. Both victories were determined by the team’s most iconic superstar, Messi, whose extraordinary solo goal at the Bernabéu sealed the tie and Ronaldo, who leaped high to help Madrid win the Copa del Rey (which ended up in Sergio Ramos’ less-than-safe hands, unfortunately).

But even more remembered than the football itself are the fights in those games. The sending offs, and the press conferences. Pepe earned a red card that Madrid supporters still protest to this day. Barça fans remember Pep snapping from the pressure and calling Mourinho “el puto amo” in the press room hours before Messi went on to conquer the Bernabéu. It was an acknowledgement to Mourinho’s talent with the press, the way he shapes the narrative and controls what is said, as well as the intensity of the rivalry that’d been built.

Those 18 days, and the following two encounters between the giants at the Super Cup where Mourinho poked Tito Vilanova in the eye, nearly fractured the Spanish National Team for good. When Casillas and Xavi reached out to each other to try and calm the situation, Mourinho dropped Casillas, who never truly recovered and was eventually shoved through the backdoor to Porto. As before, it was yet another instance that showed how much the narrative mattered to Mourinho and how much he cared about his players feeling attacked, unjustly insulted, and pressured. This siege mentality is key to him wherever he’s training. He thrives under it.

It's El Clásico. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

It's El Clásico. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

That would eventually prove to cost him his job in 2013. Likewise, Guardiola suffered from it too. He resigned the previous year, taking a season-long sabbatical and citing the tiredness and pressure of managing a club like Barça for four years as too much to cope with. It was truly bitter and unhealthy for all involved – even those who weren’t grew weary of the intensity of it all.

Since Guardiola and Mourinho departed, things have fortunately toned down. But even without the clear, easy narrative to follow now, the two are still locked in competition just as much. Messi and Ronaldo still push each other to new goalscoring heights every weekend. Madrid have added two Champions League trophies to their museum; Barça completed another treble. They each have three superstars up front, and a plethora of fantastic players behind. It’s still right up there with the very highest level of football around.

There’s too much history, both in politics and in football, for it to ever be a small game. Sunday will prove that the rivalry is still very much alive. It always will be. After all, it’s El Clásico.


This piece was written by Pablo Ruiz. A writer and filmmaker, you can follow him on Twitter here.