On first glance, the crowd seems fairly homogenous. Yes, the majority are wearing maroon and blue stripes, while one noisy corner tucked into the top of Camp Nou is decked out in white. But the voices sound similar, the faces nearly blend together. At first it’s difficult to believe the spectators are divided by 125 years of history, their political legacies positioning them at opposite ends of a spectrum. It is only when you focus that you notice the flags being waved don’t bear the Spanish shield; that the rippling chants have a dissonance that sends them off-key before finding your ear.
Welcome to the home of FC Barcelona, a club known not only for its success on the field but its determination to speak beyond the pitch. Barça is an emblem of Catalonia, a region that, while technically under the authority of Spain, speaks its own language, flies its own flag, tells its own history, and has long sought greater autonomy from Madrid. Such a stance creates tension that ripples outward, reaching the playing field as well. So when Real Madrid — a club bestowed not only with the royal emblem, but seen as representative of the unity of Spain — comes to town, the flames of rivalry are stoked by politics as well as sport.
El Clásico is a rivalry based not on proximity but rather on distance. Not the distance between cities — Barcelona and Madrid are less than four hundred miles apart, a mere drop in today’s globalized world — but the gulf between what the clubs represent. Both might be committed to chasing titles and willing to part with large wads of cash to fund those pursuits, but when it comes to history, there’s a great, gaping schism separates the two.
If you think the rivalry seems heated now, with Real Madrid just a point behind Barcelona in La Liga’s standings and Lionel Messi battling with Cristiano Ronaldo for the “World’s Greatest” title, just imagine what it was like in the decades under General Francisco Franco (right). Real Madrid, already Barcelona’s main rival, was used as yet another weapon in Franco’s amory, a way in which he could break down Catalonia. During Spain’s Civil War, Barça was prevented from flying the Catalonian flag inside the stadium or using Catalan in its club documents.
While Franco reinforced those prohibitions, he also went further, using the actual game to humiliate the Catalans. The best example might be the 1943 semifinals of the Copa del Rey, renamed the Copa del Generalísimo during Franco’s dictatorship. Barcelona held a 3-0 win going into the second leg at Madrid, despite what the team — and fans — felt was some pretty biased refereeing. Those fans were then portrayed as enemies of the Spanish state, whistling at the officials rather than railing against the dictatorship. Perhaps that’s what set Franco on edge. His Director of State Security paid a visit to the Barcelona dressing room before kickoff, and, according to Jimmy Burns in his book Barça, told the players, “Do not forget that some of you are only playing because of the generosity of the regime that has forgiven you for your lack of patriotism.” The visitors ultimately lost the match 11-1.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say Barcelona forged its identity out of persecution. But the club, as it stands now, cannot suffer from much of an inferiority complex. Although its 22 La Liga titles might “pale” in comparison to Real Madrid’s 32, it’s Barça that has been more successful over the past decade, taking six of the last 10 domestic championships. The star-studded squad is more than a match for los Galácticos, and the club is nearly as rich as its rival.
But Barcelona the city, Barcelona the capital of Catalonia, retains its need to fight its way out of the shadow of a more powerful entity. Since the end of the dictatorship, Catalonia has recovered much of its autonomy, including the right to use its language. Yet it is still not permitted to govern itself, or even hold an official referendum on whether its citizens would like independence, despite an unofficial vote last November showing more than 80 percent are in favor. With Catalonia caught between a nation and a state, FC Barcelona remains a vital symbol for its homeland. The club continues to promote Catalan language, culture and symbols (including the independence referendum), continuously shaping an identity not just on the soccer field but throughout the region. In Catalonia, it truly is “Més que un club.”
Then there’s Real Madrid. The club had little choice when becoming Franco’s favored one practically overnight, yet it is still perceived as the club of the Spanish state, a symbol of a former dictatorial regime. Under Franco, los blancos represented the virtues of Spain, and the club’s success spread that message beyond the country’s borders. Real Madrid, with its still shiny décima, continues to bring glory to Spain. The club is still privileged enough to receive benefits from the government, although if a more left-leaning party takes power in November’s elections, that privilege may begin to wane.
However, it is altogether too simplistic to portray El Real as a club of the far-right. It has its share of fan groups leaning that direction, specifically the Ultras Sur, who have previously displayed fascist symbols in the Bernabéu. The club itself, though, is taking action to diminish the group’s importance, even banning some of its more violent members indefinitely. A more accurate characterization of Real Madrid might be as a club of the moneyed elite, with many of older, rich and conservative citizens of the city counting themselves among its fans.
In the days of Franco, many Real Madrid fans viewed those of Barcelona as “separatist scum.” That rhetoric has diminished, but with the recent Catalonian push toward greater independence, the pride most Barça fans feel in the club’s political and social actions remains. While most watching from afar simply want to take in the sights and sounds of some of the world’s best players, many of the culés that will fill Camp Nou will be spurred on by the underlying currents of history.
A win in El Clásico means bragging rights. This season, it might even mean a title. But for Barcelona, it’s also a reminder that Catalonia won’t be silenced.