Wednesday, 30 October 2013

More than just a game?

Rivalries manufacture the drama that gives you sport at its most intense and compelling best and at the apex of sporting spectacle is the fixture now known the world over as El Clasico: Real Madrid against Barcelona.

'There it was, the severed head of a pig, sent sailing Luís Figo's way'
Sid Lowe, Fear and Loathing in La Liga, 2013

It’s a defining image, a fairly ridiculous image in many ways, but a defining one nonetheless. How a pig’s head gets onto a football pitch is one of those questions that there really shouldn’t be any logical answer to but the vision of it staring up from the hallowed turf of the Camp Nou after being aimed in the direction of Luis Figo, already suffering under a hailstone of coins, batteries and mobile phones goes to show what an extraordinary fixture it has become an iconic part of.   

All over the world people are captivated by sport and competition. Never more than when two great rivals come together for a head on collision. When a match or event becomes intense and personal, fan interest peaks while temperatures rise. It is great rivalries that define sport, creating the passion and building the fervent support. It is when sport is at its best; clearly defined protagonists that allow fans to identify passionately along ideological fault lines. It’s when a game can transcend from a weekend pastime to something that becomes a visceral whirlwind to lose yourself in. Rivalries manufacture the drama that gives you sport at its most intense and compelling best and at the apex of sporting spectacle is the fixture now known the world over as El Clasico: Real Madrid against Barcelona.

More than anything else on the sporting spectrum, the world of football thrives on its intense rivalries. Between certain clubs an ingrained animosity runs skin deep, fans with that burning desire to get one over on their fiercest opponents. Geographic, sporting, political, cultural or historic – all route causes for how footballing conflicts are born. The rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona could be said to comprise all these elements together, helping us to start to explain why this particular clash is footballs biggest.

On the face of it, it's a clash between Spain's biggest and most successful clubs. Invariably since the beginning of a professional league in the country these two sides have been locked in an unrelenting battle for supremacy and so unsurprisingly the importance of these games is massive – they are often title deciders. That’s never more evident than in today’s era of the clubs now seemingly unassailable duopoly at the top of the Spanish game, where draws are the new defeats and losses are just too catastrophic to imagine; to win a title means aiming for a century of points. Where a fixture deals in such fine margins with such small gaps between success and failure the pressure and subsequently standing of the game becomes ever higher. 

The significance of when the two clubs clash does however go far beyond the field of play. Some elements may have become overplayed in recent times in the bombastic circus that is the media madness of the 21st Century football world, but it is clear that this is a rivalry which transcends the simple boundaries of two teams, albeit two giants, playing a game of football. It is a rivalry riven with deep historical, cultural and political undertones.

Myth and reality are often blurred when it comes to Real Madrid versus Barcelona, but politics and ideology unquestionably play their part in why this is such a captivating clash. It is often said that perception is greater than reality, but to many this fixture represents wider cultural and political issues that exist in Spanish society. It is seen, or indeed proclaimed by many as a battle between the forces of centralisation and authoritarianism, represented by Real Madrid and regionalism and ‘freedom', represented by Barcelona. Freedom in this case being the ability of Catalonia to be able to control its own affairs, free from the hand of Madrid. Now in an age of globalisation and Hollywood, where the game spreads to all corners of the world the conflict offers a perfect narrative for those that like to cache things in terms of good versus evil and in the oppressed versus the oppressors.   

Looking at this commonly perceived break down, it's not hard to see how the rivalry has classically been framed – Madrid to many, the bad guy's of the piece. As Spanish football expert Sid Low wrote back in 2008 in World Soccer magazine (which named the fixture No. 1 in its feature on the top 50 games in the world); ‘Perceptions prove stubborn, fuelling the rivalry and prompting one columnist to lament: "Madrid have won the sporting battle, but Barcelona have won the propaganda button".‘

With its roots in the Spanish Civil War, Real against Barca is seen as the embodiment of arguably the deepest political battle that exists in Spain; a strong, central nation state versus political autonomy for the regions. It's a battle also being waged all over the world, explaining why the fixture takes on a global appeal, perhaps allowing for someone with a Scottish National Party membership card to live vicariously through Ronaldo versus Messi. With Spain possessing such fiercely defined examples of regional cultural identity, the most prominent of course being that of Catalonia and the Basque region, it is not hard to see why the game takes on such importance. As Jimmy Burns, author of
 Barca: A People’s Passion and When Beckham Went to Spain: Power, Stardom and Real Madrid wrote a few years ago in the Financial Times;

"It was during the Franco years that the political scars left by the Spanish civil war found enduring expression in the rivalry between the clubs. While Real Madrid allowed itself to become closely identified with the Franco regime, Barcelona became a channel for Catalan regional identity that was repressed beyond the playing fields."

Perhaps there is some guilt on our part of overstating things a little but to those involved, the game of football, during the years of the Franco dictatorship after the end of the war took on huge importance and while it sounds like a cliché there are countless examples of where sport, and football in particular has been a significant political tool. That’s not to say that a certain fantasy around the fixture hasn’t been allowed to flourish: It's a long accepted part of the narrative for example that Franco himself was a Madridista, bending over backwards for the club while creating the footballing equivalent of the evil Empire from Star Wars. As the popular line goes, Madrid’s successes came on the back of a favourable regime that was prepared to allow the club to circumvent the rules. Whether this is true or not is open to huge debate, and indeed as Philip Ball argues in his excellent book
 Morbo on the history of Spanish football, Franco's perceived allegiances were more myth than reality. However the game of football, and Barcelona's role as a symbol for Catalan identity should not be underestimated.

Whilst tales of corrupt officials, dodgy transfer dealings and various other under hand tactics are regularly thrown about when describing this time, and indeed still thrown about now by
teams, what it is true to say is that under the rule of Franco any moves or calls for greater autonomy or indeed independent rule for Catalonia were not tolerated. Games of football for Barcelona fans became the place for those to voice any political views and make demonstrations. While Barca's motto of ‘More than just a Club' may be somewhat pretentious, the team remains central to the regions identity and its clashes with Madrid stir up the passions of those on both sides, that go beyond the realm of sport and into the fields of politics and society.

It is against this deeper ideological backdrop that the epic clash of two of the world's biggest (if not the biggest) football clubs is framed. Outside of the political spin, the fixtures reputation has been founded on bringing together the biggest names in world football, throwing them into the powder keg of bubbling animosity. It's about the pomp and the pageantry, and few other clashes in sport have provided such iconic moments. After all perhaps no other fixture can carry such a roll call of football’s international hall of fame. Di Stefano, Puskas, Kubala, Cruyff, Hugo Sanchez, Laudrup, Romario, Stoichkov, Raul, Figo, Rivaldo, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Messi and Ronaldo, just some of the names that have lit up this special occasion on the sporting calendar.

Saturday night’s edition of the Clasico from the Camp Nou was not one of the classic encounters from this fixtures rich heritage – although one that will go down in history as being the first Clasico for one Gareth Bale, the most expensive player of all time – but this is still the biggest club football game in the world. Regardless of the circumstance or form of the teams involved it is an occasion to be savoured. People like to say that politics and sport shouldn't mix, but when fervent regional and national identities are mixed with some of the best players in the world, the results are an explosive cocktail that transcends the simple equation of 22 players plus one ball.

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