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.

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

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