It's strange, isn’t it, how the biggest derby in the world is not even a derby in the traditional or technical sense of the term? The clash between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona was earlier termed as el derbi, although in recent years it has been shunned for el clasico or el gran clasico. However, the two sides are not from the same city or the same region. Hell, they are not even from the same ‘nation’: Barcelona are from Catalunya, one of the most autonomous regions in Spain, and has the status of a nation while Real represent the central Spanish state.
Spanish football is Spanish politics and vice-versa. Perhaps in no other country in Europe do politics and football merge in strange proportions to form an awkwardly entertaining entity as they do in Spain. Perhaps in no other derby or rivalry do politics and cultural differences play a more pivotal role than in the clasico, a match that is built up for days, a match that encompasses decades of history, bad blood, hatred and the rage to avenge oneself; a match that becomes a symbol of resistance or control, depending on which side of the divide you are.
FC Barcelona has always been Catalunya's club. It is an institution that symbolizes everything Catalan, a symbol of a region that had been crippled for years by the dictatorial regimes of General Francisco Franco from the 1940s to the 1970s. Although the seeds of a Catalan-centric club had been laid earlier, it was from the Spanish Civil War that FC Barcelona became the sole outlet for the Catalans to express themselves, politically, culturally, socially and emotionally.
General Franco, affiliated with Atletico Madrid in the 1940s and 1950s and perhaps related with Real Madrid in the subsequent years, had forced Catalunya under repression, snatched away several rights of the people and banned the Catalan language. At the time Camp Nou became a cathedral for the Catalans, the only place where they could speak and express themselves in their own language without hesitation or fear. A football club is always taken as a symbol and representation of the local community but for the people of Barcelona and Catalunya, Barca became more than a club, almost an obsession.
Perhaps the first major tryst between Real Madrid and Barcelona both in terms of football and politics came in 1953 when Argentine-Spanish legend Alfredo di Stefano was thought to have been signed by the Blaugrana. But the Catalan club had factions that did not want the deal to go through and added to that was the controversy of the recognition of the contract. The then Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu swooped in take away from Barca a gem of a player.
As the years rolled on, there was a distinct feeling among the non-Madrid supporters that Real (read Royal) Madrid were being favoured by the dictatorial centralist regime. Madrid have always had the reputation of being sore losers and ugly winners, supposedly buying the referees, befriending officials at the Spanish federation and holding the opposition to ransom, of being politically superior to a supposedly more straight-and-narrow Barcelona unit. They were said to be the government’s club and enjoyed ‘royal’ status.
Culturally Catalunya has always been seen as the origin of progressive ideas and modern outlook in Spain. While Madrid held onto a more traditional perspective and tastes, it was this northeastern region of the country that became the focal point of the cultural development and modern onset in the Iberian nation.
Traditionally Catalunya in general and FC Barcelona in particular have been perceived as victims of the Madrid government that to them was evil incarnate. Which is why on the morning of General Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, Barcelona club secretary Jaume Rosell and director Joan Granadoes played catch with Franco’s bust—a stark indication that the era of oppression and repression was over.
Catalans have embraced converts, people from other nations and even continents in their moral battle against Madrid. When Johan Cruyff arrived in Barcelona in 1973 he became an instant favourite and immediately converted to the Barcelona cause when he declared that he could never play for Real Madrid because of their (alleged) association with Francisco Franco. Politically it was a huge statement, as it exhibited how the Blancos and their supposed patrons were seen in the rest of Europe.
In the subsequent years Barcelona played the Spanish equivalent of the Dutch Total Football, becoming obsessed with entertaining football, a type of football that they knew Madrid could never play. And besides the thoroughbred Catalans who have hatred towards the Madrid people hammered into them from the moment they are born, there were the converts such as Hristo Stochkov. Luis Figo was supposed to be a convert too until he switched sides and became a Madrid player in 2000.
Real Madrid have had their own 'converts', starting from Di Stefano to Jorge Valdano to Zinedine Zidane and Raul and Iker Casillas. Madrid are historically the more successful club and have never walked away from reminding Barcelona their superiority and authority in Spain. What's more, the fans feel that Madrid carry themselves with an assuredness and dignity that Barcelona - who are regarded as being ostentatious almost to the point of desperation in proving their worth - could never match.
The cultural and political differences and rivalry between the two clubs are so deeply embedded that even in the 21st century when globalization of football has diluted both teams of Madrilenos and Catalans, they remain as vivid as ever. Some among the Bernabeu faithful, such as the notorious 'Ultras Sur', are said to have retained fascist ideals; Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero is a publicly declared Barcelona supporter; Barcelona president Joan Laporta's brother-in-law Alejandro Echevarria was a leading trustee of the Francisco Franco foundation established by the General's family in honour of his memory and Spain’s best selling sports paper does tend to dig up old ghosts before the derbies.
Politics is often said to be a curse for football but it is the political, ably aided by the cultural, historical and sociological, which is perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of El Clasico, the biggest football match on the planet.
Subhankar Mondal, Goal.com