Spain’s tabloids are always partisan, but it’s peak slant ahead of a Clásico

The first rule of Clásico club: Take everything you read with a pinch of salt. With three points, the La Liga title and those famous bragging rights at stake between Barcelona and Real Madrid, anything goes on the Spanish press’s playground as judgment day looms.

Punching in Barça’s corner are Catalan newspapers Diario SPORT and Mundo Deportivo, while Madrid is counting on Marca and Diario AS. However, it wasn’t not one of the four main sports papers which made the first move this week; rather, Madrid-based national El Confidencial. On Monday morning it was screaming about unrest at Camp Nou. Neymar looked annoyed to have been taken off against Eibar this weekend, and Gemma Herrero wrote that the Brazilian’s teammates are annoyed with his attitude.

That the story appeared six days before the Clásico may be coincidental, but remember the first rule of Clásico club. This is awfully cynical, but it could have been an attempt to unsettle Barça. Could.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 5.10.26 PMMeanwhile, the Catalan press started making its move on Monday, too. Madrid beat Levante on Sunday night to ensure it goes into the weekend’s top of the table clash just one point behind Luis Enrique’s men, but Mundo and SPORT aren’t letting up on Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese international wasn’t on the score sheet in the win and he got a little bit stroppy about Gareth Bale scoring both goals. “Tantrums d’Or” was Mundo’s take on Ronaldo’s diva hissy-fit, while SPORT went with “Madrid wins, Ronaldo loses”.

For people outside the Madrid-Barça bubble, or for those who are unfamiliar with how the press works in Spain, here’s a brief explanation:

There are four main sports newspapers which are sold nationally and on a daily basis (plus more based in Valencia and Seville), although they are very regional in their content. Marca and AS primarily focus on Madrid, with some Atlético, promoting Barça to the cover and opening pages when there’s a crisis — and there are plenty of those in Spanish soccer. Mundo and SPORT work in reverse.

All four papers can appear to favor their local club(s) — some more than others — and all four papers tend to be quite open about it. AS columnist Tomás Roncero is a raving-mad Madrid fan and is hardly ever seen not wearing his El Real shirt. His Twitter account is pure gold.

As for Marca, when Madrid played Manchester United in a friendly at the Big House in Michigan last summer, it famously edited an image of the 109,000 crowd to make it look like there were more white shirts in the stadium that there actually were (above), while before October’s Clásico, which El Real won 3-1 at the Bernabéu, Mundo’s cover simply read “Come on Barça” (below).

That doesn’t mean they’re always sycophantic, though. Last week Madrid president Florentino Pérez called Marca a liar when it suggested Carlo Ancelotti’s job hindered on Clásico success. While bashing the paper in a press conference, Pérez also threw AS into the cauldron and took a few cheap shots at it as well — this from a man who has enjoyed a notoriously cushy relationship with the media in Madrid at times.

Also last week, the BBC accused Marca of having a campaign against Bale, who ended an 800-minute-plus goal drought on Sunday. Marca responded in a bizarre-but-brilliant fashion, saying the “once well-respected” BBC has gone downhill. It used Jimmy Savile as a stick with which to beat them before it eventually made its point: It doesn’t have anything against Bale and the BBC’s story took things out of context. Either way, as partisan as the media in Spain can be, they are prepared to question their own when things are not going so well.


Those boundaries are pushed when the clock ticks towards the Clásico, though. Madrid and Barça need everything to be in place for arguably the biggest domestic fixture on the soccer calendar — more than 400 million people are expected to watch worldwide — and they need Marca, AS, Mundo Deportivo and SPORT in line. And that is why Marca and AS, after last week’s telling off from Pérez, began Clásico week with a fresh perspective.

Bale’s back and Madrid has turned a corner was the general consensus earlier this week, despite the fact Ancelotti’s team was actually pretty dire for large parts of the second half against Levante. Sergio Ramos and Luka Modrić returned and a win against La Blaugrana, despite just one win in its previous four games, will have Madrid back on top of the world — and La Liga.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 5.29.15 PMOn Thursday morning, the Madrid-based press found itself in a difficult position. Lionel Messi’s master class against Man City made James Milner and Aleksandar Kolarov look like a pair of high school kids, with SPORT labeling Barça’s Argentine hero as “the best show in the world.” Mundo said he gave a “recital”, describing his performance as “barbaric”, and even Marca admitted he “directed the orchestra” — when they eventually got round to mentioning the game on page 10.

So how do they give hope to the Madrid fans? They are only human and Messi’s performance on Wednesday would strike fear into anyone. They take the “my dad’s bigger than your dad” route, of course. Marca opened with a two-page spread on Ronaldo, who was apparently “incredible” in Wednesday’s training session. Yes, training session. Santiago Siguero noted that the 30-year-old trained with an intensity that surprised even his teammates. And he scored goals. Lots of goals.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 5.42.02 PMRonaldo might have disappointed against Levante, taking his anger out on the fans by telling them to f*** off, but the media in Madrid want us to know he’s ready for Sunday. “His confidence is growing ahead of the Clásico,” Siguero insisted.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, though, is that these four newspapers are under pressure to sell copies not just once a week, but every day. Available for one euro, there is no shortage of competition, and buyers are decreasing by the month.

What sells? Transfer news for one, but in Catalonia they can’t even write about that at the moment (although they’re having a go) due to Barça’s transfer ban. Sex sells, too, but in a sports paper it doesn’t really work — those “problems with getting an erection?” ads on the cover will have to do instead.

So it boils down to morbo, a word which does not really have an explanation in English. It loosely relates to the tension, rivalry and hostility that exists between two clubs in Spanish soccer, and is often used to refer to the animosity between Barça and Madrid.

Marca cover

Readers of the Catalan papers are probably Barcelona fans, and readers of the Madrid papers tend to be Real Madrid fans, which makes sense. Give them what they want: Barça good, Madrid bad; Barça bad, Madrid good. There is plenty of sensationalism, even more exaggeration, but who is to say that doesn’t exist across modern-day journalism?

It was the Madrid media who were celebrating after the first Clásico this season, with Marca hailing Los Blancos for being “better at everything” and AS claiming it was “more than a victory.” Luis Enrique’s side had gone into that game as the league leaders, as they will this weekend, so in Catalonia they felt let down. They didn’t get too angry, though. “Average,” was how Mundo summed up the loss, while SPORT blamed a “lamentable” second half. But neither gave Madrid credit, because all they did was “take advantage of Barça’s errors.”

With Barcelona’s Champions League commitment out of the way, we can now look forward to the focus homing on the 230th Clásico. In Catalonia they have reasons to be hopeful, while in Madrid they will find reasons. Messi and Ronaldo will dominate headlines, while Neymar, Luis Suarez and Bale will lurk behind.

Then, on Monday morning, will come the time for reflection. One team will have won the league; the other will have lost it. In truth, nothing will actually be decided at Camp Nou, although that won’t force any use of perspective. Two newspapers will be crowing about their heroes, and the other two will be squealing about garbage performances from over-paid superstars.

Just make sure you remember the first rule of Clásico club if you happen to stumble across a “Bale spat in Ronaldo’s coffee” story.