Friction between these Spanish soccer titans transcends sport and enters political, cultural realm

Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, right, and Gerard Pique, 2nd right, watch the ball hit the net after Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winning goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, dubbed 'el clasico', at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sat., April 2, 2016. Real Madrid won 2-1.
Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, right, and Gerard Pique, 2nd right, watch the ball hit the net after Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winning goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, dubbed 'el clasico', at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sat., April 2, 2016. Real Madrid won 2-1. AP

To truly grasp the profound depth of the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, to comprehend why 65,000 people are paying big bucks ($225 to $3,500 per ticket) to watch the Spanish soccer giants in a glorified exhibition Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, it helps to have an understanding of Spanish history.

More than 300 years ago, long before Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi dazzled fans with their footwork, Catalunya was a fiercely independent state in the northeast of Spain, with its own language and rich culture. The seaside city of Barcelona was at its core. But the Catalans lost their sovereignty in 1714 after a 15-year war between the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties and became part of a unified Spain.

The liberal-leaning Catalans never lost their hunger for independence through the centuries, resisted Madrid’s nationalistic decrees, and the conflict rose to the forefront again under the regime of General Fancisco Franco, who ruled from 1936 to 1975.

The Fascist dictator banned the use of Catalan in government, schools and media and imposed Castellano Spanish as the only official legal language of the country. During the next four decades, Real Madrid, being from the capital, was Franco’s favorite team and became a metaphor for his government.

FC Barcelona, meanwhile, emerged as a symbol of the oppressed separatists, and Real Madrid became its most bitter rival. The friction between the clubs transcends sports and goes into the political and cultural roots of their followers.

There were even reports that Franco meddled in Real Madrid front-office dealings and was the reason Argentine legend Alfredo Di Stefano signed with with “Los Blancos” instead of FC Barcelona in 1953. The bizarre, controversial story of Di Stefano’s arrival at Real Madrid is shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories.

Calling it “a strange federative manoeuvre with Francoist backing,” the official FC Barcelona website tells the story like this:

“In the constant arms race to dominate Spanish football, both teams became interested in Di Stéfano after his dazzling performances for [Colombian club] Millonarios captivated Spain during a friendly tournament in Madrid. Barcelona reacted quickest, and through Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias Fargas, they easily reached a transfer agreement with [Argentine club] River Plate, who was still Di Stéfano’s official employer according to FIFA.”

But the Spanish soccer federation nullified the deal, saying Millonarios had to accept the transfer, which it had not. Negotiations got complicated, Real Madrid making deals with Millonarios and Barca with River Plate, and the Spanish federation tried to end the impasse by ruling that Di Stefano should play for both teams, alternating years.

Barcelona’s humiliated president resigned, the club’s board gave up on the deal and the rest is history. Di Stefano scored 216 goals in 282 games and led Real Madrid to five European Cups and eight Spanish League titles. To this day, Barca and Real Madrid fans debate whether Di Stefano’s Barcelona deal fell through because of Franco’s iron-fisted regime.

Ronaldo of Portugal has replaced Di Stefano as the face of the franchise now, and another Argentine, Lionel Messi, is Barcelona’s superstar. But the rivalry between Los Merengues (Madrid) and the Blaugrana (Barcelona) continues to be perhaps the fiercest in all of sports.

Which is why, every time they play each other, it is called “El Clasico.”

There are many heated rivalries in the world of soccer. But only one El Clasico. The teams have played each other 266 times — 233 of those in competitive matches, the rest in exhibitions.

“It has everything a rivalry needs, and it goes well beyond the borders of Spain,” said ESPN FC analyst Alejandro Moreno, a former Venezuelan national team and Major League Soccer player. “There are differences between the two cities. The establishment of Madrid against the independence-hungry Catalonia region. It has complicated political, social and economic implications.”

Real Madrid has won 33 La Liga titles, 19 Copa del Reys and 12 European Cup/UEFA Champions League trophies. Barcelona is the winner of 24 La Liga trophies, 29 Copa del Reys and four Champions Leagues.

“This wouldn’t be a rivalry if one of the teams wasn’t as successful as the other,” Moreno said. “But both of these teams have been historically successful at a very high level, they market themselves heavily around the world, have a big presence around the world and then you have the two best players, some would say in the history of the game, between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, at the height of their careers, in their prime. There is nothing quite comparable to it.”

But the Ronaldo-Messi matchup might not happen Saturday. Ronaldo has been on an extended summer vacation after a long season with Real Madrid. He also is scheduled to testify Monday at a tax fraud hearing in Spain, leading to rumors that he would not be able to fit Miami into his schedule.

“We are doing everything we can to get him here,” said Daniel Stillman, the CEO of the ICC. “We are still hopeful that he will make it.”

Each Clasico is highly charged, and some are more unforgettable than others.

The most lopsided result ever — an 11-1 Real Madrid victory over Barca — came during the second leg of the 1943 Copa del Rey semifinals. Barcelona had defeated Real Madrid 3-0 in the first leg and was confident it would advance to the final. But the second leg in Madrid was a completely different game, as the home team took an 8-0 lead by halftime. Barcelona players complained they were harassed by fans before and during the game, called “red separatists” and worse.

Prior to 1973, Barcelona was always considered the underdog to the more established Real teams. But a Dutchman named Johan Cruyff joined Barca in 1973 and had an immediate impact. Not only did he bring his creative style of play to the team — a possession game that became Barca’s trademark — but he led them to their first league title in 13 years, including a 5-0 victory over Real Madrid. When a Spanish team wins by five, it is called “La Manita” (the little hand).

Who can forget the 2010-11 season, which featured four “El Clasicos” in a span of 17 days — including the Copa del Rey final (which Real Madrid won) and the Champions League semifinal (which Barcelona won thanks to Messi’s two goals in the final 15 minutes).

And, most recently, on April 24, 2017, Messi’s spectacular last-second match winner that left jaws dropped all over the globe.

They go at it again on Saturday in Miami. A classic, indeed.

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