As I sat here Real Madrid currently lead Barcelona by one goal in the second leg of their Copa Del Rey semi final yet El Clásico no longer leaves footballing aficionados gripped to their television sets in the manner it once did. Now don’t get me wrong, the large majority of the footballing populous still tunes in to watch the Catalan might of FC Barcelona take on the mercurial traditionalist Real Madrid of Spain’s capital city but there now seems to be far less of a neutral interest in this fixture than there was early on in the millennium.
Whether or not this is due to the regularity with which these fixtures have cropped up in the European footballing calendar in recent years or the characters that have become involved we cannot be sure but it is certain both have had their individual impacts respectively. In days gone by the Spanish National team has always teetered on the brink of success with the talented individuals such as Raul, Morientes, Mendieta, Hierro, Campo and Zubizarreta gracing La Roja with their individual talents and traits to no avail in terms of trophies won.
Since Luis Aragones took charge of the National team following Euro 2004 what has now become known as ‘The Golden Generation’ of Spanish football has matured and found a footballing style which suits thee nimble footed creative players that the country has always produced. The National team since the rise of Barcelona headed by Pep Guardiola and to a certain degree Frank Rijkaard have reached previously unthinkable heights winning two consecutive European championships as well as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The Spanish national side that has reached such heights is, as it always has been littered with players from both Real Madrid and Barcelona and in the past it was said that the Spanish compatriots would put any differences they encountered between each other inside the powder keg atmosphere of El Clásico would be forgotten about as soon as the match ended and it would in no way hinder the squad camaraderie within the La Roja setup and this always proved to be the case however the malevolence at which El Clásico is now played it is difficult to see how this can occur. As yet the success of the national team has not suffered but it is difficult to say that Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Pedro and Jordi Alba can all get on handsomely following on from events that in the past two years seem to occur in every Clásico.
In the early Millennium El Clásico was an event looked forward to by football as a universe with the talents of Zidane, Figo, Beckham, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique and others all being on show in the same stadium at the same time. It was the same excitement that surrounded an International tournament all wrapped into one ninety minute footballing festival. Now thirteen years on there is much more football made viewable by the wider world with the influx of online streaming and worldwide television stations and maybe football fans have been spoilt, maybe the vast amounts of world class football on offer every weekend has reduced the ardour with which people used to feel for El Clásico as a spectacle.
Many will remember the defining moment of El Clásico as a worldwide spectacle being in April of 2005, a 4-2 win for Real Madrid at the Bernabeu with Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo and even Michael Owen getting on the score sheet for the Galácticos with Ronaldinho and Eto’o registering for Barcelona. The football on display on that evening was sublime, breathtaking in fact, there they were all the stars of European football in once place playing to their maximum ability, it was fantastic, a game that would be talked about for years to come. However fast forward just eight years to 2013 and Clásicos are now being greeted by a significant percentage of footballing fans with derision and widespread annoyance at the acts of petulant ‘diving’ and ‘dissent’. It is from a neutral and a football lover’s perspective very hurtful to see one of the biggest matches in world football, steeped in political history greeted in such a way however one can in some ways see where they are coming from.
There has always been a sort of edge, a warm intensity between the two clubs which did in fact stem from the political landscape of Spain and Catalonia however since the introduction of Jose Mourinho in 2010 this has essentially exploded into something more hostile and unpleasant, the rivalry has exceeded what was known before. Even the relatively fierce undertones that Clásicos took on following Luis Figo’s transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid is nothing compared to the current level of hostility. The footballing rivalry has been distorted into something unrecognizable that has at times crossed the line.
Jose Mourinho has always had unfinished business with Barcelona, ever since his time at the club working with Sir Bobby Robson where he became rather less than endearingly known as ‘The Translator’ right through until his time at Chelsea where the self proclaimed Special One criticised Barcelona and referee Anders Frisk publically following a European Cup tie between the two clubs. This was compounded further and possibly even taken to a new level when in 2008 it was announced Frank Rijkaard would not manage Barcelona any further than the end of the 2007-2008 season and there was a vacancy for the role of Manager. Jose Mourinho was interviewed and as mentioned by Graham Hunter in his book “Barca: The making of the greatest team in the world” prepared a hugely detailed presentation on how he could take Barcelona forward yet Mourinho never felt as if he was truly considered for the post, there was an underlying suspicion within the Los Culés hierarchy that they didn’t feel Mourinho had the right personality and temperament for the job.
Since this well, rejection Jose Mourinho has appeared at times to be on a one man, Brian Clough esque mission to gain the upper hand over Barcelona whenever possible. This was seen during his final season managing Internazionale Milan when Mourinho rose from his crouched position to an iconic sprint, arms raised across the hallowed turf of the Camp Nou to celebrate a victory over the Catalan club. As Mourinho stood arms aloft avoiding the heated advances of Victor Valdes it just screamed “Jose Mourinho 1 Barcelona 0.” However this was not to be the end of the battle with Mourinho becoming manager of Real Madrid just months later.
Since then the Clásico has become a much more volatile affair, Pepe stamping on the arm of Lionel Messi, Jose Mourinho himself gouging the eye of the then Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova and the recurring gamesmanship engulfing the clash to name just three incidents and the worrying thing is that it appears to not be discouraged by the man at the top. Comments made by Jose Mourinho following the European cup semi final Clásico in 2011 suggesting that Barcelona got favourable treatment from referees due to their affiliation with the charity Unicef did little to quell the intensity ahead of the next fixture.
The grudge that Jose Mourinho so obviously bares towards Barcelona as a club has manifested itself on the pitch with the way Madrid have approached fixtures between the two sides with rough over the top challenges being used as game plans in order to halt Lionel Messi. The response to this tough tackling from Barcelona has been a polar opposite with the Catalan’s players seemingly hitting the ground in at times theatrical manners which has in part contributing to fans turning their backs on El Clásico.
Barcelona has historically been the rebel club ever since their conception in 1899, Catalan and proud has often been the message given off by Los Culés and this was illustrated perfectly on the October 7th 2012 edition of the Clásico when fans of Barcelona waved Catalan flags to show their desire for Catalan independence from Spain. In stark contrast Real Madrid who were formed in the mould of London side Corinthian FC who were renowned for their elegance and sportsmanship, were always the royal club ever since 1920 when King Alfonso XIII granted Madrid the title of ‘Real’ translating to Royal. The club as a result was seen as the puritans of Spanish football with many fans across the country feeling that they were never on a level playing field with Madrid always being preferred due to their royal status.
However since the introduction of Jose Mourinho combined with the success of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola this notion has been completely inverted with Barcelona now seen as the puritans of the game playing perfect Tiki-Taka football acclaimed across the continent and Real Madrid the villainous rebels headed by a marmite like figure in Jose Mourinho, being criticised for their heinous acts of trying to stop Barcelona. The media coverage both clubs receive across the world has reflected this shift in perception. Madrid are seen as number two in Spain to Barcelona and with Barcelona’s free flowing style of football having made its way to the National team many have pointed to Real Madrid’s somewhat conservative, if not a little negative at times, tactics under Jose Mourinho as anti-Spanish football and completely the opposite of what Real Madrid stood for upon their creation in 1902.
Real Madrid no longer set the benchmark for the rest of Europe as they did at the turn of the Millennium, Barcelona do and this is something that does not sit right for supporters of Real Madrid, there may be a hint of jealousy in this new found spite towards Barcelona and when you consider the political history of between the two clubs of Franco and The Cortes it is surprising that it has taken one single Portuguese manager to ramp up the El Clásico rivalry to such turbulent levels.
In terms of a worldwide perspective of El Clásico, it is still the most watched footballing fixture, dwarfed only by the European cup final yet as previously mentioned the sudden spates of people losing interest or deriding El Clásico appear to be ever increasing. The departure of Pep Guardiola from the Barcelona hot seat has done little to cool tensions between the two clubs and now it seems that unlike early on in the 2000’s where the star names and world class players drew crowds it is two star individuals that are now turning people away rather than towards El Clásico in 2013.
Lionel Messi Vs Cristiano Ronaldo has now taken on a life of its own inside the parameters of El Clásico with supporters and pundits prior to every clash analysing and debating as to who is the better footballer. From Messi’s four straight Ballon d’Or wins or Cristiano Ronaldo’s astronomical goal tally everything is debated except the 20 other players that are taking part in the match. People are becoming so engulfed in Messi Vs Ronaldo that they no longer see El Clásico as a matchup between Real Madrid and Barcelona and many fans are sternly against this, they do not have an interest in individuals and do not agree with the idolisation and pedestal these two in particular are placed upon. These fans steer away from El Clásico in order to avoid the media circus surround Messi and Ronaldo which engulfs it.
Finally, something which I noticed in particular during the summer, people become bored with constant success. The large amount of footballing neutrals supporting Italy rather than Spain in Euro 2012’s showpiece final illustrated just how frustrated people had become with La Roja’s monotonous winning. This is not to say the football played by Spain was in anyway boring but the success they were having had began to grate on peoples nerves somewhat. It is human nature to favour the underdog and that is what Italy were and people wanted desperately for Italy to break Spain’s vice like grip on International football. The same frustration is happening with Barcelona.
Barcelona’s success since 2008 has been both consistent and unprecedented with multiple European cups and La Liga titles being won during this period however just like Spain people are now beginning to find themselves fed up of Barcelona. People do not want to see the same team winning over and over again, everybody has appreciated the football Barcelona has given to the world since 2008 but not they want something new to marvel at, something new to take Barcelona down from their perch and footballing history has always been this way. Sir Alex Ferguson wanting to halt Liverpool’s recurring successes, English teams wanting to end Arsenal’s unbeaten run and Manchester City wanting to end the city wide dominance Manchester United had lauded over them for so long.
Fans who are feeling these frustrations will now turn away from Barcelona’s matches as they feel they know the outcome prior to the fixture being played and the same is happening with El Clásico, once ninety minutes of unpredictability fixtures between Real Madrid and Barcelona are now predicted as affairs filled with Barcelona constantly passing, Real Madrid being physical in order to stop this constant passing and Barcelona eventually coming out on top. People do not want to be subjected to the same thing over and over again.
The Copa Del Rey fixture that was taking place at the start of writing this piece has now just finished with Real Madrid winning 3-1 on the night sending them through to the final. There was lots of good football yet as expected a certain amount of diving and controversy which the fans who wish to stay away from this fixture will have been happy to have missed. Barcelona appear to be in somewhat of a rough patch which many will say has been long overdue, the presence of Tito Vilanova is clearly being missed with Jordi Roura struggling to handle the pressures of being a first team coach. If Barcelona fail to overturn a 2-0 deficit against AC Milan in two weeks time the season will in the eyes of many be considered a failure but you cannot keep performing at the level they have been forever and with the what at times seemed an endless Barcelona success streak in place since 2008 potentially coming to an end combined with the expected departure of Jose Mourinho from Real Madrid this summer, then maybe just maybe El Clásico can return to where it was at the turn of the millennium with fans flocking for the football rather than turning away due to the fiasco.