When Barcelona plays Real Madrid, the world stops for 90 minutes. The highly-anticipated clash has an intense history that goes beyond the premises of the Santiago Bernabéu and Camp Nou stadiums. With the departure of both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, there are noises floating around claiming that the significance of el Clásico has met an early demise. But the fierce rivalry had long existed before the two greats of the game arrived on the scene – and it’s fuelled by a rich, rich background rooted in mutual hate.
The literal translation of el Clásico is “The Classic”, a title earned by the infamous Spanish derby between Real Madrid C.F. and FC Barcelona. Perhaps in no other European country are politics and football as deeply interconnected as they are in Spain. Barcelona and Real Madrid represent the opposite ends of a deeply divided political spectrum – with Barcelona’s traditions and philosophy rooted in Catalonia, a region that is better known for its bitter suppression for years under the relentless regime of General Francisco Franco, the aftertaste of which is still reflected on the football pitch when the two footballing clubs go head to head. Real Madrid, on the other hand, has adorned the mantle of Spanish Royalty, as is glaringly evident from the crown on their crests and the tag of ‘Real’ which translates to Royal.
The Initial Years
Although the first game between Real Madrid and Barcelona kicked off in 1902, the rivalry started to transcend the grounds of football from the 1930s onwards. During this period, Barcelona adopted the Catalan identity which contrasted Real Madrid’s political ideology as a stark representation of the Spanish centralization.
The growing tensions between the two regions soon converted into red-hot performances on the football pitch, with the 1940s recording some of the most intense Clásico clashes, particularly the 5-5 draw at Les Corts that rocked the Spanish nation in 1943.
The Spanish Civil War: General Franco’s Dictatorship
The year 1939 saw the summit of the Spanish Civil War, as General Francisco Franco seized control of the country. His first agenda as a dictator was to try and unify the country under a single Spanish state.
Franco reportedly used oppressive measures to repress any anti-nationalist movement. Catalonia had been the centrepiece of the resistance that tried to deny Franco, and El Generalísimo made sure that he would not forget that.
To expand his political prowess, Franco used football, a sport that had socio-cultural roots in Spain, as an instrument of propaganda to spread nationalistic sentiments. He was reportedly vocal in his support for football club Atlético de Madrid and later extended his arms to embrace the Los Blancos (Real Madrid) on the other side of the capital as well.
To curb any sort of increase in Catalan movements, Franco reportedly made it his mission to suppress Barcelona on the pitch as well. Madrid’s success represented a victory for Spain – the same way that Mussolini used the success of the Italian national team to orchestrate his propaganda of letting the public believe that the success was not the team’s, but of his regime.
Franco’s interventions in football were symbolic, and at times systematic. To have his ideology affirmed by the entire nation, Franco forced the translation of FC Barcelona’s name from its Catalan roots to its Spanish equivalent. The message was loud and clear – the Catalan culture was no longer legitimate under Franco’s regime.
On the pitch, Franco’s systematic intervention reportedly manifested itself in the form of the 1943 semi-finals of the King’s Cup, wherein Barcelona had cruised past Real Madrid in the first leg by beating them 3-0 at home. The away leg, however, is blanketed under a mist of controversy – with several historic reports claiming that the Barcelona players were visited by the director of state security, who used intimidation tactics to grant Real Madrid an easy win. Soon enough, the match ended 11-1 in favour of Madrid, a stark contrast to how things shaped in the first leg.
Los Blancos reportedly enjoyed most of their early European and domestic success through Franco’s outright support, but the facts are shrouded in mystery and there are several differing reports. However, all facts point in one direction – Franco’s support translated into a positive success for Los Blancos.
The Transfer Saga
At different points, the world saw football stars make appearances for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, with players like Luis Enrique, Ronaldo Nazario, Javier Saviola, and Samuel Eto’o featuring for both the clubs throughout their careers. While some of the names were forgotten and forgiven, some found themselves caught in the eye of the storm of the fierce rivalry.
Perhaps one of the most controversial and historic transfer dealings that rocked the market was Alfredo Di Stefano’s move to Real Madrid. At that time, Di Stefano was having a legendary career for Millonarios, a Colombian footballing club. However, his former team River Plate in Argentina protested against Di Stefano’s presence for the Columbian side, claiming that the player was still contracted to their club.
As Di Stefano continued to impress with his stellar performances, he became a transfer target for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. In the race that followed, both the clubs battled for the player’s signature.
What followed in the summer of 1952 was a mysterious tale, with many historians still debating as to what actually happened that allowed Real Madrid to sign the player ahead of their Spanish arch-rivals. The most controversial tale recounts that Barcelona believed that Millonarios’ capture of Di Stefano was illegitimate, and they sought to negotiate directly with River Plate to secure an agreement for the player. The transfer went through and Di Stefano made several appearances in Barcelona’s pre-season games in 1953.
However, the Spanish Football Federation then entered the fray, claiming that Millonarios, the actual patron of Di Stefano, hadn’t sanctioned the transfer – rendering the negotiation null and void. In the chaos that followed, Real Madrid capitalized, earning Millonarios’ signature to capture Di Stefano, who would later go on to become one of their greatest figures in football along with the likes of Santiago Bernabéu, Cristiano Ronaldo, Miguel Munoz, and Zinedine Zidane. It is believed that Franco had a significant influence over the dealings of the Spanish Football Federation and was behind the infamous heist.
Another immortal name that pierced itself in the scintillating history between the two clubs is Luis Figo – the pantomime villain who represented Barcelona as their superstar only to switch to Real Madrid in a shocking turn of events.
The Portuguese was on his way to becoming a Barcelona legend, bagging 172 appearances before his ice-cold ‘Galactico’ move to Real Madrid in 2000. In one of his games against his former club, the infamous “Derby of Shame” in 2002 oversaw the Catalan Culés hurling projectiles at Figo; a full bottle of whiskey, empty boxes, and the head of a suckling pig. As the tensions rose, Roberto Carlos had to usher his side off the field.
A Tale that Keeps Telling
Modern clásico clashes are no stranger to the intense rivalries that rocked the Spanish political discourse. Particularly sizzling were the clashes when Mourinho’s Madrid locked horns with Guardiola’s Barcelona in the last decade. There is no doubt that El Clásico would retain its flavourful nature in the coming future. It’s more than just a game of football when the Blancos of Madrid face Barcelona’s Blaugrana colours.
Anzal Khan is a student pursuing B.Com from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee