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Last Wednesday, FC Barcelona eliminated Real Madrid from the Copa del Rey tournament and here at UCSB, I saw plenty of kids repping their Barça and Madrid jerseys and at least a few others streaming the game live on library computers in between classes. But even if you’re not a fan of fútbol, you have probably heard the names of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo thrown around. These soccer gods, who are considered the two best players in the world, are the biggest protagonists of the greatest rivalry in sports: Real Madrid versus FC Barcelona, El Clásico.
There’s Real Madrid’s Ronaldo, the powerful midfielder who punishes on counterattacks with his trickery and sound-barrier-breaking shots versus FC Barcelona’s Messi, a diminutive (5’6”), crafty player who seems to have the ball glued to his feet as he darts through opposing defenses. The differences between the two players exemplify the differences between their teams’ styles of play; Madrid loves the lightning counters while Barcelona breaks down defenses through dominating possessions. Yet there are plenty of other rivalries with similar contrasts in players and styles: Bears vs. Packers, Yankees vs. Red Sox, Lakers vs. Celtics etc. What makes El Clásico the greatest rivalry in the world is actually something completely unrelated to sport: politics.
In order to really understand the magnitude of El Clásico, you have to know a little bit about Spanish politics, a topic I was completely clueless about before I studied abroad there last year. Spain has had an incredibly tumultuous and violent history, characterized by repressive, conservative dictatorships replacing brief liberal democracies. Many Spaniards don’t share the same nationalistic feelings that most Americans do; different regions in Spain have their own distinct cultures, traditions and, in the cases of País Vasco and Catalonia (where Barcelona is located), even their own languages.
When Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1936 by defeating the Second Republic of Spain, he made it a top priority to stamp out as much of the regional pride that existed in Spain as possible. For Barcelona, that meant a ban on using their own regional language, Catalan, and a wave of persecution against prominent Catalans. FC Barcelona was on the top of Franco’s list of organizations to be purged along with the communists, anarchists and Catalan nationalists, and FC Barcelona’s president was immediately executed without a trial after Franco’s victory.
It was during this time of Franco rule that FC Barcelona came to be known as “quelcom més que un club de fútbol” (“something more than a football club”), which would eventually be shortened to today’s official FC Barcelona slogan, “mes que un club” (“more than a club”), a slogan that alludes to the fact that FC Barcelona is not only a soccer team, but a representation of Catalan pride, culture and tradition — the club’s colors, red, blue and yellow, contain the colors of the Catalan flag. Even today, the football club represents the popular desire among Catalans to secede from the Spanish state, a proposition that a 2011 poll showed 41 percent of Catalans supported.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, is a representation of Spanish unity and central authority; in Spanish, “real” means “royal,” and the crest of the team contains the king’s crown. The club was the favorite team of Franco, whose regime had many ties to the club. Even after Franco died and Spain became a democracy in 1975, the club continued to be associated with a national Spanish identity and more conservative values. According to a national poll by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas, Real Madrid supporters, who make up 32 percent of Spaniards, tend to adopt right-wing views while FC Barcelona supporters, 25 percent of Spaniards, are more closely associated with left-wing views. The creation of an extreme Madrid supporter’s group named Ultras Sur in the 1980s also helped solidify the conservative image of Madrid, especially after many prominent Madrid players, like Guti and the legendary Raul, had been photographed posing with members and flags of the group.
If a player ever moves from one club to the other, like Portuguese star Luís Figo did in 2000 when he left Barcelona for Madrid, they are seen as genuine traitors and are punished severely by their ex-fans. When Figo returned to Barcelona for the first time since he switched sides, Barcelona supporters threw a severed pig head at him from the stands. I doubt any Cleveland Cavaliers fan would ever consider doing the same to Lebron James; despite how much they hate him, that would be seen by most as some pretty fucked-up shit.
Regardless of the situation, throwing a severed pig head at another person is definitely not chill. However, the truth is that for Spaniards, El Clásico is so much more than a soccer match; it is the recreation of an ongoing political struggle that for the supporters of either club represents an epic battle between good and evil, right and wrong, and it is that mutual, ferocious hatred born out of political divisions that makes it the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
Daily Nexus columnist Riley Schenck bets every Spanish pig is a full-blown Real Madrid fan now.