A lone, stray dog trots along an empty pavement. Burger boxes blow undisturbed across the street. Sporadic bursts of chatter can be heard each time a bar door is flung open, before the silence abruptly re-intervenes.
It’s 6pm on a Saturday; ordinarily a time when swarms of late afternoon shoppers and early evening diners clog the pavements here in Spain, but today is the day of El Clásico: Real Madrid vs Barcelona, and the only souls in sight are those rushing to their local, jam-packed watering hole before the unparalleled spectacle begins.
This is akin to tuning in for a royal wedding in the U.K. To miss it would be nonsensical, football fan or not. Ask any Spaniard which football team they support and – more often than not – you’ll get two answers: that person’s local team and either Real Madrid or Barcelona. The reasoning goes that both teams, while officially participants in La Liga, are actually in a league of their own; no other Spanish team in the top flight even comes close. Thus, one invariably chooses a favourite.
In England, this would be deemed fickle and cowardly regardless of circumstances; people may support one club team or none at all. So coming to terms with this two-timing custom was rather a longwinded process for me after I moved here. ‘What about when these two teams play each other? Who do you support then?’ I used to ask. ‘And how can somebody support a team from a city that has no geographical bearing to their own?’ But then I thought of Man Utd fans, of whom, by my own admission, I am one, but I am from Manchester.
Nevertheless, this crucial decision of which team to support – Los Galácticos or La Blaugrana – seems to takes place early on in life, often on concrete schoolyards where rights to the players’ names are squabbled over to no end. All except poor Gareth Bale’s name, that is. ‘Gareth Ba-le no es vale!’ (the derogation of which is still unclear to me) is what the eight year olds I teach are chanting at the moment. The Barcelona fans of the class were particularly unremitting on Monday following their team’s 2-1 victory over Madrid at the weekend. ‘What about Granada? How did they do?’ I quizzed them. ‘No sé’ – I don’t know – they shrugged.
But the bitter rivalry goes beyond English Language classrooms. It has done for centuries, despite the first game ever played between the two clubs only taking place in 1902, back when it was just plain Madrid FC – the ‘royal’ prefix was added in 1920.
During Franco’s longstanding dictatorship, a period in which the speaking of Catalan was only permitted in Camp Nou on a match day, Real Madrid became the embodiment of Spain’s Castile region and Franco’s favoured club. Despite this, Barcelona continued to dominate Spanish football throughout the 40s and 50s, winning far more trophies than their Madrileño adversaries. The 60s, however, proved more fruitful for Real Madrid, who became the new unstoppable force. Of the clásicos played during Franco’s rule, Madrid won the most by a narrow thirty-nine to Barca’s thirty-seven. In one match in 1970, Barcelona fans were allegedly so furious with the referee’s performance that they hurled no less than 25,000 seats from the stands on to the pitch. On another occasion, a soldier attempted to arrest one of Barcelona’s groundsmen on suspicion of being a communist (Source).
In recent years though, the most memorable incident has to be the infamous throwing of a pig’s head at an unsuspecting Luis Figo at Camp Nou as he stood by the touchline. It was the first time he had returned to the 98,000 capacity stadium after signing from Barca to Real Madrid in 2000 – an almost unspeakable act. The evening coincided with the first el clásico for English winger Steve McManaman, who had recently signed for Real Madrid from Liverpool.
“It was like nothing I had ever seen. He was abused from the moment he stepped off the plane to the moment he got back on it again. It wasn’t just the pig’s head; there were bottles, golf balls and missiles thrown at him too. It was impossible to concentrate. Eventually the referee had to order both sets of players off until things calmed down. They didn’t, and it was a terrible game of football.”
“The windows of our team coach would routinely be smashed by bricks on every trip to Barcelona. That was truly frightening. On the short trip from the hotel to Camp Nou we’d all brace ourselves and cower down on the floor as the driver put his foot down and hurtled the bus through the particular street where you knew the missiles would start raining through the windows.” (Source)
Is Steve McManaman exaggerating? Who knows. Sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend a match, but even the hostility exhibited in some of the bars I’ve stood in during one is unsettling enough – especially when you become familiar with the most brutal of Spanish insults.
Either way, it’s fair to say that El Clásico has always been as much a clash of political ideologies as a heated battle for three points between twenty-two ludicrously overpaid sportsmen. Even with the fall of fascism, a deep-seated rivalry still remains between the two clubs, which has only been further intensified following the recent calls for a referendum for Catalan independence. Mostly though, it’s about beating the other team on the day: feeling that sense of unmitigated satisfaction, and delighting in being able to taunt fans of the losing side.
When it comes to El Clásico, there is not a single thing that could possibly be more important. It is the ultimate showdown and the ultimate spectacle of a sport unreservedly adored by so many in Spain.
Have you ever attended el clásico or simply watched it in Spain? Or another derby match renowned for its hostile atmosphere? Who do you support??