As we are approaching the another “Clasico” next weekend, it is interesting that I read an excellent book on the rivalry between the two giants of European football, Sid Lowe's “Fear and Loathing in La Liga”.
Football is politics. And in certain cases it can be beautiful both despite politics and because of politics.
The classic clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one of these matches; every time they play is a guarantee of fantastic football and politics. Sid Lowe's book describes the history of this rivalry, both in political and in football terms, but mostly, how they both have mingled to create a rivalry that today is followed by the entire world.
The rivalry is not only about historical facts, but also about myths: Barcelona sees itself as the righteous rebels against Franco's regime, while Real Madrid sees itself as a club of gentlemen and good football.
But there are many more nuances to this history, as Sid Lowe so amply shows. For instance, during the civil war a Real Madrid president was in fact part of the anti-Franco Republican government, while Barcelona, after having competed during the civil war (contrary to Real Madrid, as the city was under siege), became the dominant team in Spain immediately after the war. Real Madrid was from the 1950s largely run by a pro-government president, Santiago Bernabeu, who led the way in making them the best team in the world in the 1960s, ahead of a Barcelona side that constantly saw a conspiracy behind Real Madrid's success. This is mostly showed by the myth that Alfredo Di Stefano was “stolen” from them, while it rather appears that they were less smart than Real Madrid in a complex negotiation involving clubs in Argentina and Colombia.
The transition up to and after Franco's death is very interesting, when Johan Cruyff went to Barcelona as a player, and a new period of rivalry started. In football terms during the 1980s and 1990s the rivalry became the best in the world, with the best players in the world having played for either club. The list is simply amazing when one sees the players that have gone through either (or both in some cases!): Paul Breitner, Gary Lineker, Hugo Sanchez, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Hristo Stoichkov, Emilio Butragueno, Michael Laudrup, Zinedine Zidane, Ronald Koeman, Raul, Romario, Luis Figo.... etc... The book has fantastic interviews with many of these players!
In the 1990s Johan Cruyff, now as coach, set the foundation for what made the great Barcelona of the 2000s. In an attempt to be as good as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid's president, Florentino Perez, was instrumental in wanting to create a global brand spending millions on the best players in the world. In all, the 2000s became a period of rivalry defined by the best football in the world, money, and not least politics, as FC Barcelona continues to be an entry point of a growing Catalan nationalism demanding independence from Spain (the book starts with a highly politicized game of 2012 when thousands of fans in Barcelona shouted for independence during the match).
In this regard, the clashes are as political as ever, but at the same time the match has become a global affair: the best footballers in the world facing one another in a match that is never insignificant, but a final every time. The teams are completely dominating in Spain, and their high class also makes them among the best teams in Europe (since 2000 Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have won three and four Champions League respectively) and surely in the world.
Sid Lowe is an English journalist, and that gives the book strength, as he does not take sides in what is a rivalry full of bitterness and myths, something that is surely difficult. Many fanatical fans of either Real Madrid or Barcelona are probably not going to like the book as he tries to demystify some of their stories.
In the end, one realizes that these two teams need one another. They would not be able to define themselves without that rivalry, which has surely pushed them to always be better, until now them being both the best. It is a perfect symbiosis of opposites that has given us some of the best football we can wish for.
Any football fan should love this rivalry, and there is no better book to understand it.