El Clásico: More than a game

The El Clasico is a rivalry teeming with historic significance, from tempers flaring to moments of brilliance, Barcelona and Real Madrid have both produced the goods over the years. Here we take a look at the rivalry and how it developed.

By Gethin Boore

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The two biggest clubs in the world, and when they face each other, it usually means a battle. Today, football fans associate El Clasico as Messi v Ronaldo, Suarez v Benzema, Rakitic v Modric and so on, but in a true sense, these clubs represent completely different things. To begin with, they represent completely different nations…

Barcelona was the first to form out of the two in 1899 by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers, whilst Real Madrid were formed as Madrid FC in 1902, but changed to Real Madrid in the 1920s after gaining the permission of King Alfonso XIII. The first ever meeting between the two was in 1902, the year Real Madrid was formed, in which Barcelona won 3-1 at the old Hipodromo de la Castellana stadium in Madrid. Barcelona won the first ever La Liga title in 1929, but it wasn’t until the year 1936 when the rivalry began for real.

1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and football was a big part of it all. Many people say that it was in 1936 the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona truly began. The man who was at the heart of it all was the dictator Francisco Franco. The reason football was a big part of the civil war was because Real Madrid was Franco’s team and the team of the right while the democrats and the team of the left was Barcelona. In 1936, Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was assassinated by Francoist troops just outside Madrid, which caused controversy between the left wing and the right wing. Franco hated Catalonia as well as the Basque country, and banned the Catalan flag from being flown and didn’t allow the Catalan language from being spoken.

The war finished in 1939, and in 1943, the most infamous game in the fixture’s history was played. 13th of June, the semi final of the Copa del Generalismo, the forerunner of the Copa Del Rey named after Franco, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1. This had such a political feel to it.

The famous scoreboard.

One member of that Barcelona team was still alive when he told Sid Lowe in his book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” in 2013 what happened. He tells the story of a police officer coming into the Barcelona dressing room saying something bad must not happen. Not that they don’t have to lose but that nothing bad should happen. His name was Fernando Argila and he was Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper at the time, and it was after this game that the people of Barcelona considered Real Madrid as Franco’s team.

In 1947, Real Madrid moved from their old Charmatin stadium to a new stadium named after the man that was Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabéu. He was the president at the time, but also a former player and manager as well. He had an idea of transforming Real Madrid into a global attraction by signing the best players and being recognised by the world. The 1950s became Real Madrid’s golden era, and in 1953, the man that turned out to be Real Madrid’s greatest ever player arrived to the Spanish capital. His name was Alfredo Di Stefano.

Di Stefano was a player that impressed both Barcelona and Real Madrid in his time at Millonarios of Colombia, and Barça were the favourites to sign him. Both clubs claimed to have his signature, but Barcelona’s president resigned, forcing them to cancel the signing. This saw Di Stefano catching the train from Barcelona to Madrid and signing for Los Blancos.

Di Stefano in Barcelona colours with Kubala

In 1955, the European Cup began, and Real won the first ever tournament in 1956. Incredibly, they won it five times in a row, and are considered the best ever to have played the game. They had incredible players who came and went between 1955-1960 such as Raymond Kopa, the rapid Paco Gento, Di Stefano of course and the outstanding Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas. Real Madrid’s finest hour came in 1960 when they thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park. Di Stefano scored a hat trick while Puskas scored four and some experts say it’s the greatest final ever played.

Real were dominating Europe, but not so much in the league. During that period of dominating Europe, they won the league twice while Barcelona won it twice as well. The El Clasio remained tight, despite Real Madrid dominating Europe. However, Di Stefano once said that Real’s football rivals were their cross city rivals Atletico de Madrid. Barcelona were managed by ‘the magician’ Helenio Herrera. He was appointed as the manager of Barcelona in 1958, and won two league titles. The only thing that was missing was the European Cup, and he was sacked in 1960 after Real Madrid knocked Barcelona out of the competition they wanted to win the most.

Again in 1960, Barcelona and Real Madrid faced each other in the European Cup. This game is mostly remembered for two things. One, Real Madrid knocked were out of the European Cup for the first time in their history and two, the Eenlish referee Arthur Ellis. The Real players were furious with the all the decisions going against them and they also tried to beat him up after the game. The players knew that it was decided that Real Madrid couldn’t win another European Cup. Instead, it was their arch-rivals who came closest to winning it, reaching the final in Bern before losing to Benfica.

Barcelona hadn’t won the league since 1960 under Herrera. That was about to change. Step forward, the Dutchman, Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff as Barcelona captain

He joined Barcelona in 1973, and changed the club forever. A legend at Ajax, he moved to Barcelona in the middle of a pretty gloomy time at the Camp Nou. Franco was still alive at the time, and still, Catalonia was a country depressed. The only place that the Catalan language was spoken and a key place to express Catalanism was at the Camp Nou. Cruyff came to the Camp Nou and brought smiles to the faces of the Barcelona supporters. He carried Barca to their first league title in fourteen years, beating Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou along the way. Cruyff came into the 1974-75 season with a World Cup runners-up medal. At the ’74 World Cup, Holland were best remembered for the famous style of play ‘Total Football’ and Cruyff duly brought it with him to the Camp Nou.

As soon as Cruyff arrived in Catalonia, he was a fans favourite, and tried his best to fit into the Catalan culture. In 1974, he called his newly born son Jordi after Saint Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, which put him in a bit of a mess. Under the dictatorship of Franco, newly born babies had to have a name in Castillan Spanish. A year after Cryuff’s arrival, Franco passed away at the age of 82.

The 1980’s proved to be a strange decade for both clubs in a successful and un-successful way. In 1980, Real Madrid won the league title, but for the next four years it stayed in the Basque Country when Real Sociedad won it in 1981 and 1982 before Athletic Club Bilbao won it in 1983 and 1984. It was an incredible few years in the Basque Country, but the next five years was memorable in Real Madrid’s case.

A team known as ‘Quinta del Buitre’ which translates to ‘The Vulture Squad’ included five players who came through the youth squad at Real Madrid. The five were Miguel Sanchis, Rafael Martin Vazquez. Michél, Miguel Pardeza and the main man and striker, Emilio Butrageño. They won five league titles in a row, yes, five. They were a great side, but like the Barça side in the late 50s, they’re not that well-known for winning one thing; the European Cup. The European Cup is a trophy that Real Madrid will forever want to win. It’s always their aim at the start of every season. It’s what signifies them as a club.

For Barça meanwhile, the end of the decade was turbulent. They won the league in 1985, and tragically lost the European cup final against Steaua Bucharest in Seville. They lost on penalties, and the Romanian keeper saved four penalties. It was a sour evening in Barcelona’s history, and it’s a game that most fans would like to forget. Also in that year, they lost to Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey final, a change was needed, and in 1988, the man that changed the club as a whole, returned to the Camp Nou, Johan Cruyff.

Johan Cruyff in the Barcelona dugout in 1988

When he arrived in 1988, Barcelona were a club in debt and crisis. They had just won the Copa Del Rey, but Cruyff brought in new players, and a brilliant team was starting to emerge. He signed Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup as well as giving local boy, Pep Guardiola a first team place. He started developing young players at Barcelona academy, La Masia.

In 1990, Cruyff brought in Bulgarian striker Hirsto Stoichkov, and a year later, Barça finally won the league title again. They won it again the next year, but in 1992, an even bigger thing was about to happen. A Champions League final at Wembley against Sampdoria.

It was huge. Barcelona just needed to win. After coming so close in 1986, this was a massive chance to forget about the heartbreak in Seville, and to finally put their name on the trophy. The game was 0-0 as it went into extra-time, but in the second half, Ronald Komean’s free-kick flew into the Sampdoria net, and it’s a picture that is still famous to this day. Finally, Barcelona were European champions, and it was down to Johan Cruyff. It was an incredible evening, up there as one of the special evenings in Barcelona history.

A controversial figure in El Clasico history is Luis Figo. After a successful period at his childhood club Sporting Lisbon, he moved to Catalonia in 1995. He was an instant hit, and the fans adored him. He was part of a terrific attacking partnership alongside Rivaldo at Barcelona. It was a strange period, Barcelona had a good team, but in 1998, Real Madrid were European Champions for the first time since 1966 as they defeated Juventus. They then won it again in 2000 after beating Valencia.

That team featured Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Steve McManaman and one of the greatest players to ever wear the famous white shirt, Raul, having signed from Atletico Madrid after they shut down their youth system. He joined in 1994 and is the all-time record appearance holder at the club with 741 games as well as the second highest scorer in the club’s history with 323 goals. Also in 2000, a new man took over the presidency of Real Madrid, and transformed the club into a global attraction. His name was Florentino Perez.

He had a vision of signing the best players in the world. He called them the ‘Galacticos’, and still to this day, the Galactico policy is ongoing. He said publicly that the first singing he will make will be from Barcelona, and that signing will be Luis Figo. Incredibly, he left for Real and the Barça fans were way more than angry, they were absolutely livid. When he returned to the Camp Nou on several occasions, he was taunted with abuse, and there missiles such as knifes, cigarette lighters and bottles were flying all over the place. In 2002, a pig’s head was thrown by a supporter onto the pitch, and still to today, it’s the most iconic image in the Clasico’s history. Even his old team mates were trying to hurt him, and the players had to be blocked by riot police. He was attacked outside his house 2004 by two members of the ultra group, Boixos Nois.

Luis Figo taunted by Barcelona fans

With the Galactico policy, in 2001, Zinadine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real, and was followed by Ronaldo in 2002. In the same year, forty years on from the club’s finest moment in the 1960 European cup, they won it again against Bayer Leverkusen, at the same location, Hampden Park. What is best remembered from that game is Zidane’s superb volley into the top corner, and is arguably the greatest goal ever scored at a European final. They were still signing players from all over the world, as David Beckham left Manchester United for Madrid in 2003 and Michael Owen moved as well in 2004.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, they had their own policy. Although, they didn’t have to sign as much as they used their famous youth system, La Masia. They had a new president, Joan Laporta, who was the most politically driven president in Barcelona’s history. La Masia was used often, and many young talents came through such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Perdo, Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Csec Fabregas. Most of the players who came through were Catalan born and bred.

Though a certain Lionel Messi wasn’t Catalan, but whilst playing for Rosario, he impressed the Barcelona scouts and moved over when he was young. Messi was given his first team debut in 2004, and from then on, he is the greatest player to ever wear the Blaugranna shirt. An incredible team was being built, and in 2006 under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard along with the talent of Brazilian, Ronaldinho, Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time in their history.

The Spanish national team was developing brightly as well, and La Masia was a massive part of that. 2009 came around, and it was the greatest year in the history of the club. Managed by former player and La Masia graduate, Pep Guardiola, incredibly, they won six major trophies in a calendar year – a record. They won the Champions League again that year with a 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome, as well as the league title, the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Sup, Uefa Super Sup and Copa Del Rey. It was an incredible achievement, and La Masia was the reason behind it.

The 2010-11 season was another season that will go down in the history of famous El Clasico fixtures. In November 2010, Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou, in a first game out of many that featured fights between the players and the managers. The Real Madrid manager at the time was Jose Mourhino who had just won the Champions League at Inter Milan, as well as beating Barcelona in the semi-finals.

In April 2011, they faced each other four times in the space of 11 days, once in the league, once in the Copa Del Rey final and twice in the Champions League semi-finals. In all four games, many players were arguing with each other for various things and the managers were a big part of it.

A big incident occured in the Champions League semi-final first leg when Pepe was sent off for a challenge on Dani Alves. Some people say it is a red, some say it is not, and still, not really many people know if it’s a red or not. Barcelona won the two legs 3-1 on aggregate, and they faced Manchester United again, and at their hallow turf, Wembley. The Catalans won it again for the third time, and it’s up there as the greatest team performance ever seen at a European final. The Spanish national team were gaining success as well. When they won the World Cup in 2010 for the first time ever, seven players La Masia gradiuates started that game, six were Catalans. The only one that wasn’t Catalan was Iniesta, who is from Albececete, scored the winner in extra time.

El Clasico is a fixture that attracts the whole world. Billions of people watch it, and it’s always entertaining on and off the pitch, but, the history behind this fixture is amazing. Politics was a big part of the game, but it’s not all about thatt. For supporters and players, this is the game they want to win.


Author: gethinboore

Cardiff City & Wales

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