Friday, November 20, 2015

A Nation Divided: The Past, Present and Uncertain Future of Barcelona and Real Madrid's Classic Rivalry

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

noun: rivalry; plural noun: rivalries
  1. competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.

Twenty seven miles outside of Madrid in the small pueblo of Yuncos, I woke up, sun shining on my face. On most Saturdays, I would be awoken by the yells of my uncle Juan, “Churros are here chaval!” - but this wasn’t most Saturdays.

Ever since the age of three, my parents made it a mission that I travel to Spain. Three weeks to entire summers were spent under the watchful of eye of my grandmother Eusebia. During the summer months club teams observe their offseason. Because of this, I generally missed out on the games, passion, and legend that was birthed from within them. With my parents wanting me to experience the holidays in Spain, I packed my bags and headed for Madrid, winter be damned.

The date was January 8th, 1994 and it was my first taste of El Clasico - The classic.

My memories of the game in its entirety are faint. What I do remember is the final score that day- Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0. That, and my uncle swearing so much I thought my new name was coño. Toni Bruins Slot, Barcelona Coach Johan Cruyff’s assistant, raised his hand to the crowd. One finger for every goal scored, rubbing salt deep into the wound.

At the time, I didn’t understand the entirety of what I was watching. Walking the streets after the game, the city had become a ghost town. There, I realized every kids dream; the world as my playground. The rare time you did see a person, their head was down, covered in shame.

Family dinner wasn’t much better, my uncle solemnly asking for a lighter to let the chain smoking commence.

So why was this different?

After all, here in the states we have great rivalries like the Red Sox and Yankees, or Ali vs. Frazier. Teams and individuals at the highest level of sport, duking it out over a common objective.

On the field, the honors are prolific. In the 86 years since La Liga was founded, Madrid and Barcelona have combined for 55 La Liga titles, 46 Copa del Reys, 15 Champions Leagues crowns, all while producing 16 player of the year winners (Ballon D’Or).

What separates this rivalry is more than the club or its fans. It's more than the money, or the over a billion people that tune in around the world to watch the matches. No, this is different because it is the stage in which Barcelona, and more importantly Catalonia, announce their independence from Spain. In order to understand how we got here, one must look back to its history.

Planting the Seeds

Up until September 11, 1714, Catalonia existed as it’s own sovereign state with it’s own language, culture, and identity. King Philip V felt that he had been betrayed by the Corts Catalan, as it had initially sworn it's loyalty to him when he had presided over it in 1701. In retaliation for their betrayal, he incorporated the territories of the Crown of Aragon, including Catalonia, as provinces under the Crown of Castile. He effectively terminated their separate institutions, laws and rights, within a united kingdom of Spain.

With their identity suffering a slow and arduous death, Catalans banded together in an effort to save their customs. Finally, after two hundred long years, a Catalan parliament was established in 1914, restoring some semblance of the past still held dear.

It wouldn’t last long.

General Miguel Primo de Rivera rose to power through a military coup in 1923. In an effort to take the power away from the politicians, de Rivera suspended the constitution, established martial law, and imposed a strict system of censorship.

In the early 1930’s Spain, like the rest of the western world, fell into economic and political chaos. Support from the king and the army began to dissipate, as Spain’s woes continued to mount. On June 28th, 1930 Primo de Rivera resigned and went into exile in Paris.

Municipal elections were held, resulting in a landslide victory for the republicans. The Second Spanish Republic was announced, with Niceto Alcalá-Zamora as its president. A new constitution was established, and with it, all of Spain's regions had the right to autonomy, with Catalonia and the Basque country exercising this right. The Constitution guaranteed a wide range of civil liberties, but it failed to agree on key points with the conservative right. These beliefs were rooted mostly from rural areas, and with the desires of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which was stripped of schools and public subsidies.

Over time, the ideological differences between the left and right became more and more violent. Political assassinations were common and civil unrest reached a fevered pitch. Behind all of the chaos, Spain’s youngest general was planning. What came next would not only haunt all of Spain, but it would change the relationship between Catalonia and Madrid forever.

La Guerra Civil

A Nationalist propaganda poster during the civil war.
At 91 years of age, my grandmother has lived and, quite frankly, seen it all. Her health and her mind aren’t quite what they used to be, but some memories never die. She was 13 years old when the civil war broke out and forced her into hiding for weeks with her seven siblings. Caves around town provided shelter with little food and even less sleep. The ominous sounds of gunfire were the people's new music.

One afternoon, Nationalist troops swept through the town knocking on doors. Possibly tipped off,  My grandmother and her family were discovered in that dark, sullen cave. Forced into the sunlight for the first time in weeks, death filled the air. Corpses lined the streets everywhere that you looked, and with a population of less than 2,000, friends and acquaintances were easily identifiable.

Because of his age, my grandmother's brother was called to the front and asked which side he belonged to. With no other choice, he extended his arm in traditional fascist salute. Thrown into formation, he was given a gun and marched away out of sight.

My grandmother never saw him again and his body was never found.

Republicans used similar tactics in getting people to join their cause. Families and friends commonly shot at each other on battlefields, killing those dearest to them without even knowing it.

Not even club presidents were safe. In 1936, Barcelona’s club president Josep Sunyol was traveling through the Sierra de Guadarrama in an effort to meet up with fellow members of the cortes. Believing he was still within republican lines, Sunyol’s car traveled up the mountain before it was stopped by Falangist troops at a checkpoint. Not aware, Sunyol saluted “Viva la Republica”. Instantly recognizing him, Sunyol and his three companions were dropped to their knees and shot in the head.

Real Madrid’s president Rafael Sánchez Guerra was also a prominent republican. Refusing to leave the capital as Franco’s army advanced, he was subsequently captured, and imprisoned. Sensing his imminent execution, Sanchez Guerra escaped from jail and fled to Paris. While there, he became a prominent member of the government-in-exile.

Life Under Fascism

General Franco dressed in traditional uniform, salutes the crowd.
Almost 500,000 people lost their lives during three years of fighting. On March 28th, Franco’s Nationalist forces captured Madrid, effectively ending the war. Almost immediately, Franco went to work suppressing separatist ideals in previously autonomous regions. Murder, torture, and political pressure were some of his favorite tools, and no place was affected more than Catalonia.

At the same time, Soccer had become an important tool for cultural expression. For Barcelona, it became the only sanctuary for Catalan identity. Their slogan “Mes que un club,” or "more than a club," was born. The region took pride in their team like few have before. Every win, loss, or draw was a political statement and an effort to discredit the regime. El Camp de Les Corts was ground zero for ideals to be passed, and the native tongue to be heard.

After the war, Spain’s economy tanked, effects of being branded an international outcast for its pro-Axis bias during World War II. With Hitler and Mussolini dead, Spain was essentially isolated from the world as a whole. With no signs of improvement, Franco turned to soccer as a way of garnering positive global attention, while also consolidating his rule at home. Although he had no real passion for the game, Franco aligned himself with the capital side, Real Madrid.

For Catalans, the rivalry was born on the pitch in the 1943 semifinals of the Generalísimo’s Cup. Barcelona won the first leg 3-0 comfortably at home. The second leg took place in the capital under fevered hostility from the home crowd. Legend has it that before the match a most unusual visitor entered the catalans' locker room.

Franco’s director of state security entered with no ordinary pep talk. Allegedly, he told the team “that some of you are only playing because of the regime's generosity in permitting you to remain in the country.”

The game ended 11-1 in Real Madrid’s favor, the most lopsided score in the rivalry’s history. Fernando Argila, Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper from the game, said: “There was no rivalry. Not, at least, until that game."

Despite the alleged corruption of the regime in favoring Real Madrid, between 1939 and 1954, Los Blancos failed to win a single league title, while Barcelona won five. In somewhat of a forgotten fact, Atlético de Madrid was then called Atlético Aviación, because of its merger with the Spanish Air Force. Several of their players were even from the air corps, aligning themselves with the regime more so than their cross town rivals.

In the summer of 1953, Barcelona and Real Madrid would do battle in one of the most controversial transfers of all time, changing their histories forever.

The Blonde Arrow

Alfredo Di Stefano poses with the historic five European Cups.
It’s the most confusing, controversial, and famous transfer of all time. Five clubs involved in three different countries and - possibly - the personal intervention of a dictator.

Just another day for Los Blancos and La Blaugrana.

In the spring of 1952, a 25 year old Argentine traveled to Spain for a friendly tournament with his Colombian club side, Millonarios. His performances were jaw dropping, immediately catching the eye of both Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Di Stefano was technically on loan, with Argentine giant River Plate still holding his rights. Barcelona approached first, entrusting hard-nosed Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias Fargas to lead the negotiations. Wanting to get someone who was closer to the negotiating table, Barca also hired Joan Busquets who lived in Colombia. Unbeknownst to them, Busquets was the director of Millonarios’ biggest rivals, Sante Fe. His mere presence at the bargaining table made the Colombian side reluctant.

Despite this, both were dispatched to Bogota.

Millonarios president Alfonso Senior asked for $27,000 and Barcelona refused. Another deal was offered that was accepted by Trias Fargas, but when Barcelona’s president Marti arrived in Colombia, the offer was withdrawn. Matri informed the Colombians that he would not pay a high price, and if need be, he would wait until 1954 when Di Stefano reverted back to a River Plate player, and would be sold, without resistance.

Eventually, a deal was struck with River and Di Stefano packed his bags for Barcelona. FIFA signed off on the deal, despite not knowing he had left Millonarios without permission and still owing them money. The deal was seen as so legitimate, that Di Stefano even suited up for Barcelona in a few friendly matches.

Undeterred, Madrid president Santiago Bernabeu continued to negotiate with Millonarios before finally reaching a deal. He then sent team officials to Catalonia in an effort to convince Di Stefano to change his mind.

Here’s where the controversy comes in….

The Spanish Football Federation stepped in and decided not to recognize the deal with Barcelona or Madrid on the grounds that both clubs --Millonarios and River Plate-- needed to be in agreement and give their consent for the transfer. The issue also became very public, playing out in the papers. It became extremely political with both sides seeking popular support in an effort to apply pressure, something that deeply embarrassed Franco’s regime.

Wanting to squash the debate once and for all, the regime issued a ban on all foreign players from playing in Spain.

Sick of the never ending saga, Barcelona tried to sell his rights to Juventus. Dual owned, Madrid had to relinquish as well, but refused. Barcelona then tried to undo their deal with River Plate to get their money back, but they refused as well.

Eventually another solution was imposed upon the two clubs-- both would have Di Stefano.

He would play for Madrid in 53-54, Barcelona in 54-55, for Madrid again in 55-56 and then for Barcelona again in 56-57. The costs would be split and once the share deal was over, the clubs would come to an agreement on his future. Easier said than done, right?

Completely dismayed, President Marti resigned and a temporary commission took over until elections were held.

The day after the share contract was signed, Di Stefano arrived in Madrid to begin his first year of the deal, but he would never see the second. Barcelona’s new board decided to renounce their claim to him, effectively signing him over to Madrid.

Two days after the deal was signed, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 5-0 with Di Stefano scoring twice.

Before Di Stefano arrived, Madrid had only won two league titles. Since he arrived in 1953 they have won 30-- with him claiming 8 in 11 seasons. Madrid also won its first five European Cups with him scoring in every final. His most famous victory was the 7–3 thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden Park, a game many experts consider to be the finest exhibition of club football ever witnessed in Europe.

He won two player of the year awards and scored 216 league goals in 262 games.

Without him, Real Madrid would not be the most popular club in Spain and possibly the world.

They also wouldn’t be the most hated.

El Cochinillo

Luis Figo’s transfer to Real Madrid was seen as the ultimate betrayal.
First they threw the coins and the lighter. Followed by mobile phones, half-bricks, liquor bottles, and the infamous pig’s head. Thousands of white handkerchiefs raised to the sky in a practice borrowed from bullfighting. Only this time, there wasn’t any bull to be killed. No, this gesture was directed at Real Madrid’s new number 10.

Luis Figo signed for Barcelona in 1995 after spending six years with Portuguese side Sporting CP. Starring alongside greats Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo, Figo won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Winners Cup. He appeared in 172 games, scoring 30 times in the process. Regarded as one of the best players of his generation, Figo was world renowned for his feints and stepovers.

Quick, elegant, and an exceptional leader- Barcelona fans revered him.

More than his skill, the mere image of him in a Barcelona jersey had given the region a sense of external approval. The world's best player, in our colors, championing our cause. Coming off a league title, a parade was held. Figo was front and center on the balcony of the city hall in Barcelona, with his hair dyed blue and claret, mocking Real Madrid's fans after Barca’s latest triumph by chanting, "White cry babies, salute the champions!"

Real Madrid had just come off a win in the Champions League final, claiming their second trophy in a three year span. President Lorenzo Sanz was up for re-election and was considered a shoo-in. His challenger, Florentino Perez, was one of the richest and most powerful men in Spain. Boasting a fortune of over $900 million didn’t hurt, but what Perez really possessed was an ace up his sleeve.

Perez polled Madrid fans, asking which player they most wanted to sign, and the answer was Figo. As a result, he promised to bring the Portuguese man to the Bernabeu if elected. If that wasn’t enough, he told Real Madrid’s 83,967 members registered to vote in the election that he would pay their membership fees the following year if he failed in making the signing.

"The pledge he made to Real Madrid’s fans was intoxicating," says Diego Torres, a journalist for El Pais in Madrid. "This promise fulfilled all the superpower fantasies of Madridistas. Will he destroy Barcelona with a single cheque? They didn’t give a s--t for Lorenzo Sanz and his European Cups."

"Real Madrid fans didn’t want to buy Figo to love him...[they were thinking] 'No, we will buy one of those Cules just to prove to ourselves that we can do it, to exercise our power, but deep inside we despise this guy because he’s a traitor. We will buy him just for the sake of f---ing the opposition.'”

Once leaked to the press, Catalonia went ballistic. In an effort to fan the flames, Figo gave an interview to sport in which he said “ I want to send a message of calm to Barcelona’s fans, for whom I always have, and will always feel great affection. I want to assure that Luis Figo will, with absolute certainty, be at the Camp Nou on the 24th to start the season.”

In Spain, each player has a buy-out clause -- an official price at which a club is obliged to sell. The buying team deposits the money with the league and the selling club is powerless to prevent the departure. Knowing Barcelona would never sell Figo to Madrid, Perez found an opening.

According to Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga, Perez offered Figo a guaranteed $2.4 million just to sign an agreement legally binding him to Madrid in the unlikely event he was elected. If Figo broke the deal, he would have to pay Perez $6 million in compensation. If Perez lost, Figo would keep the money and stay at Barcelona.

His agents looked at it as an easy payday, while also applying pressure on Barcelona for an improved contract.

On July 16th the results were announced. Florentino Perez was Real Madrid’s new president, and it wasn’t even close. 

Six days later, Figo knocked on Barcelona president Gaspar’s door and begged him to stay. The only chance of killing the deal was for Barcelona to pay $30 million to keep their own player. Making matters worse, Gaspar couldn't stomach the thought of him being responsible for Madrid’s fans going to home games free of charge.

Figo played five seasons for Los Blancos, winning two league titles and a Champions League.
Barcelona went into free fall, suffering three trophyless seasons while getting over his departure.

Despite everything, Figo has no regrets about his decision.

"In the moment, one sees that it is a unique experience," he says. "I don’t think there’s another athlete that has played with a hundred-thousand-something crowd against only him. It’s good to remember that."

The Changing of the Guard

Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola brought the rivalry to the touchline.
With the arrival of Figo, Real Madrid adopted a new policy of buying one of the world's best players each season, no matter the cost. Perez had a vision of making his club the richest in the world and also the most visible. He acquired the most star studded team the world had ever seen.

Initially, the project worked.

 Zinedine Zidane from Juventus in 2001 for $67 million -- Champions League title.

Ronaldo from Inter Milan in 2002 for $39 million -- La Liga title and player of the year.

Then, 2003 happened.

Instead of applying the policy for a well rounded team, Perez decided to ignore the defense all together. When defensive linchpin Claude Makelele requested an improved contract, Perez refused, then went a step further and sold the Frenchman to Chelsea.

Drunk off the allure of attacking talent, Perez honed in on his next superstar acquisition.

The choice was between Manchester United’s David Beckham or Paris Saint Germain’s Ronaldinho.

When presented with both, Perez famously remarked that Ronaldinho’s face was “too ugly, and would sink them as a brand.”

Beckham was signed for $38 million, despite Madrid already possessing a world class player on the right flank in Figo. Ronaldinho went to arch rivals Barcelona, and everything changed.

Los Galacticos-- Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, and Raul.
The Brazilian went on to win back-to-back player of the year awards, two La Liga titles, and a Champions League for good measure.

All of that was great, but maybe the sweetest moment for Barcelona fans occurred on November 19th, 2005. Playing at Madrid, Ronaldinho and his teammates put on an absolute clinic. Eviscerating their opponents like a second division side. Barcelona won 3-0 without breaking a sweat.

Then something unthinkable happened.

After Ronaldinho scored his second goal, leaving Iker Casillas utterly hopeless, the Bernabeu rose to their feet and began to applaud. It was a standing ovation for the mortal enemy.

They had effectively conceded that they had made a mistake. Real Madrid went three years without a single trophy, while Barcelona had become the best side in the world.

Pasillo is the Spanish term for “hallway.” However, in the world of La Liga, it has a secondary meaning: Guard of honor.

After a team wins either La Liga or the Copa del Rey, at the very start of their next game, it’s customary for the opposing players to stand in two lines near the entrance tunnel, forming a hallway, and salute the champions as they enter the field.

Three years later, Madrid got a standing ovation of their own.

After their European cup win in 2006, Barcelona embarked on a slow decent into dysfunction. Ronaldinho’s love of nightlife and cheeseburgers caught up with him, as he fell out of favor with coach Frank Rijkaard.

Madrid took advantage and dominated that season, clinching the league title almost a month before the final match. In an act of cruel fate for the Catalans, El Clasico came next.

With its players lined up in tidy formation, Madrid emerged from the dressing room to a delirious Bernabeu. In an ode to Figo and Barcelona eight years prior, they began to chant "¡Barça, cabrón!" to "¡Saluda al campeón!" Roughly translated into English, those chants mean, "for Barça, you bastards, to salute the champions!"

For many, the game was only secondary. Fans showed up just for the humiliation, revenge sweating from their pores. If that wasn’t bad enough, Madrid went on to rout their rivals 4-1.

 A few weeks later Ronaldinho was sold to AC Milan, Deco to Chelsea, and Rijkaard was sacked.

The pendulum had finally moved back in favor of the capital side, but it would only be short lived as Pep Guardiola was hired by Barca a few weeks later.

Since the day he was appointed, Barcelona have won an unprecedented 20 trophies, including three Champions League titles and five La Liga crowns. Their style of play has been emulated, but never duplicated.

So now where do we stand?

Saturday will bring together the two highest-earning sports clubs in the world, boasting combined revenues of over $1 billion, according to international consulting firm Deloitte.

The two rivals sit at Nos. 1-2 in the standings, and the possibility of Leo Messi returning will only ramp up the hype even more.

But behind the spectacle that will take place on the pitch, lies a much more important issue.

Back in September, Separatists took control of Catalonia’s regional government. A record-breaking number of Catalans cast their vote in the election, billed as a de facto referendum on independence. With more than 98% of the votes counted, the nationalist coalition Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) were projected to win 62 seats, while far-left pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy, known in Spain as CUP, were set to gain 10 seats. An alliance between the two parties would give an absolute majority in the region’s 135-seat parliament.

The separatists say the victory gives them a clear mandate to form an independent Catalan state, while Spain's central government in Madrid has pledged to challenge any unilateral moves towards independence in court. Trying to gain clarity from people on both sides of the issue, I reached out to my uncle Luis first for his thoughts on the matter.

In typical Spanish machismo he proclaimed, “ I’m all for a unified Spain, and if they want to stay, I would be very happy. But if they really want to leave that bad, f--k em.”

Fair enough.

Alex Reiner is one of my oldest friends, and was born and bred in Barcelona (It’s ok, nobody's perfect). A strong supporter of independence, I asked him if Spain could do anything to unite all of its provinces, or is it just too late?

“I’m not sure they can do anything to unite at this point," Reiner said. "Not only has the central government shown a lack of desire to bring everyone to the table, but now finds itself in a position with nearly 25% unemployment where it can't loosen the reins in fear of further economic repercussions. Which in turn is causing the separatist movements to think now is a perfect time to go at it alone.

"While the scars from the civil war are deep and many, I actually think those received since Franco are worse. When a so-called democratic state replaces a fascist regime and carries on its basic mission against those they deem different, it is a hard wound to fix. Independence is the only way forward if we are to heal old scars.”

The future of Spanish soccer is cloudy to say the least. If Catalonia succeeds, Barcelona would no longer compete in La Liga, and the world's greatest sports rivalry may die.

So this Saturday, wear your jersey just a little bit longer, and take a few extra sips from that delicious sangria, because what you’re watching could be history, literally.

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