El Clásico. No two words can grasp the sports world’s attention like a matchup between the two of the biggest superpowers in global football.
Real Madrid and FC Barcelona creates divides among social classes and political stances amidst a background of a Civil War-torn past. The two largest cities in Spain, the national capital Madrid, and Barcelona, the capital of the Catalan region seeking independence are the principal cities of a derby that’s seen by nearly 400 million people around the world.
New history is made each time these rivals step on the field with some of the best players in the world playing to prove their skills and lead their team to victory.
An Abridged History of El Clásico
The rivalry between the the two most successful clubs in football started with an oft-ignored political backstory and contrasts in how both clubs were made. FC Barcelona was founded by Joan Gamper along with several foreign-born players in 1899, as Madrid had its club founded with Spaniards at the helm in 1902. Madrid had been long considered as the political and social center of Spain. Regional rivalries would be generated due to the nation’s focus on Madrid, which geographically was also in the center of Spain.
When the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, came of age in 1902, Madrid hosted a tournament and invited FC Barcelona and Basque club Vizcaya. Barcelona defeated Real Madrid, then known as Madrid FC 3-1, but fell to the Basques in the final 2-1. However, all the attention came from the tournament organizers when they noticed the tournament to celebrate a Castilian monarch came down to a Catalan club and a Basque club in the final. So they quickly arranged a “third-place match.” The series between the clubs would continue for a decade, with the Catalans victorious in most of the contests. The rivalry would begin to pick up its’ competitive embers in 1905.
The Spanish Primera Division was founded in 1929, with ten teams. Barcelona hosted Real Madrid in the second round of the new league, with the visitors prevailing 2-1. The Catalan club would repay the favor with a 1-0 win in Madrid, and would win the league. Despite Real Madrid’s two titles in the early days of the league, it was Athletic Bilbao that was the strongest team in Spain in the years leading into the Spanish Civil War.
FC Barcelona was considered to be the symbol of the Catalan people by the centralist government in the 1930s. Military general Francisco Franco, disenchanted with the changing political climate in Spain with the fall of the monarchy, staged a Coup d’état in 1936, leading to a bloody Civil War victory for his Nationalist side in 1939. One of the earliest casualties was of then-FC Barcelona president Josep Sunyol, who was executed without trial by Francoist forces.
The most one-sided result came in 1943, during World War II. In the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, renamed as the Copa del Generalisimo in honor of Franco’s regime, Real humiliated Barcelona in the second leg 11-1 after Barcelona won the first leg 3-0. The director of Franco’s state security payed the club a visited them prior to the match in Madrid, and reminded the club they were playing for “the generosity of the regime.” The result came as a show of the extent of strength Franco had over Spain. Barcelona FC was forced to change their name to CF Barcelona, and got rid of the Catalan flag on their badge.
Despite these tough times for Barcelona, the club’s motto “Més que un club” (More than a club) was developed around this time, and the club would win titles in the 1940s. In 1953, the two rivals were in the race to acquire superstar striker Alfredo di Stéfano. Di Stéfano, the “Blond Arrow” from Argentina, is considered one of the greatest footballers of all time today. After years of success with national power River Plate, di Stéfano took his talents to Colombia with Los Millionarios.
In the race to obtain di Stéfano’s signature, it would be Barcelona who struck first. But, Barcelona reached a deal with River Plate, whom FIFA recognized as di Stéfano’s employer. After a long bout of negotiations with controversial circumstances, Real Madrid wound up buying di Stéfano away from Millionarios, but paying River Plate the sum of what was paid to them. As a result, the move would result in a period of dominance for Los Merengues, as Real Madrid would win eight La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, the first five consecutive European Cups and an Intercontinental Cup from 1953 through 1964. In his first match against Barcelona, di Stéfano would score a brace, the first two of his eighteen goals against the Catalan club in all matches.
Over the years, the contrasts on how the two teams operated became apparent, yet very effective. As Real Madrid had a very business-based approach, affording to lure and buy players to play for them, FC Barcelona nurtured and developed their players through their system. When Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff joined Barcelona from Ajax for a then-world record $2 million, he would help win Barcelona’s first La Liga title since 1960, including an emphatic 5-0 road victory at Madrid. A product of the “total football” style of play in his native Netherlands, Cruyff help meld a playing style that Barcelona would be known for even today.
After Franco’s death in 1975, the political state of Spain would be restored, but the fiery passion shared by both clubs continued. The stakes would grow even bigger over the years with more matches, as their rivalry slowly began to eclipse that of the other teams in the nation, often playing for silverware. Even more legends and idols would take their place in the lore of the rivalry. Luis Figo, Portuguese footballing icon, once played for Barcelona and garnered cult status, but when Figo joined Real Madrid in 2000, he was treated by the blaugrana faithful as though he committed high treason. Ronaldo, the phenomenal Brazilian striker, also jumped ship from Barca to Real, though it took a couple seasons.
Real Madrid formed a strong unit at the turn of the 21st Century. “Los Galácticos” was the nickname for a star-studded Real Madrid side that dominated La Liga from 2000 through 2006. Players like David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, and Fabio Cannavaro suited up alongside Figo and Ronaldo. Despite the talent, they failed to win a major title from 2003 to 2006.
Barcelona combated with stars of their own. Deco, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and Rafa Marquez would work in tandem with homegrown players Victor Valdez, Carlos Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.
Most recently, the Pep Guardiola era at Barcelona gave witness to one of the best Barca sides in modern football, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Iniesta operating the tiki-taka style of play.
Real Madrid has gone back to their Galacticos method of buying superstars, with the past couple of years obtaining players such as Welsh winger Gareth Bale, and most recently, James Rodriguez to boost a side led by Cristiano Ronaldo.The strategy has paid off with Real Madrid winning the UEFA Champions League in 2015/15 and 2016/17, their record 11th and 12th European titles, along with the 2016/17 La Liga title.
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