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FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid: A Long History of Rivalry Fraught With Politics

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Barcelona vs Real Madrid is a match that keeps Spain on edge every time. If you are lucky enough to be in the stadium, you will find yourself surrounded by a deafening crowd and a breathtaking sight. In the streets, however, you won’t find a soul, as almost everyone will be getting ready to watch the game at a pub or a bar. In fact, on some occasions, this match was expected to host over 650 million viewers worldwide.

The anticipation is so high that many football fans would even dig in deeper, preparing, wondering and asking questions before each game: Where can I watch Barcelona vs Real Madrid? How much are the tickets for the Barcelona-Madrid game? Can Barcelona beat Real Madrid?

Predictions, bets and conversations about the line-up are the only things you would hear before the expected matches. Plan ahead or trust me, you won’t be able to find a place in any bar to watch the games. The Internet speed would lag, and no one is going to have an extra seat at their place.

Though FC Barcelona and Real Madrid matches seem trivial for some, thinking they are just sports events, it goes much deeper than that. To understand the hype surrounding these prominent football clubs, ahead we’ll explore their long history — how politics played a part in their bitter rivalry that spans decades.

Madrid is a city of over seven million inhabitants; it is geographically and politically situated at the center of Spain. Less than 500 miles away from Madrid, at the Mediterranean coast, lies Barcelona, the second-biggest city with a population of approximately three million.

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain, has always had a strong, divergent tradition from the rest of Spain. For many years, its cultural roots have been prohibited and prosecuted, as they were considered “threats” to the unity of Spain. During the last decade, many attempts to achieve a legal referendum for Catalan people to decide their political future have been made. But the main hurdle for Catalonia’s independence has always been Madrid, the seat of the Spanish government.

During the era of Francisco Franco, Spain’s infamous dictator from the ’30s, Real Madrid was the symbol of the political system and the Spanish government, and FC Barcelona was used for a propaganda exercise in favor of Catalonia’s independence and self-determination.

The Beginnings and the First “El Clásico”

FC Barcelona, known as Barça in Spain, was founded by a Swiss named Hans Gamper in 1899, while Real Madrid was founded two years later by the Padrós brothers, who were actually from Catalonia. Both clubs started posting ads in local newspapers to attract potential players for their teams.

The first “El Clásico,” a term referring to the match between the two football clubs, took place on May 13, 1902 in Madrid, which was attended by an audience that had yet to understand how that new sport worked. That first Real Madrid vs Barcelona game was organized by the “Copa de la Coronación” or Coronation Cup, which was created by Madrid FC to honor the king at the time, Alfonso XIII.

FC Barcelona won the game and reached the final of the Cup against Biscaya. But a Catalan team vs a Basque team aiming for the Coronation Cup in the capital of Spain, the headquarters of the monarchy, was not exactly what the organizers were looking for.

In order to fix this, the organizers threw a consolation game between Madrid FC and Espanyol, another Catalan football team, calling the trophy “La Copa de la Gran Peña.” Phil Ball, the author of “White Storm: The History of Real Madrid,” even speculated in his book that the trophy for the tournament was from the personal collection of one of the organizers.

Emerging Rivalry

The first strong sign of rivalry between the two teams took place in 1916 in a highly disputed game that gave victory to Real Madrid, or the “Los Blancos,” in which the FC Barcelona players left the stadium in an act of protest against the referee who had a known predilection for Madrid.

During the next couple of decades, both teams had their dominant rounds.

Madrid FC gained its “Real” title in 1920, becoming officially the Real Madrid, but lost it in 1931 when Spain became a Republic.

The first football star who played for both teams and set the rivalry on fire was Ricardo Zamora. A former player for Barça, Zamora raised the Cup of the Republic for the capital in another tense Barcelona vs Madrid game in 1936.

The Civil War

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. On one side, there’s the National Front, led by the nationalists, who were aiming for a unified Spain under Madrid’s order. On the other, there’s the Republicans, who used Barcelona as their last headquarters before their eventual downfall.

When the war ended in 1939, the National Front installed Franco as the head and dictator of state. And when football came back after the war, FC Barcelona was regarded by the government as the face of the Republicans.

This led to one of the most infamous Barcelona vs Real Madrid games in 1943 in which the latter won at a crushing 11-1 score. For Barcelona’s players, they felt like gladiators entering the coliseum, and the environment was full of revenge and hate. The embarrassment of the directives led the president of the club to his resignation.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid During the Dictatorship

The ’50s became a successful decade for both teams, with Real Madrid earning five European Cups, and Barcelona winning several national tournaments.

For Real Madrid, the game changer had a name: Alfredo Di Stéfano. The Argentinian player was heavily disputed by the two teams, even considered the possibility of making him sign for alternative seasons with either clubs. Eventually, Real Madrid got the star it needed to place itself to an international level.

Barcelona, on the other hand, signed Ladislao Kubala. Like Di Stéfano, Kubala showed the world a new way of playing football, introducing new techniques and strategies.

Throughout the decades, with both teams showing their best skills, the rivalry between them reached a different level — observing a spike in attendances to Real Madrid vs Barcelona games that were never seen before. With the obvious rise of football’s popularity, Camp Nou was built for FC Barcelona. Today, Camp Nou is the biggest football stadium in Europe with a capacity of almost 100,000 spectators.

La copa del Generalísimo

There are few Barcelona vs Real Madrid games with a poorer reputation than the ones played in 1968.

The first leg of the Generalismo’s Cup, in honor of Franco and what later became The King’s Cup, ended with a win for FC Barcelona and with Real Madrid fans tossing glass bottles to the players.

Two days later, on the second leg, Madrid won the title, and Barcelona protested, throwing the cushions from the seats to the playground. According to the referee, Madrid’s directives approached him before the match, promising him a good present after the event. It was, by then, revealed that Real Madrid was allegedly giving away golden watches to the referees if the score turned according to their expectations.

Where Can I Watch the Barcelona vs Real Madrid Game?

We have multiple choices nowadays when it comes to watching a show or a sports event, but during the ’60s, however, there were only two options: You could go into the stadium or watch the games on the television. In today’s Spain where football media is privatized, there are no games broadcast on public television.

Despite the lack of success for FC Barcelona during these decades, its membership grew exponentially due to the increasing immigration to Catalonia. Television not only helped fans watch the game but also provided a medium for people to express their discontent against Franco’s regime. Since the dictator banned the Catalan language, the right of self-management and vote among other aspects of life, football — and FC Barcelona in particular — became the only way for the Catalan people to rebel.

In Barcelona, it is commonly said that most of the titles won by Real Madrid during those decades were allegedly thanks to Franco’s influence.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid: Beyond Sports

For many football fans, they usually choose a football team to support depending on where they are born. They can, however, also support a team according to their values. For many, the history of Barcelona vs Real Madrid has reached a level that goes beyond sports.

Polemic matches such as in 1902, 1943 and 1968 increased a rivalry that made it a matter of principles and convictions: Real Madrid was the team of the regime and the crown, and the ambassador for Spain to Europe. Barcelona, on the other side, was the resistance and the voice of freedom.

And all that was even before the idea of independence was on the table.

The ’70s appeared, for many, to be a decade of hope and change for Catalonia and for FC Barcelona, which signed the best football player in the world at the time, Johan Cruyff. Cruyff joined Barça in 1973 after the ban from signing foreign players was lifted.

It was also a decade for Barça to boost Catalanism among the club’s values.

In 1972, the Catalan language was heard through the stadium’s speakers. A year later, the president changed the name of the club back to FC Barcelona from Club de Futbol Barcelona, which was instated by the Franco regime. In 1974, on its 75th anniversary, the FC Barcelona anthem in Catalan was sung for the first time in the stadium. Then in 1975, after a few months of Franco’s death, thousands of “senyeres,” or the Catalan liberation flag, were smuggled into the stadium, which made a huge impact across Spain through its broadcast on television.

The Dream Team and the Vulture’s Cohort

For “Merengues,” Los Bancos or Real Madrid fans, the ’80s were the years of the Vulture’s Cohort, a young team assembled by Di Stéfano and led by Emilio Butragueño, which earned several triumphs in Europe and Spain.

In Catalonia, on the other hand, the Dream Team was created and led by Cruyff. Another important figure for Barcelona was in its line-up: Pep Guardiola, and the team gained its first European title in 1992.

The Dream Team implemented a style of playing football that was never seen before: the characteristics of moving the ball rapidly across the field, and long plays that included most of the line-up. Later on, this tactic was named “tiki-taka.”

More Controversy Between Barcelona vs Real Madrid

The ’90s were a decade of change for Spanish football. Past the years of transition from Franco’s regime, both teams showed a power so strong that made the rivalry between them to resurface again.

One of the most iconic players in FC Barcelona, Hristo Stoichov, stepped on a referee’s foot in 1995. Two years later, Giovanni, a Barça midfielder, showed a “butifarra,” a Catalan way of giving someone the finger, to the Whites audience. Raúl, a very respectable player for Real Madrid, also placed his finger in front of his lips to shush the crowd in Camp Nou in 1999.

Among other events, those were some of the controversies that made that decade a one to remember. The rivalry was on, more than ever.

The term “manita,” referring to a 5-0 on the score, also became famous. One of the most notorious examples of this was with Michael Laudrup on Barcelona’s side, giving victory to his team in 1994. Another manita by the same player happened a year later, but he wore the Real Madrid shirt and gave victory to the Merengues.

Broken Hearts

Another important aspect, which is impossible to elude, that makes this rivalry a historic one, are the trespasses of players from one team to another. Since the early decades, players switching from Madrid to Barcelona and vice versa broke fan’s hearts and hurt audience’s feelings.

Perhaps one of the most unforgettable was Luis Figo, one of the most loved players of Barça. He signed for Real Madrid in 2000, and the first time he set foot in Barcelona’s stadium, all kinds of objects were thrown at him, including a pig’s head that was found near the corner of Camp Nou.

On the other hand, another highly acclaimed player and soon-to-be coach at the time, Luis Enrique, changed teams from Real Madrid to FC Barcelona in 1989.

Needless to say, the ones that came were worshipped, and the ones who left were crucified.

The Modern Era

In 2003, after some seasons without any remarkable victory, Ronaldinho signed for Barça. The Barcelona vs Real Madrid match in Madrid in 2003 remains unforgettable in the minds of both spectators. Ronaldinho sentenced a 0-3 victory for FC Barcelona, and always with a smile on his face, showcased a set of skills and abilities never seen before. For the first time, Madrid fans stood up and applauded the performance of a Barça player.

That was also the season of the “Galácticos,” an era where Real Madrid tried to outshine FC Barcelona by signing the best players worldwide, aiming to become the richest football club in the world.

During the first decade of the new century, Real Madrid also won a Champions League and five Ligas, among other titles. On the other hand, Barcelona earned its second Champions League in 2006, which was led by Ronaldinho and a young Lionel Messi.

Times Have Changed

In 2008, Guardiola became FC Barcelona’s coach, and a year later, Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Real Madrid. After that, Barcelona won another Clásico by 2-6.

That was a turning point for Real Madrid’s directives.

Their response was to hire José Mourinho as their new manager. The Portuguese coach eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League the previous season, and along with Cristiano Ronaldo, they became a fearful adversary for Barça. The pair, with their strong personality and tendency for controversy, provided the perfect scenario for one of the greatest rivalries on the field — and on the benches.

I remember these years as if nothing else existed but Barcelona and Real Madrid, Guardiola and Mourinho, and Ronaldo and Messi.

There was practically nothing else on the sports section on the television, and bringing the subject into conversation was almost unavoidable.

From 2008 to 2020, however, the reign belonged to FC Barcelona as it won La Liga, La Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the same season, providing a game resembling the one by Cruyff that made the team almost invincible.

The season of 2010/2011 brought a change in the history of Barcelona vs Real Madrid forever.

Four Clásicos were held in three frenetic weeks, combining the three major titles of European football (La Liga, Champions League and La Copa del Rey).

Those matches put on hold the lives of many Spaniards. Each and every one of them left a collection of moments that remained unforgettable.

The Media

Press conferences from both coaches were broadcast at all times on the television. Guardiola and Mourinho engaged in a verbal war of accusations to each other in front of the media.

For instance, Mourinho complained about referee’s decisions and sued FC Barcelona to the Union of European Football Associations against alleged racial insults coming from a Barça player. Both managers provoked each other during press conferences before the matches. Mourinho also accused FC Barcelona and Guardiola, in particular, to have won a title thanks to inaccurate referee’s decisions.

In the Field

During these tense games, there were countless physical encounters on both sides of the field. Real Madrid was using strong defense tactics in order to restrain the attack of FC Barcelona. One of the pillars of this strategy was Pepe, a very strong and physical defender for Real Madrid. Pepe, who has a known aggressive behavior as a football player, was placed as a midfielder by Mourinho to slow down FC Barcelona’s game. During those games, many Real Madrid players were expelled and sent to the benches. Even Mourinho was punished in one of them after strongly criticizing a referee. All that turmoil even got the media’s attention, where Mourinho said that players from Barcelona were like playing a role in theater.

The first encounter between both teams ended up with a manita or a 5-0 by Barcelona. After that, Mourinho started playing a game behind the field to intimidate the “Culés,” or Barça’s supporters, heavily criticizing the referee’s decisions and the Liga organizers.

In the Benches

The word was, at that time, that the real battle was not only fought at the field but on the benches as well.

Mourinho was caught on camera whispering words in Guardiola’s ear while he was giving instructions to one of his players.

Perhaps the most outrageous taunt of the Portuguese manager was during one of the brawls, where he stuck his finger to Tito Vilanova’s eye (co-manager of FC Barcelona at the time).

Those weeks were about the sport, but also about the controversy that potentially would come out of them. Even for someone that was not into sports, it was impossible not to hear about it.

Making a Difference

Perhaps the Barcelona vs Real Madrid rivalry throughout the decades was a product of making mountains out of molehills. Aside from the controversy in the media and the brawls in the pitch, a magnificent football show between two of the most iconic football teams in the world was forever immortalized on everyone’s mind.

For FC Barcelona, it was not only a matter of establishing a heritage that would prevail in the history of sports, but also to make a name for itself as a payback to the punishment from the dark years of Franco’s regime.

For Real Madrid, it was about preventing FC Barcelona’s objectives and preserving the name of the monarchy and the government.


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Eduard Giró
Eduard Giró is a musician and writer. After several years working as a musician, producer and writer in Barcelona, he boarded his first cruise ship, working as a guitarist and content writer for Royal Caribbean. He is currently dedicated to the composition of texts and articles of an informative and creative nature for different media. Always hand in hand with music, he also works producing other people’s projects that come to him from many parts of the world.

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