With Barcelona and Real Madrid due to meet three times in a month, Ryan Hunn reflects on El Clásico entering a new age, whilst remaining one of the biggest games in world football. Images by Jared Martinez.
When the draw for the semi-finals of this season’s Copa del Rey paired Barcelona with Real Madrid, it meant three Clásicos would be played in a month. Memories of 2011’s legendary four Clásicos in 18 days were impossible to escape. Four games in three separate competitions that saw Spain’s two biggest clubs compete with an intensity so fierce that it would ultimately unravel Pep Guardiola’s Barça the following year. Understandably, there has been considerably less hype this time, with the other semi-final rivalling El Clásico as the headline act. After the first legs of both ties ended in draws, and Betis v Valencia more than living up to the hype, it confirmed that El Clásico is entering a transitional new age.
The time was always going to come, but it’s one that has brought with it a lesson about how football is consumed. The era of Pep against Mourinho was a golden one that likely created more column inches, WhatsApp chats and broken friendships than any other period in the game’s history. It sailed in on a perfect wave: deep into the social media era and a decade or so into La Liga being broadcast globally. Whereas the Clásicos of decades gone by were debated in cafés and bars or across dinner tables throughout Spain, the Clásicos of the late noughties and early 2010s were debated everywhere. What was once the biggest game in Spain was by now the biggest game in the world, wherever you were. Exploding globally to a new generation of fans meant new allegiances were born, not from an identity based on geography, history or politics, but on any one of multiple factors.
One such factor was that both teams were developing identities so brilliantly opposite that they would be at home in an Oscar winning screenplay. The post-Galactico era Madrid were going for a reboot, signing Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s most expensive player at the time. Barça, on the other hand, were offloading big name stars and packing their starting eleven with La Masia graduates that had grown up at the club. It framed the story perfectly as the expensive global stars versus the local heroes, but it went much further.
To this new global audience, perhaps not as privy to the historical and political factors that divide these two clubs, these identities acted as sporting metaphors of this complex history, but without the baggage. Mourinho arrived with the sole purpose of halting the Barça rise, who were on their way to being widely regarded as the greatest club side ever. Neutrals picked a side, and whether they would admit it or not, the side they picked said something about them. It was personal.
It helped that each club was home to one of the two greatest players of all time, who were just as contrasting in their identity as the clubs whose shirts they wore. Ronaldo: tall, muscular, powerful and looking to conquer all before him. Individual and collective glory at any cost. Lionel Messi the small, unassuming, regular dude by day, superhero by night. If Messi hadn’t been doing things so otherworldly that were being beamed straight into our living rooms, he could have walked among us and blended right in. Ronaldo, on the other hand, would have stood out less in a crowd donning a cape and a metal mask. They were the front men of their clubs, the good versus evil, and who was who depended on one’s own preference.
Once the heroes and villains were cast, the cults were born. Fans followed them into battles in order to win wars, and wars were won and lost. As various cast members made way – Xavi, Di Maria, Özil, Alonso, Casillas, Mourinho, Guardiola et al – the duels between the battle’s prized gladiators remained. But this season, something changed: Iniesta left for Japan after a gradually diminishing role and Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus left a void that is yet to be replaced. What is a hero without a villain after all? Luke Skywalker needed Darth Vader. Batman needed The Joker.
And whilst El Clásico is – and always will be – one of the biggest games in European football, these two teams are still searching for new identities after the most engrossing decade in the rivalry’s history. Few of the La Masia golden generation remain at Barça and while players such as Vinícius Júnior have undoubted superstar potential, not every Padawan becomes a Master.
And speaking of Masters, the two most recent Clásicos have highlighted Messi’s own footballing mortality. Having started neither fixture this season, it’s a stark reminder that he won’t be around forever. Ronaldo’s recent departure – along with one million Real Madrid Twitter followers – to Juventus, gave a glimpse into the future of the rivalry that many may not be ready for. A future that should act as a warning that for all the arguments in cafés, bars or online, it’s important to sometimes step back and appreciate just how historic the time we’re in may be, before it’s long gone.
Whilst there may never be a storm so perfect as the one that made the four Clásicos of 2011 and that era of the rivalry so monumental, it’s important to remember that there will be other storms. There will be new battles, new wars, new heroes and new villains. As The Joker told Batman in The Dark Knight, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”