The Rivalry that Rules Spanish Soccer: El Clásico

Among thousands of talented athletes and sports stars in recent decades, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo consistently top the tables—be it their teams, individual stats, or hefty salaries.

Among thousands of talented athletes and sports stars in recent decades, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo consistently top the tables—be it their teams, individual stats, or hefty salaries. Their competition is also an embodiment of one of the most fierce rival matches in the history of soccer, where the teams FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF clash in what is dubbed El Clásico. El Clásico is watched annually by more than 100 million avid soccer enthusiasts and has featured unforgettable goals, matches, and celebrations. More so, the history, rivalry, and the lasting impact of these games create one of the most anticipated sports matches of all time.

El Clásico actually stemmed from a political conflict that dates back to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. During the conflict, supporting a soccer club was more than wearing a jersey or watching a match. Instead, it was a medium to express one’s beliefs and to rally among like-minded individuals for the purpose of identifying with a specific political movement. Barcelona and Real Madrid were labeled as representing Catalan nationalism and Spanish nationalism, respectively. The conflict trickled into the sporting dimension with Barcelona becoming the “rebellious club” against Real Madrid’s conservatism; the support for both teams was also politically divided with relatively progressive regions showing overwhelming support for Barcelona while Real Madrid fans tended to adopt right-wing views.

In contemporary soccer, however, ideology plays less of a role in influencing viewership and both teams’ global fanbase. Today, more than ever El Clásico means taking a firm stand by a team. The entire nation virtually stops for the whole two hours of the game. For the fans, pride has become the central factor that dictates the rivalry. The agitation of realizing that your team perhaps can no longer outmatch the opposing team, the dread of being mocked by the fans of the other team, the fear that a defeat will see their team give up title hopes.

Despite the politically driven nature of the game, supporters worldwide are enticed more by the tenacity, ferocity, and thrill of the rivalry. Whether it’s a standard league match, a Champions League knock-out stage, the Copa del Rey finals, or the Super Cup, every El Clásico confrontation has been significant in determining the true conqueror of Spanish and European soccer.

Over the years, the two teams have clashed countless times, but Barcelona’s 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid is certainly a game to look back on. In a domestic league match between first and second place, Barcelona opened the scoring with midfielder Xavi chipping a deflected ball past the Madrid keeper, Iker Casillas. The dominating performance continued with Pedro Rodriguez’s tap-in followed by two spectacular goals from David Villa; the game concluded with Jeffren Suarez’s goal in stoppage time. In addition to the exciting goals, the match was a battle of opposing tactics. Madrid’s coach, José Mourinho, found success so far in the season employing a 4-3-3 formation which emphasized defensive plays and blocking the flow in the midfield, while Barcelona, on the other hand, emphasized heavily on possession and short passing in the attacking third. Barcelona’s success surprised, since the teams seemed evenly matched beforehand. A 5-0 victory for Barcelona was certainly one of the worst defeats Mourinho suffered during his managerial career, and the win for Barcelona meant a six-point swing to put Barcelona in first place.

Barcelona showed the world the dominance of tiki-taka plays characterized by short passes and quick movement against a formidable opponent. Its form continued throughout the 2010-11 season as they went on to win the La Liga title, the prestigious UEFA Champions League, as well as the Spanish Super Cup. In terms of individual accolades, Lionel Messi was awarded the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) Ballon d’Or, making him the best player of the year for the third time in a row, Pep Guardiola was presented with the FIFA World Coach of the Year award, and a total of five Barcelona players were selected for the elite FIFA Team of the Year (FIFPro World XI).

For Real Madrid, the shocking loss was an opportunity for the team to reflect and bounce back. Following the tragic defeat, Mourinho made minor adjustments to Madrid’s formation and line-up in preparation for their next game against Valencia CF. Instead of the traditional 4-3-3 format, Mourinho implemented the 4-3-1-2 structure: a transition towards a narrower formation that placed more emphasis on the midfielders and central defenders. Spanish defenders Álvaro Arbeloa and Raúl Albiol took the spots of Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos—the duo that performed poorly in the team’s 0-5 defeat to Barcelona. Moreover, Lassana Diara, the French defensive midfielder, was chosen over striker Karim Benzema after Madrid conceded 5 goals. Mourinho’s change in plans proved to be successful as Madrid went on to defeat Manuel Llorente’s Valencia 2-0, took home the valuable Copa del Rey trophy, and concluded the La Liga season in second place, only four points behind Barcelona: an unfortunate but memorable season for Mourinho’s squad.

Though El Clásico changes with new players and managers, it continues to be one of the most intense matches in the sporting platform. More often than not, the outcome of the El Clásico plays a large role in how the respective seasons of both teams pan out. With over 270 Clásico matches played since 1902, soccer fans from all around the world anticipate the next match and its intensity. Perhaps what keeps the competition alive is “Morbo”, as they say in Spanish: the unique element that gives Spanish football its special flavor. More than simply a sports rivalry, El Clásico is the epitome of thousands of conflicted feelings between two clubs divided by history, politics, and culture.

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