El Clásico: A Concise History

The Story of the Rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid

Of all the football derbies that take place around the globe, nothing comes close to the sheer drama of El Clásico. This football match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is without a doubt the most watched TV football event. It has an estimated audience of around 500 million viewers. And if you happen to be in Spain, it’s almost spooky. The streets are deserted, as everyone crowds around the television. You’ll hear long periods of silence punctuated by joyous shouts or low moans of disgust. This El Clásico rivalry is intense. And it’s not just about football. There’s a long and intense history that gives each side a sense of purpose that transcends the game.

Political Background to the Rivalry

As you probably know, these two cities are the capital of their regions. In the case of Barcelona, that’s the region of Catalonia. And for Madrid, it’s Castile, as well as being the capital of the whole of Spain. Some might argue that Catalonia is not really Spain, but that’s an argument for another day. But the substance of it, underlines much of the present rivalry that polarizes Spanish football supporters. In 2002 an official study confirmed what most of us already knew. Namely that if you scratch a Barca supporter, you likely to find a socialist. And if you do likewise to a Madrid supporter, you’ll find a conservative.

Though the Spanish socialist party was initially a product of Madrid, today you can see that they are now in favor of regional autonomy. Whereas those from Madrid favor a centralist and generally right wing government. This should come as no surprise, as many of the formative political ideas of our time originated in Catalonia. Whether anarchism, trades unionism, federalism, republicanism and communism, they all found their way into the Iberian peninsular via Catalonia.

El Clásico: And So It Begins

It was back in 1902 that FC Barcelona and Madrid FC first played against each other. They were each the leading side of their respective divisions; the Campionat de Catalunya and the Campeonato Regional Centro. The trophy was the precursor of the Copa del Rey, then called the Campeonato de España.

El Clásico 1902

Then in 1913, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, bestowed royal patronage to several teams. These included Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, RCD Español and Real Deportivo de la Coruña. With the approach of the 1920’s, FC Barcelona was becoming the de facto face of Catalanism. This openly opposed the centralizing tendencies of the government based in Madrid.

Catalan Repression

Under the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera (1923-30), the Catalan language became prohibited, along with the freedoms of the Catalan people. With so many restrictions being put into place, it’s no surprise that the Catalan football team would become the focus for expressing national identity. It should be pointed out that neither of the two teams we’re discussing were the dominate force in Spanish football. That honor went to Athletic Clud de Bilbao. When La Liga began in earnest in 1928, it was these three teams that dominated and cemented their rivalries.

El Clásico: The Civil War

Unfortunately, this rivalry would gradually spill into something else all together much darker. Both presidents suffered at the hands of the Nationalist. Madrid FC president Rafael Sánchez-Guerra was imprisoned at the end of the war. His rival, FC Barcelona‘s president Josep Sunyol, was murdered by the Francoist troops. The grudge was gaining strength. At the beginning of the Cival War, Madrid was under siege from Franco’s troops. To that end there could be no Campeonato Regional Centro played. Looking for a solution, the director of Madrid, Pablo Hernández Coronado and Barcelona coach Paco Bru came to a gentleman’s agreement. They would allow the Madrid players to be registered to play in the Campionat de Catalunya. This was probably made easier by the fact that Catalonia was far from being front runners at that time.

Franco’s Patronage

This proposal had overwhelming support from the Catalan public and the footballer’s trade union. But the board of FC Barcelona refused to consider such a thing. For those football supporters in Madrid, this act did nothing more than proof of a lack of solidarity at a time when it was most in need. This rivalry continued to grow after Franco came into power. Politically, the two sides were representatives of their respective regions. Though having said that, the team with probably the closest thing to dictatorial patronage was Atlético Aviación, as today’s Atlético de Madrid were known during this period.

The Francoist Favorites

During the 1940’s, and with the arrival of Santiago Bernabéu to the presidency of the club, Real Madrid‘s role as the representative team for the whole of Spain and of the Fracoist regime became clearer. With the Di Stéfano Affair thrown into the mix, it’s not really surprising that Real Madrid became the dominate force. The Di Stéfano Affair involved a player of great stature being signed from Argentina to Barcelona. He would be kidnapped, with the help of the government and then sign for Real Madrid. The whole affair was truly in the realms of bad fiction. Though Barcelona were obviously in the right, the eventual outcome of negotiations meant that the player was to be forced to play an alternating season for each team. Unsurprisingly, Barcelona took the high road and let him go to Madrid.

The Dream Team

With the death of the dictator and the arrival of Johan Cruyff in the 1990’s, the Barcelona team enjoyed a prolonged period of victories. Cruyff put together the “Dream Team”. And they went on to win 4 consecutive La Liga’s along with their first Championship League title. In spite the passing of considerable years after the civil war, you can still see the political class of Madrid being made welcome in the boxes up in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. To that end, Real Madrid still occupy a position of privileged and political will. But in spite of this, or maybe because of it, since 2012, Barcelona have had the upper hand on the football pitch. And the Catalan quest for independence is still playing out on the football pitch whenever there’s an El Clásico being played.

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