Rivalry that's more than just a game
SOCCER:El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry, By Richard Fitzpatrick, Bloomsbury, 244pp. £12.99
ONE OF THE ODDEST days of my life occurred in March 1989 when I decided to make the journey from London to Manchester to see a football match. There were two on in the city that day, Manchester United against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup (Forest won and went on to face Liverpool in that ill-fated game at Hillsborough) and City against Chelsea in the old second division. It wouldn’t be allowed now, of course, and it shouldn’t have been then. There was mayhem before and after the games as four sets of fans chased each other around the centre of the city and violence seemed to lurk around every corner.
Somehow, though, the intensity of the rivalries that gave rise to the trouble were easier to understand then than many years later when I travelled to Cardiff for a League Cup final involving United. On the flight, a number of the club’s Irish fans passed the time singing about their hatred of Liverpool FC and the city’s inhabitants. Worse, one of their chants made light of the deaths of 96 supporters on that tragic day in Sheffield .
That football rivalries are less local in the modern world is scarcely surprising, but it is somewhat sad that the enmities involved seem increasingly irrational. A few of those interviewed in Richard Fitzpatrick’s enormously enjoyable take on the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, El Clásico, echo the point.
A Barcelona banker who supports Real on the basis, it appears, of no more than contrariness, suggests that, however bitter things were between the two clubs and their respective supporters back in the 1960s there was “not the hatred that there is now”.
During General Franco’s time, the basis for the hostility was pretty clear. Many thousands had been executed by the fascists after the war and Spain became a deeply centralised state with those who sought to resist the regime in any way routinely persecuted.
The actual extent to which the Francoists favoured Real over Barcelona is the subject of some debate. The topic is addressed to some extent in this book, but there was undoubtedly interference and the government was inevitably more comfortable with the Madrid club achieving success on the European stage than it would have been with a side that increasingly became a symbol of resistance to so many of those who supported it.
These days, though, the rivalry has largely been stripped of its historical context. The two cities, obviously enough, remain hotbeds of support for their respective clubs, but both have long commanded huge followings across Spain. As the league there has increasingly become a two-horse race, generations of kids have simply picked one or the other without appreciating the baggage involved. There is also a growing international dimension, with each Clásico (the name given to meetings between the two) attracting enormous global audiences.