El Clasico Inquisition: Barcelona’s Ideologies vs Real Madrid’s Philosophies

Goal.com’s KS Leong takes a look at two very diverse footballing cultures that will clash in El Clasico this Sunday…

It’s difficult to define the relationship between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The tempestuous and passionate rivalry on and off the field is world renowned, both enjoy boundless success over the decades, their fans and presidents are mercilessly demanding, and the players are expected to play only the finest brand of attacking football.

Yet, both clubs have vastly different tradition and history. One club runs like a business while the other is run for the people. Both have different ways of attaining success and like polar opposites, neither can be on top of the world or down in the dumps together.

A good case in point is the build up to El Clasico over the past few weeks. A fortnight ago, it seemed all doom and gloom in the Spanish capital when Cristiano Ronaldo looked unlikely to feature at the Camp Nou due to his injury while Barca could simply do no wrong. This week, however, CR9 has almost all but confirmed his return – barring a late setback – and it was the Catalans who suffered a blow with news that Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be sidelined.

Just to make things more interesting, Madrid reclaimed top spot of La Liga at the weekend and suddenly, the Blaugrana had gone from hot favourites to underdogs, at least in the eyes of the press. But now that they have negotiated Inter in the Champions League and Messi has been greenlit for a comeback, the tables have turned again.

But by far the most apparent difference between the two clubs is, ofcourse, their ideologies. The contrast has been highlighted even more glaringly over the past year as the Camp Nou outfit go from strength to strength and more and more prodigious young talents emerge from their cantera, while over at the Santiago Bernabeu, the capital giants can barely get a single promising youth player to surface from the shadows of the superstars.

Pedrito, Barca's latest darling

There’s also a wide divide in transfer policies. Madrid’s exploits need no further introduction, or another accounting lesson, and their decision to splash absurd amounts of money in a single summer has drawn acerbic criticism. Barcelona, however, refused to jump on the bandwagon and club president, Joan Laporta emphasised repeatedly that he will not spend beyond what the organisation can afford.

He did dish out €69 million to recruit Ibrahimovic from Inter, but he made it sound just that less outrageous an expenditure by explaining that he only had to cough up €49m (presumably well within their means) as the other €20m came from Eto’o’s exchange.   

The truth is that there is no right or wrong philosophy. Each club have their own way of running the show, just like how each athlete has his or her own way of training, each business have their own organisation and structure.

Madrid could spend €250 million investing in youth development, there would still be no more of a guarantee for success than Perez’s current galactic project. The ‘Quinta del Buitre’ era in the 80’s, for instance, boasted five home-grown players who utterly dominated Spanish football, but they never had a sniff of the European Cup, although they did win back-to-back UEFA Cup crowns, which if you recall, wasn’t such a Mickey Mouse competition back then.

Raul replaced El Buitre, but who will replace Raul?

At the moment, Barcelona could have up to six or seven players who grew up at the famous La Masia youth academy in the first XI and they would still steamroll past any opponent. But remember, they were equally just as successful and captivating during the Frank Rijkaard dynasty when the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Ludovic Giuly and Mark van Bommel were stealing the headlines week in, week out. In fact, in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal, Rijkaard only had three Spanish players – albeit all Catalan – in the starting line-up: Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol and Oleguer.

The truth is that grooming young players doesn’t work for every team. Arsenal, for instance, are a club who purchase fairly unknown footballers at a young age and slowly blood them into big stars. They are, perhaps, the second most attractive side to watch after Barcelona but they haven’t had much success in recent years. Chelsea and Manchester United, on the other hand, aren’t afraid to spend, either for established stars or young starlets, and they have had considerably more silverware to show off. For Madrid, youth just simply doesn’t work at the Bernabeu.

The key difference between Los Blancos and the Blaugrana’s fortunes is that the Catalans have a specific style and identity. Regardless of who is in charge of the bench and who is sitting on the president’s chair, Barca will always turn to Johan Cruyff’s footballing model as a blueprint.

Not only that, the wide-eyed youngsters who are brought up through the ranks are taught how to play like Cruyff. They polish their basic skills, their technique, ball control, and they are encouraged to embrace the Total Football philosophy. That’s why players like Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro can all play in various positions or take on different roles, while others like Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique can attack as well as they can defend.

Madrid’s style, on the other hand, is all about showmanship. It doesn’t matter how they go about it, what structure, or what system is deployed. As long as there are enough flicks, tricks and dribbles, the fans and the president will be happy.


Whose style will prevail?

The constant coaching and administration changes at the ‘White House’ doesn’t help matters either. Players are unable to familiarise themselves with one specific style of play for any more than a couple of seasons. If and when they do, a new president takes power, hires a new coach, clears out the dressing room and everything goes back to square one.

With no template to follow, each trainer and his coaching staff will introduce a completely different set of ideas. That could explain why Raul has gone on a steady decline. Ever since Vicente del Bosque’s departure, Madrid have changed coaches every two seasons on average, and poor old Raul has been left with no choice but to adapt to a new style and integrate with a new squad each time. It’s as if he’s had to move to a different club every two years.

But Madrid’s philosophy has always been to spend big, right or wrong, love it or loathe it, successful or not. It’s not something that Florentino Perez pioneered during his first reign. It has always been the way the ‘Casa Blanca’ has functioned ever since Don Santiago Bernabeu rebuilt the club from scratch after the Spanish Civil War.

The Merengues do have as many aspiring youngsters as Barca fighting to get their hands on that elusive first-team contract, but unlike the Catalans, Madrid normally tend to wait for that one true gem – the next Raul or the new Casillas – to emerge by pure chance, rather than bide their time and spend a few years waiting for the player to blossom.

There is no way to determine categorically which philosophy works best. One formula will succeed during one particular cycle, the other will fail, then the tables will turn. Barca’s reign, like it or not, will eventually end. Messi, Pedro, Busquets, Pique, et al. may be young and may seem like they will be around forever and ever, but that's what everyone thought about Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, about Cristiano Ronaldo staying at Manchester United or Kaka at Milan, or about an eternally youthful Raul going on and on and on. Yet, look how each and everyone has turned out.  

Diversity in football is what makes the game fascinating. After all, wouldn’t it be more satisfying when your club and their unique principles trump the arch nemesis?

KS Leong, Goal.com