Football lore - Roots of the El Clasico
In 1936, a war started that changed the face of Spain, it’s people, its philosophies and its football. I know it is an odd way to start a football article, but it is here that we find the reason for a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid being known as El Clasico.
When Franco took charge in Spain, large parts of Catalunya and particularly the City of Barcelona did not take to him kindly. Already in terms of football and culture a symbol of unheeding the centralist Madrid conservatism, Barcelona was viewed as a dangerous proposition. The then club president Josep Sunyol was executed by General Franco, Barcelona has since been viewed as a rebel club and the seeds of this historic rivalry were sown.
What really brought things to a head was the Di Stefano transfer saga. Both the Catalan and the Madridistas wanted him and FIFA ruled that the precociously talented Argentinian would be used alternatively each season by both. But the Franco-imposed President of Barcelona backed down after a few appearances and Real Madrid got the best of him. Indeed, it was Di Stefano who along with Puskas was responsible for establishing the legacy Madrid enjoy. The duo won them five European Cups and it is pertinent to note that after 1965, Madrid have lifted the cup only 4 times in 47 years. An interesting anecdote that does the rounds is that in 1943, Barcelona defeated Madrid in a cup game, the score being 3-0. Before the second leg, Franco’s director of security ‘reminded’ the players that they were playing at the ‘mercy’ of the regime. Barcelona proceeded to lose the match 11-1.
But the story does not stop here. The tradition of Passilo is one of the most unique traditions in world football. I had the chance to witness it live in the 2008 season. I saw the Barca players come out of the tunnel and form a guard of honour for the incoming Madrid players. Now I had been watching football for a fair few years and was dumbfounded at the occurrence. My father (a Barcelona fan since the days of Ronaldo) explained almost ashamedly that if either of the two clubs wrap up the league before the last Clasico of the season, the other has to form a guard of honour in respect of the winners. Devised by Franco, this tradition has only taken place thrice.
After Di Stefano, the most controversial direct transfer was undoubtedly that of Figo. A cult hero, a legend, the Portugese man was seen by the Cules as one of their own before he joined Madrid. It seems now that no one acknowledges his presence at Barcelona, least of all the fans. Indeed, at his first visit back to the Camp Nou, he was welcomed with the severed head of a pig and a full bottle of whiskey thrown at him.
In terms of popularity though, it has been recorded by various surveys that Madrid is by some distance ahead of the Catalans in terms of fan following in Spain. Conversely, in Europe and elsewhere on the globe, the Blaugrana retain an edge in terms of fan base. One thing that has fascinated me is that the way the clubs have, knowingly or unknowingly, represented their early philosophy over the years. The philosophy which we see today is a direct throwback to the Franco era. Madrid at that time had the support and the money to purchase the best, Barca did not. They believed more in developing players, perhaps it was more necessity than choice. Either way, even before La Masia was established, Barcelona were a club who gave chances to young and unproved talent.
Something that has always caught my eye, or rather my ear, is the chanting, singing and, as a friend who understands Spanish once told me, swearing that the crowd does in these games. The sound for me represents the cries of battle, the cries of an interminable rivalry that is perhaps the greatest in the world. For me, the England Derby (United- Liverpool) or the Derby Della Italia (Inter- Juventus) are inferior to this vaunted fixture. Whatever the quality of football on display, the history and the pathos behind this fixture make it worth the hype. And so the next time any of you sit down to watch a Clasico, remember that what you are watching is not a mere football match, but as Phil Ball said, ‘A re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War’.