To understand the rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid you must travel back to the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of Francesco Franco that followed the war. In July of 1936 Franco led a coup against The Second Spanish Republic that had been in power since 1931. During the following Spanish Civil War, Catalonia became the center of Socialist thought and Barcelona became the capitol of the Spanish Republican (People’s) Army that opposed Franco’s Spanish Nationalist Army.
Catalonia stood as a hotbed against Nationalism and Franco until the Nationalist Army captured Barcelona on January 26, 1939. Franco became the dictator of Spain until his death in 1975 and because of the resistance that Catalonia and Barcelona had given to Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Franco made it a priority to punish the Catalonian people for their political beliefs and for fighting against him during the war.
After the end of the war Franco did everything in his power to destroy the culture and sense of identity of the Catalonian people. Over 500,000 surviving Spanish Republicans who had fought against Franco were sent to concentration camps in Spain, Germany, and Austria (1). Franco then stripped the political autonomy of Catalonia. The Catalonian people gained political autonomy in 1931 after Alfonso XIII, the former King of Spain, fled Spain when the Second Spanish Republic was democratically voted into power. Franco banned the Senyera, the Catalan National Flag from being flown in Catalonia. Next, Franco attempted to eradicate Catalan, the indigenous language of Catalonia. It became illegal to speak Catalan in public.
All signs, from business signs to street signs, were either removed, covered, or changed from Catalan to Castilian Spanish, the official dialect of Spain. If a business had a Catalan name, it had to change its name to Castilian Spanish. It became illegal to give children Catalan names. All books that were written in Catalan were destroyed and it was made illegal to publish books in Catalan. It was forbidden to teach Catalan in schools. To reimburse Spain for the cost of the war, thousands of Catalonians were forced to pay fines to Spain or had their property seized by the Spanish Government. Many professional state employees, especially teachers, lost their jobs or were limited in their employment opportunities because of the support they had given to the previous Republic or because they supported the Republicans during the war.
The only place the Catalonian people felt safe to celebrate their heritage, speak their language and wave the Senyera was inside the Camp Nou Stadium during FC Barcelona home matches. The Camp Nou became the cultural and spiritual home of Barcelona and Catalonia, a place where the legacy of the Catalan people would be preserved. It was a place where subjugated peoples, by celebrating their culture, were given the freedom to act in open rebellion towards their oppressors. Barcelona became “Més que un club” (more than a club) to the people of Barcelona and Catalonia who relied on FC Barcelona to give them the freedom to celebrate and express their cultural and political identity.
Franco realized the importance of Barcelona to the identity of the Catalonian people so he attempted to destroy FC Barcelona. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War,(2) FC Barcelona’s president was murdered by Franco’s soldiers on a trip to visit Republican soldiers who were stationed close to Madrid. Franco forced the club to change its name from their Catalonian, Futbol Club Barcelona, to the Spanish Barcelona Club de Fútbol. (3) Franco also forced Barcelona to remove the Senyera from the top right corner of their club badge.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, represented the traditional ideals and values of the Spanish establishment. Real Madrid was known as Madrid Football Club until 1920 when King Alfonso XIII gifted Madrid FC the name “Real” (Royalty) and the club changed its name to Real Madrid and added a crown to their club crest. At that time Atlético Madrid, their future city rival, was still a feeder club to Athletic Bilbao. Thus, Real Madrid was not only known as the primary club of Madrid, but the club that represented the Spanish Monarchy. In 1931 after a Spanish general election ended the Spanish Monarchy and created The Second Spanish Republic, Real Madrid was stripped of their title “Real,” returning to the name Madrid FC, and their new crest did not include a crown. In 1939, after Franco and the Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War and Franco became the dictator of Spain, he restored the “Real” to Madrid FC, and again favored the club that Alfonso XIII established as the club that represented the traditional ideologies of Spain.
Franco himself looked to influence Real Madrid at critical times in their rivalry against Barcelona. In the 1943 semi-final of the Generalíssimo Cup, Barcelona led the tie 3-0 after the first leg. Before the beginning of the second leg,(4) representatives of Franco met with officials and players of Barcelona and “reminded” them that by representing Barcelona and Catalonia their allegiance to Spain was in question. In the second leg Real Madrid won an incredible match with an 11-1 result.
The most important player in the rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is Alfredo De Stefano. De Stefano is one of the greatest players in the history of World Football and the greatest player in the history of Real Madrid CF. He led Real Madrid to five European Championships and eight Spanish League titles, and scored 216 goals in 284 matches. De Stefano initiated a transfer battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid that is one of the most outrageous stories in world football and came to define the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Both teams attempted to sign De Stefano in the Summer and Fall of 1952. Barcelona seemed to have an advantage in the battle when they completed a deal with River Plate, the club Barcelona thought was in possession of his registration rights. That deal was approved by FIFA and De Stefano played in as early friendly for Barcelona. However, the Spanish Football Federation refused to certify the transfer because Barcelona did not complete a deal with Millonarios, the team De Stefano played for at the time. Real Madrid was able to complete a deal with Millonariosand De Stefano signed a deal and played his entire career in Spain with Real Madrid. Franco had connections inside the Spanish Football Federation(5) and it is speculated that he used his connections to ensure that De Stefano did not sign for Barcelona and signed with Real Madrid instead.
The political history between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid makes El Clásico, the match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid much more than a sports rivalry. This rivalry is a political and ideological event that captures the hearts and minds of all Spanish citizens. For FC Barcelona supporters, victory or sustained success for Barcelona is a social and political victory for the anti-establishment Left Wing citizens. Sustained superiority for Real Madrid supports is a victory for the Right Wing establishment.
At the end of the 2008-2009 season, FC Barcelona, was the toast of world football after completing one of the most successful seasons in their club’s history. For the first time in Barcelona’s history and the only time in the history of any Spanish team, FC Barcelona won the continental treble, winning all three major trophies.Barcelona won the Spanish League Tournament, La Liga, by nine points, The Spanish Cup Competition, Copa Del Ray, and the primary European Competition, The Champions League.
What solidified this Barcelona team as one of the greatest collections of talent ever assembled on one club team was not that they won but how they won. Barcelona’s style of play displayed artistry that was unmatched by any other club team, combined with a ruthless efficiency that forced all opposition to play extremely defensively, as it was impossible to play open football against Barcelona. In a time when elite clubs took on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt or were gifted with benefactors who had the capitol to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build teams who could compete at the highest level, Barcelona’s team and their unique style of play was developed through their La Masia youth academy and brought graduates such as Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, “Xavi” Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Leo Messi as first team members or regular contributors.
Barcelona’s style of play was primarily built around smaller and more technically skilled players who looked to retaining possession as a means to increase the fatigue of their opposition who were forced to defend for long periods of time. This style of play also meant Barcelona could limit their physical exertion by limiting the time they had to defend. When (6) Barcelona attempted to attack they created passing triangles to facilitate short intricate passing. This style of play maximized the opportunities for Barcelona’s players to exploit their technical superiority over their opposition.In defense, Barcelona played with a very high defensive line and aggressively pressed their opposition in an attempt to protect their high defensive line so opposition teams could not play the ball into the open space behind them. With this strategy Barcelona was able to win the ball back quickly close to their opposition’s goal and minimize the amount of area they had to cover to get in threatening attacking positions. Thus, they could limit the running of their smaller and lower energy players who struggled to cover large amounts of territory throughout a match.
While Barcelona was playing a style of football that would come to define a generation, their eternal rival Real Madrid was stuck in a cycle of play that was not on a level of a club that considered itself to be the most successful club in the world. In the eight seasons between the 2001-2002 season, the last time Real Madrid had won the Champions League, and the 2008-2009 season, Real Madrid only won three trophies, winning La Liga three times. Real Madrid also ceased to exist as a European heavyweight, bowing out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 five years straight starting with the 2004-2005 season. With Barcelona winning two Champions League titles in 2006 and 2009, Real Madrid’s results were unacceptable. To add insult to injury, Barcelona embarrassed Real Madrid on their home field in a 6-2 match that is one of the greatest victories for Barcelona and one of the worst defeats in the history of El Clásico.
To return Real Madrid to their position as the best club in the world, a club that could step on the field and beat Barcelona, and a club that would win Real Madrid’s 10th European Cup, La Décima, Real Madrid turned to Florentino Pérez. Pérez was the man who built The Galacticos, a collection of world class stars that were bought by Real Madrid and who led the club to a Champions League victory in 2002. During their brief period of success they became known as one of the most famous teams in the history of club football. Pérez looked to build an athletic and physical counter-attacking team that could overpower Barcelona’s smaller players and exploit Barcelona’s open style of play and high defensive line.
Pérez began quickly dismantling the Real Madrid side that had been so disappointing the previous seasons. He sold nine players including Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, two players who would subsequently lead Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, respectively, to the next seasons Champions League Final.
The first and most important acquisition for Pérez was Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo was the perfect player to build this new Real Madrid team around. His athleticism, speed and direct style of play fit into Real Madrid’s now preferred counter-attacking style of play. Ronaldo was positioned at the Left Wing to exploit the attacking movements of Barcelona’s Right Fullback, Dani Alves. Alves was a very attack minded Fullback and was responsible for providing width for Barcelona to allow their Right Winger to help build play centrally. With Barcelona choosing to play one player on their right flank, Ronaldo was not forced to track back defensively. Instead he positioned himself parallel to Barcelona’s deepest Centerback, in a position to make immediate counter attacks and to make runs into the space behind Barcelona’s high defensive line.
Ronaldo also brought prestige to the brand of Real Madrid. Throughout the previous season, Barcelona’s Leo Messi had become the most celebrated player in the world football. Messi brought success on the field combined with a personality and demeanor that made him identifiable with the average football fan. Thus Messi was the player that represented Barcelona’s dynasty just as Pelé had represented Santos and the Brazilian National Team and Johan Cruyff had represented Total Football, Ajax, Barcelona, and the Dutch National Team.
Cristiano Ronaldo had built himself into the biggest brand in world football with his success on the field and his marketability off of the football field. At Manchester United he became the best player in the Premier League. He won three Premier League titles and led Manchester United to the 2008 Champions League title. He also was awarded the 2008 Ballon d’Or for being the best player in world football. With his male model looks and physique, Ronaldo had the biggest off the field profile of any professional footballer as he was the face of multiple brands and was the most marketable footballer in the world. Ronaldo was the perfect player to symbolize the new Galácticos, the team that would challenge and overtake Messi and the brand of FC Barcelona.
Ronaldo needed players to provide service behind opposition defensive lines so he would have the ability to spearhead Real Madrid’s transition play. To fill these needs Real Madrid signed Xabi Alonso and Kaká. Kaká was the 2007 Ballon d’Or winnerand was given the Central Attacking Midfield position for Real Madrid. He was supposed to provide creativity from higher up the field, but he was hampered by injury and failed to live up to expectations at Real Madrid. Xabi Alonso was one of the best Holding Midfielders in world football. He was noted for being able to control his team’s attacking movements from deeper positions by sending pinpoint long and direct passes to his team’s attacking players. He was also great at creating scoring opportunities from corner kicks and indirect free kicks where Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s other bigger players would be able to finish scoring chances, mostly with headers. These direct passes would either be played to Ronaldo behind opposition defensive lines or other Real Madrid advanced players who could finish scoring chances or create scoring chances for Ronaldo.
Alonso’s presence as a starting player for the Spanish National Team was also politically important for Real Madrid. Barcelona’s Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta all started for Spain and Fabregas, a La Masia graduate, served as an impact substitute. During the 2008/2009 season Gerard Piqué was promoted to Spain’s starting lineup to partner his teammate Carles Puyol. Piqué started with Puyol at the 2010 World Cup, along with Holding Midfielder Sergio Busquets. This gave the most successful Spanish National Team in Spain’s history a distinctly Barcelona feel. In addition the Spanish National Team attempted to mimic Barcelona’s Tiki Taka style of play. Adding Alonso as another starter along with Iker Casillas (GK) and Sergio Ramos (RB) would increase the amount that Real Madrid would contribute to the Spanish National Team.
Real Madrid completed their transfer window by signing a new Center Forward, Karim Benzema. Benzema was a high scoring Center Forward, from Olympique Lyon who was also technically skilled and comfortable playing as a Wide Forward. These abilities were important for Real Madrid, as their team was built around creating scoring opportunities for Ronaldo. When Benzema made wide runs, space was created for Ronaldo to make attacking runs from the flanks. Benzema’s technical ability also allowed him to link play on Real Madrid’s quick transition attacks, where he was able to help create scoring opportunities.
The 2009/2010 season was one of the most successful La Liga seasons in Real Madrid history. Real Madrid reached their highest point total ever with 96 points with a positive goal difference of 67 goals. However, Real Madrid could not overcome Barcelona, losing the La Liga title to them by 3 points and losing twice to them during the season. Also, Real Madrid struggled in their Cup competitions dropping out in the Copa Del Ray in the Round of 32 and, ounce again, not making it past the Champions League Round of 16. The previous summer, Florentino Pérez had spent 257.4 million Euros and Real Madrid took a loss of 169.9 million Euros. These results were unacceptable and Manuel Pelligrini, Real Madrid’s Manager, was relieved of his duties at the end of the season.
The next managerial decision for Pérez was easy. There was only one manager who brought the necessary experience, credibility and personality to run the project that Pérez envisioned and on May 31, 2010 Real Madrid unveiled Jose Mourinho as their new manager. For a manager who was only 47 years old Mourinho already had an illustrious career. He had led an unheralded Porto side to a 2002-2003 UEFA Cup Championship and to the 2003-2004 Champions League Title. At Chelsea, the next club he managed, he won back to back Premier League Titles and built the Chelsea side that was within one minute and a myriad of questionable refereeing decisions by Tom Henning Øvrebø, short of beating the 2008-2009 Barcelona side that won the 2008-2009 Champions League. In the previous season he led Inter Milan to the 2009-2010 Champions League title and along the way beat Barcelona 3-2 in the Champions League Semi-Final. Mourinho preferred a more pragmatic and physical style of play that Pérez believed was necessary for Real Madrid to overpower Barcelona. Mourinho would be the manager that would elevate Real Madrid over Barcelona.
Mourinho recruited three new starters to help complete his side. Two of these new additions, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, came from the 2010 German National Team that entertained the world during their run to 2010 World Cup Semifinal. Sami Khedira was a physically large and athletic Defensive Box-to-Box Midfielder who used his high work rate to provide defensive support to the midfield. Khedira was placed next to Alonso in Real Madrid’s double pivot to provide the less athletic Alonso defensive protection and to help overpower Barcelona’s smaller and less athletic Central Midfielders.
Mesut Özil, who was bought as a replacement to Kaká, is a tactically diverse Attacking Midfielder who is comfortable playing centrally or on either flank. He rose to prominence while playing for his previous club team, Werder Bremen, and is known for his play as a “Central Winger.” A Central Winger is a Central Attacking Midfielder who drifts wide to the flanks to find space to link play. In Real Madrid’s defensive phase, Özil remained high up the field and drifted to the flanks looking to find space to act as a passing outlet to receive balls from Real Madrid’s deep defenders and to then play in Real Madrid’s attackers behind their opposition’s high and exposed defensive line.
Ángel Di María was brought to Real Madrid to balance out their formation as their Right Winger. Having played as a Central Midfielder at his previous club, Di María dropped deeper in defense and provided defensive stability for Real Madrid. Di María allowed Ronaldo more freedom to play higher up the field while still providing enough support for Real Madrid’s defense. Di María’s greatest attribute was his work rate and energy that allowed him to comfortably provide attacking support on the counter-attacks, after starting his runs from deep defensive positions.
Mourinho also signed Ricardo Carvalho, a Centerback who had played under Mourinho at Porto and Chelsea. With his addition Mourinho felt comfortable playing Pepe, one of Real Madrid’s first team starting Centerbacks, as a Holding Midfielder. This brought more physicality and nastiness into Real Madrid’s center midfield and was a tactic preferred against Barcelona’s smaller central midfielders. In the 2010/2011 season Carvalho played in 48 matches for Real Madrid, starting 46. After the end of this season however, he was no more than a peripheral player.
During the 2010-2011 season Real Madrid failed to overcome Barcelona in the majority of their competitive matches and season results. In the first El Clásico match of the season Barcelona embarrassed Real Madrid 5-0. They later beat Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate in the Champions League Semifinal on their way to their 2011 Champions League victory. However, Real Madrid was able to beat Barcelona in the Copa Del Ray Final, winning their first trophy since 2007.
After spending 405.40 million Euros with a net loss of 299.9 million Euros, buying 19 players and taking one on loan, Real Madrid was able to win the La Liga title in the 2011-2012 season. They were able to reach the 100 point total, the highest point total in the history of La Liga and scored 121 goals, the highest point total in La Liga history. Barcelona was hampered by the age of their two primary central midfielders and La Masia graduates, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Both players struggled with pressing at a high tempo because of their ages, 32 and 28 respectively, and because of the amount of playing time they had experienced since 2007. Both had started every season for Barcelona in La Liga since 2007, reached the Semifinals of the Champions League since 2007, reached the Semifinals of the Copa Del Ray four times since 2007, won two FIFA Club World Cup tournaments, and the led Spain in two international tournaments (2008 European Championships and 2010 World Cup). This meant that Barcelona was not able to press with the same ferocity as previous seasons and the better teams were able to counter behind Barcelona’s defensive line. Barcelona also struggled with scoring consistent goals throughout the season. David Villa, Barcelona’s Wide Forward and second leading scorer, broke his shinbone, making Barcelona over reliant on Messi to score goals. During Barcelona’s competitive matches in the 2011/2012 season (including La Liga, Champions League, Copa Del Ray and Club World Cup) Messi scored 69 goals. Barcelona’s other attackers, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, scored 13 and 15 goals respectively and Barcelona’s attacking Central Midfielders, Andrés Iniesta and “Cesc” Fàbregas, scored 5 and 14 goals respectively.
The 2012/2013 season for Real Madrid was a complete 180 from the previous season. Generally, La Liga is a league where style of play is just as important as results for many mid and lower table teams. That means teams with much lower quality players than Real Madrid would attempt to play possession, open, and attractive football allowing Real Madrid to play their preferred counter attacking style of football.However, this season many teams who had previously attempted to play with Real Madrid now sat deep in an attempt to deny Real Madrid the opportunity to counter-attack. Real Madrid lost to a Barcelona team that had done nothing to fix their central midfield or attacking problems from the previous season and that also had to play without Messi who missed long periods of time during the 2nd half of the season due to injury. Real Madriddropped from 100 points to 85 points, scored 18 fewer goals, conceded 10 more goals, and had a goal difference that dropped from plus-89 in 2011-2012 to plus-61 in 2012-2013.
In the Champions League,Real Madrid struggled against a weakened Manchester United side that sat deep and did not allow Real Madrid to counter attack. Manchester United drew the first leg 1-1 taking an early lead off of a corner kick goal from Danny Welbeck. In the return leg, Manchester United again controlled the match by sitting deep, and again Real Madrid struggled to break down an organized and deep defense. Real Madrid was on the way to an early exit from the Champions League, leading the return leg 1-0 until Nani was sent off with a red card in the 56’ minute, giving Real Madrid a one man advantage and the opportunity to score two goals and advance to the Champions League Quarterfinals. In the Champions League Semifinals Real Madrid was eviscerated 4-1 by a Borussia Dortmund side that ceded possession to Real Madrid, forcing them to open up and ruthlessly transitioned Real Madrid into submission. After the disappointing La Liga season and Champions League results, Mourinho was not brought back to manage Real Madrid the next season.
On June 3, 2013 FC Barcelona ended the perpetual transfer battle and officially acquired Neymar from Santos. Neymar was next in the line of great Brazilian players coming from the lineage of Káka, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho that travelled back to the pinnacle of Brazilian footballers, Pelé. The transfer battle for Neymar had been long and contentious with many teams from multiple leagues, trying for multiple years to acquire the rights to sign him. Barcelona saw Neymar as the solution to their attacking weaknesses by adding a second goal scorer to support Messi in Barcelona’s attack. Real Madrid did not want Barcelona to dominate the headlines and press, even though Real Madrid had no need for Neymar on their already stacked frontline. Real Madrid made a (7) higher offer than that of Barcelona, but Neymar chose to play for Barcelona.
Florentino Pérez would not allow the loss of Neymar to define Real Madrid’s 2013/2014 Summer Transfer window. He needed to turn a transfer window that had started out as a disappointment into a success. Pérez started by signing two young and impressive Spanish Internationals, Isco and Asier Illarramendi, who have the potential to become key players in the future for Real Madrid and Spain. After a breakout season the previous season for Málaga, in Spain and in the Champions League, Isco had cemented himself as the best young player in Spain and one of the best young attacking players in the world.
It was intended for Isco to replace Mesut Özil as Real Madrid’s Central Attacking Midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 that had become their primary formation for two seasons. Asier Illarramendi, a Holding Midfielder, was signed after a very productive youth career at Real Sociedad and as a Spanish Youth International. Illarramendi was seen as the heir apparent to Xabi Alonso, who was getting close to the end of his career. He has a similar passing style to Alonso, in that he prefers to sit deep and play long and direct passes to his team’s attackers, letting him fit seamlessly into Real Madrid’s style of play. Both players were primarily substitutes and Isco lost his Central Attacking Midfielder starting position after Real Madrid switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Illarramendi played in his anticipated backup role to Xabi Alonso.
The major signing for Real Madrid was Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur for 100 Million Euros. Bale had developed into the most dangerous attacking player in the Premier League and had carried Tottenham offensively throughout the previous season. Bale was given the Right Wing position, replacing Ángel Di María who was very productive and did not need to be replaced, but was not a major name that would improve the brand of Real Madrid. Signing Bale brought another name that Real Madrid could place on their marquee and this was seen as counter move to Barcelona signing Neymar.
Di María was relegated to the bench as Bale took his starting position. However, an injury to Sami Khedira forced a formation change and Di María became Real Madrid’s most important player. Di María was energetic enough to provide defensive protection for both Real Madrid’s center midfield and Ronaldo and he was still an attacking threat providing width for Real Madrid’s attack.
Real Madrid had yet another disappointing league campaign in the 2013/2014 La Liga season. They finished in third place behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, their city rival, who won their first La Liga title since the 1995/1996 season. Real Madrid’s lack of success was an afterthought because of their success in their cup competitions. Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Copa Del Ray Final, with (8) Gareth Bale scoring a Wonder Goal to win the match, thus justifying what was a questioned acquisition by Real Madrid.
On May 24, 2014 Real Madrid beat Atlético Madrid 4-1 a.e.t. winning their 10th European Cup and completing La Décima. Finally, the quest that Real Madrid had begun after Barcelona’s 2008-2009 season was complete. In the 12 years between Real Madrid’s ninth Champions League title in 2002 and tenth Champions League title in 2014, FC Barcelona won three Champions League titles.
From the time Florentino Pérez was brought back to Real Madrid in 2009, Real Madrid bought 25 players, spent 605.4 million euros, and had a net loss of 351.9 million Euros. (9) Real Madrid also amassed somewhere between 500-600 million Euros in debt.Between 2009 and 2014, Real Madrid won one La Liga title, two Copa Del Ray titles and one Champions League title.
During the same period Barcelona won three La Liga titles, one Copa Del Ray, and one Champions League title. Real Madrid’s success was limited against Barcelona, only beating Barcelona in three of nine matches and losing to Barcelona in 3 of 5 El Clásico ties. While Pérez and Real Madrid accomplished their goals, they lost the head to head battle against Barcelona in that they never achieved the success of FC Barcelona. The story between these two clubs continues and with (10) the push for Catalan independence and a November 9th (11) non-binding Catalonian resolution vote, El Clásico on October 25th could very well be the next chapter written in these clubs great history.