It’s the biggest grudge match in the word: Madrid v Barça, El Clásico. The stage, the characters, the politics is out of this world.
I spent two years in Spain, the first spent as a student at Madrid’s Universidad Autonoma as part of a European Studies exchange during 1996-97. My choice of dissertation was “Spanish Regional Identity as Expressed Through Football: A Case Study of Real Madrid versus FC Barcelona”.
I had just 10,000 words to play with and relatively few resources. Julian García Candau’s excellent Madrid-Barça: Historia de un Desamor (A Loveless History) was just out on the shelves in Spain and, cobbled together with some interviews from generous journalists from Sport (Barcelona) and Marca (Madrid), I managed to make a case that Madrid v Barça is indeed linked deeply with geographical and political undertones in Spain. [Continues…]
Madrid v Barça is not just politics
There has been some good analysis in the last decade or so, such as Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy, which touches on El Clásico, there’s even more about the bubbling undertones of politics in Spanish football from Phil Ball in Morbo, but Sid Lowe nails the full narrative of Madrid v Barça in Fear and Loathing in La Liga.
Lowe is careful to steer the balance between a sporting rivalry and a political narrative that both clubs have acquired. Lowe looks closely at those perceptions. How Madrid, despite its close association with Franco and centralism, actually draws fans from across the political spectrum, and did not seek a ‘centralist’ position, more a desire to be a sporting ambassador for Spain.
Likewise, how did Barça become preoccupied with being a de facto Catalan national side, even decades after Franco’s death and despite devolution of many powers to Catalunya?
There is a political undercurrent, without question. As with any popular sport, politicians are keen to jump on the back of football to strike a chord with voters or, in case of dictatorship, bring reflected glory to the regime. This was certainly the case with both Madrid and Barça. Fans of other clubs around Spain will usually favour Madrid or Barça when they play each other, often a reflection of their own view on the Spanish union.
Lowe scores some incredibly high profile interviews with players and directors from the recent and distant past, which adds to the weight of credibility in this book. It’s also incredibly well written by a natural storyteller.
Myth-busting: Madrid v Barça
One of the key passages in Fear and Loathing in La Liga is this line from Barcelona’s La Vanguardia (The Vanguard) newspaper in the 1970s on the relationship between the two clubs:
“Subconsciously [Barcelona fans] know that football is politics. They know if Cruyff and Netzer advertise the same underpants, one of them’s pants are immaculate and the other’s dirty…Barcelona is more than a football team; it is a hope.”
If there is one truly political club in La Liga, then it’s probably Athletic Bilbao, who famously only field players with Basque heritage. [Continues…]
And neither are Madrid and Barça purely Castilian or Catalan, either now or in the past: Both have relied on foreign coaches and players, Madrid was formed by Catalan brothers, Barça by a Swiss. Right now, both are courting Middle Eastern investment, with Barcelona’s Qatar Airways sponsorship deal and Real Madrid has recently dropped the cross from its crown for its marketing in the United Arab Emirates.
Although the rivalry is chiefly sporting – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are by far the two most successful clubs in Spain bar the occasional third party challenge from Atlético Madrid, Sevilla or Valencia – they need each other, they are interdependent.
This added level of politics and identity, amassed over decades of complexity, has helped increase the intensity and drive on both sides to succeed. As Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez said, if Barcelona didn’t exist, Real Madrid would have to invent them.
Anyone interested in Spanish football should read Fear and Loathing in La Liga. Have you read it? What did you think?