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.