More Than A Game, El Clásico

By: Ixchel Gonzalez

As the Culés and Vikingos gear up to storm Bernabéu in support of their respective club for the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals on Thursday, March 2, it means we are due for another Clásico clash between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. This begs the question, how was El Clásico born?

The history behind El Clásico is the reason why the rivalry between both teams is so fierce and has spanned from generation to generation. It is so intense that there have been instances when players have egregiously fouled their national teammates on the opposing team just for the sake of winning El Clásico. It is a match that is marked by history and politics.

Firstly, we have to go back to when FC Barcelona was founded in 1899 in the capital city of Catalonia, Barcelona. Shortly after–3 years later to be precise–Real Madrid was founded in Madrid, the capital city of Spain. In their early days, both of these clubs would face each other in La Liga (Spain’s professional league) and La Copa del Rey. The matches were worth watching with both teams playing to win, yet the intensity of the match wouldn’t compare to what it would later become. This friendly banter and healthy competitiveness between both clubs would soon turn on its heel at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

For a quick history lesson, when a failed coup by nationalists meant to overthrow the second Spanish Republic failed, a civil war began between nationalists and republicans. This led to the rise of General Franco who became the leader of the nationalists and united them under Spain’s fascist party. Since he had help from the likes of Hitler and Mussolini (yuck), they supplied Franco’s troops with war supplies which were used to bomb the city of Barcelona in 1938. Barcelona would not be captured until January 1939 when Franco launched a major offensive attack on the Catalan city. This last offensive led to Barcelona’s surrender, and the war ended on April 1st, 1939. General Franco would be in control until his death in 1975. Ultimately appointing Juan Carlos to succeed him, who would revert Spain back to its democratic monarchy.

Throughout this period of internal strife, Spanish football was greatly affected. When the president of FC Barcelona –a known republican– was murdered by Franco’s forces while he was visiting republican troops, it caused an uproar. His death marked a crucial turning point, making him a martyr for the club and Catalonia. FC Barcelona soon became a symbol for Catalonia and people used the club to express their Catalan identity. It was the only way for people to support and embrace their roots. This outlet was essential for when Franco took control, since he suppressed Catalan nationalism, going as far as to ban the Catalan flag, and outlawed the  Catalan language and culture. This led to FC Barcelona becoming more than just a club.

After Franco seized control of Spain, Real Madrid began to identify itself with Franco’s regime, and Franco aligned himself with Real Madrid because the club symbolized his Spain. A homogenous, centralized identity. 

Soon after the war ended, La Liga resumed, after being on hiatus during the war. Both teams faced off in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, which was played over two matches. Barcelona won the first match with the final score being 3-0. Yet, in the return match, things had quickly turned sour for Barca; through a questionable series of calls from the referee to Real Madrid’s rough style of play, Barca refused to go back onto the field until a regime official went into their dressing room and threatened them, or so the story goes. There are numerous accounts of what happened during halftime, some saying that the regime official outright ordered them to lose or that an armed policeman threatened the players with prison. Up until that point, the rivalry was basically nonexistent, yet that game changed everything. The reserve goalkeeper for Barcelona at the time stated that there was no rivalry until that game.

The game became more than just two clubs playing against each other. It became a way for Catalans to support and demonstrate their ties to the Catalan culture and to go against Franco’s oppressive, fascist regime. Both teams and their fans were cheering for something bigger than themselves and that passion has carried on over the years.

There is no sign of this passionate, heated love for classic matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid to slow down anytime soon, seeing that they have defined fútbol, birthed legends, and have given fans the most exciting, invigorating, adrenaline-filled matches in the sport’s history. There is no doubt that the rich history behind El Clásico inspires the fans as much as the players–which is why it is more than just a game.


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