Debunking El Clásico myths surrounding La Liga
Sid Lowe has used history to reveal the truth behind one of greatest rivalries in the world
Figo’s transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid prompted a fan to throw a pig’s head towards the player when the sides met.
Sid Lowe begins his history of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s rivalry at a cemetery within sight of Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s 99,000-seater stadium. On the morning of matches between Spain’s two great football clubs, fans congregate to pay their respects to the entombed remains of former Barça players such as László Kubala and Paulino Alcántara, the club’s leading scorer (for now as 26-year-old Lionel Messi will likely surpass him sometime next year).
Flowers and pennants lay strewn around their graves, while prayers are offered up in the hope they’ll intercede for a favourable result for the home side later that day. On the other side of Camp Nou, there’s a maternity hospital. That’s the way it is in Spain when it comes to football, notes Lowe – on one side, life, on the other, death.
Lowe is a Spanish football correspondent for the Guardian newspaper and other magazines such as Sports Illustrated. He also earned a PhD in history for a book on the Juventud de Acción Popular, a youth organisation that fostered fascism in Spain during the 1930s, which means he mixes galáctico interviews with pivotal players in the saga such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, Michael Laudrup and Luís Figo, with a historian’s rigour.
His use of primary sources – including files that shed new light on Real Madrid’s controversial signing of Di Stéfano in 1953 – and ability to debunk myths results in a fascinating, detailed read, particularly in addressing some misconceptions about the role of the Spanish Civil War in the clubs’ rivalry.
“People allow themselves to be informed by the assumption that the civil war was somehow Catalonia against Castile,” says Lowe. “It’s just complete and utter rubbish. Probably the only bit of the book where I get close to going on a rant is that civil war bit. This isn’t about shades of grey: it’s black and white. It’s the wrong way around. The idea that the city of Madrid was somehow the aggressor is pretty grotesque. Madrid and Barcelona were fighting on the same side for the majority of the civil war. There has been a blurring of the lines between Madrid, the city, and Real Madrid, the football club, and a blurring of the lines between Barcelona, the city, and Barcelona, the football club.
“Another reason is a blurring of the timescale – things that happened subsequently to the two clubs are transported onto their civil war experience. For example, the Franco regime was more suspicious of Barcelona than it was about Madrid.
“It treated Barcelona with a sense of ‘we don’t trust these guys’ in a way it didn’t do with Real Madrid, despite handpicking presidents [AT BOTH CLUBS], and in the late ’60s and early ’70s Barcelona start to construct an identity, which is founded on the idea that they are anti-Francoist. These are transported back to the civil war. What frustrates me is that the civil war was a different era in which, under very different circumstances, different processes were being played out.
“There might be three words which sum up why this happened: ‘Homage to Catalonia.’ The fact that the most famous book on the Spanish Civil War, in Britain at least, is specifically about Barcelona, that [GEORGE]Orwell paints his picture about revolution in Barcelona, that has cemented in the collective conscience this idea: ‘Homage to Catalonia, freedom fighters, anti-Francoists, Catalonia.’ It’s created a portrait of the war on a populist level that is all about Barcelona. Almost by Madrid’s absence from that picture the assumption then becomes: ‘Ah, Madrid must be the other side then.’
“To be fair to Orwell, he makes the point that the people who came to Barcelona from Madrid couldn’t believe how laidback they were in the city about the war because the city was so far from the front, apart from some street-fighting at the start and the fight in May 1937. The book accidentally created this idea that Barcelona is the home of resistance, and Madrid isn’t.”
After the Spanish Civil War, Barça provided a refuge for Catalan separatists, particularly towards the end of the Franco dictatorship, a time when the Catalan language was banned in Spain. The club delights in a romantic telling of its history. Far more books have been published on Barça compared to Real Madrid, a club that seems less self-absorbed and more interested in winning trophies than in myth making. Barça won the propaganda war when it comes to the clubs’ identities, says Lowe.
“Barcelona have been really successful in creating what [Spanish football writer] Ramón Besa calls ‘relato’, in creating this ‘story’ around the club, and Real Madrid have failed. You do start to wonder, and people in Catalonia will tell you one of the reasons Madrid don’t want to investigate their history is because it’s true. That’s only partly the case. Madrid have always only tried to make it about the football. Politically, some of its people haven’t been automatically embracing of liberalism and democracy in the way that Barcelona have.”
Lowe unravels other interesting myths, among them the flaws at the heart of their narratives. For a team that is supposedly anti-Spain, Barça has supplied more internationals to the national team than Real Madrid, including seven starters for the World Cup final in 2010. Two Catalan brothers founded Real Madrid. Two of Real Madrid’s presidents during the Spanish Civil War period were anti-Franco – Rafael Sánchez Guerra was a Republican and Colonel Antonio Ortega a communist stooge for the Soviet Union.
From 1939 until Di Stéfano’s arrival at Real Madrid in ’53, which was the most repressive period of the Franco regime, Real Madrid failed to win the league while Barça racked up five titles.
In one sense, the clubs share more similarities than differences – they are the two behemoths of La Liga. Their earning power dwarfs other Spanish clubs. This is not, of course, to say their fans don’t despise each other. In a poll conducted in 1999, more than 50 per cent of Barça’s supporters said they prefer a Real Madrid loss to a Barcelona win.
There is a gulf, however, between the vitriol on the terraces and the feelings shared amongst the players on the field. Their teams are stocked with mercenaries, the latest of whom the Brazilian Neymar Jr (Barça) and Welshman Gareth Bale (Real Madrid) presumably knew little about the cultural and historical nuances of the rivalry before arriving in Spain this summer. As former Real Madrid midfielder Santi Solari says: “All players think about is football, not politics.”
“I’ve just done an interview with Gerard Piqué for World Soccer, which doesn’t appear in the book,” says Lowe.
“He said, ‘It’s impossible to completely withdraw yourself from what goes on around you,’ and when things are particularly tense as they were, of course, during that run of clásicos in 2011 (four in 18 days), he said ‘you start to take on some of those characteristics.
“You do start to think, Oh, those guys over there: what a bunch of arseholes, but you also see it from the professional footballers’ point of view, and a lot of footballers will look at fans and think, God, they’re completely losing their heads.’
“Maybe the Luís Figo case is a good example. (The Portuguese left Barça for Real Madrid in 2000.) One former Barcelona player said to me, ‘Of course he left. I’d have left for that money.’ Equally, there was another Barcelona player who said to me, ‘I’d never have done that’ not so much because he was too committed to Barcelona but rather, ‘I can’t believe he put himself in that position with the fans’. Players don’t live divorced from it but their perspective is very different.
“I had a conversation with one of the Real Madrid players just before that run of four clásicos in 2011 and he said: ‘It’s weird. You play for the Spanish national team and you’ve got all these Barcelona players there and fundamentally they are alright, but you sometimes feel with everything going on around you that you’re almost obliged to hate them.’”
Lowe says that José Mourinho brought the players into that manufactured hatred during his three years as Real manager. It was a motivational ploy that backfired, as it led to the collapse in his relationship with team captain Iker Casillas.
His rein ended last summer. The Real Madrid job was too demanding even for The Special One.