Rivalry that's more than just a game
One might think that this would dilute the intensity of the rivalry but if anything, as Fitzpatrick suggests, things have become worse between the club officials, players and supporters. The Irishman, who lives in Barcelona and is a regular contributor to The Irish Times, brings an outsider’s eye to the story and tells it very much from a modern perspective. There is little enough in the book regarding a longer-term history that has been well enough documented elsewhere, but plenty on the current state of play between two clubs whose present-day rivalry has been characterised, albeit by a pro-Barca newspaper, as “academy versus wallet”.
Of course, there is a lingering political aspect. Fitzpatrick cites research from 2011 which suggests that twice as many Barca fans vote for parties of the left and around half (compared to 20 per cent) of Real fans lean to the right when it comes to party preferences. Barcelona, its management, staff and players, also regularly identify the club with the cause of Catalonian nationalism. On the face of it, though, these factors are being eroded as the fan bases become ever more diverse. Real are currently planning a holiday resort in the Middle East, aimed at Asian supporters, and both clubs tour frantically during the summer so as to cultivate new audiences and revenue streams.
Instead, the clubs are being characterised to a growing extent by their starkly different football philosophies: Barcelona’s world-renowned youth-development system, widely envied style of play and low-key management style versus Real’s generally more lavish spending on proven stars, somewhat more functional style and, just now, its enormously outspoken coach, Jose Mourinho.
Fitzpatrick provides more than enough background for readers to appreciate the way the ground is shifting and, as he charts the clubs’ progress through one campaign, a strong sense of the part played in proceedings by an often openly partisan media.
He meets quite a few of the protagonists from the past few decades too, and while not everyone manages to shed a whole lot of light on things, their inclusion does allow the author to throw in a succession of startling facts and terrific yarns.
Luis Figo and the former Barca president Joan Laporta, to be fair, provide interesting takes on the Portuguese star’s defection from the Nou Camp to the Bernabéu, but Fitzpatrick’s command of his subject comes across throughout. Some of the stories, such as the remarkable one concerning the kidnap of the then Barcelona striker Enrique Castro as the 1980-81 season approached its conclusion, comfortably merit retelling.
Indeed, the pace at which Fitzpatrick keeps things rolling along really is quite an achievement. A little like Barca’s mesmerising style of play, the narrative seems to dart a little unexpectedly one way, then another. And here, too, the overall effect is pretty entertaining.
Emmet Malone is Soccer Correspondent