Sports Nut

Not So Clásico

The fascinating, infuriating series between Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona.

F.C. Barcelona

Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona feature some of the best soccer players on earth, are the world’s two richest clubs, embody drastically opposed philosophies of the game, have combined to win more than 140 trophies, and share a complex, antagonistic history that ties their rivalry inescapably to the Spanish Civil War. (Fascists kidnapped and executed Barcelona’s club president in 1936; the Franco regime used Madrid as a symbol of Spanish nationalism.) Any game between these two clubs is a big deal. Four Clásicos in 18 days is, in the soccer universe, a quasar.

The clubs have now played three of these matches—the fourth, the second leg of their Champions League semi, comes on Tuesday—and so far they’ve been notable for two things: hysterical, operatic drama off the pitch, and brooding, bad-tempered, tedious soccer on it. On April 16, the teams drew 1-1 in a cagey game in La Liga; the goals were routine penalties plunked in by the last two world players of the year, Barcelona’s Leo Messi and Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. On April 20, Madrid beat Barcelona 1-0 in the final of the Copa del Rey—Madrid’s first win over their Catalan rivals since 2008—on a header from Ronaldo during an extra-time period that, against the odds, managed to be kind of fun. A week later, in the first leg of the Champions League tie, Barcelona beat Madrid 2-0 behind two goals from Messi.

From a tactical standpoint, if you’ll indulge me in a bit of faint praise, the games have been interesting. Starting with the first match, Real Madrid moved its Portuguese defender Pepe into the midfield, where he acted as a throttle on Xavi and on Barcelona’s free-flowing passing game. Madrid, a haphazard squad rigged together from madly expensive superstar parts (Ronaldo, $130 million; Kaka, who’s spent the series camped on the bench, $80 million), essentially conceded Barcelona’s technical superiority and played a game of defensive attrition. This was very much the style favored by Real’s sleek, sneering coach, Jose Mourinho, who has always preferred organization, and the possibility of frustrating his opponent, to flair. The kind way to describe Mourinho’s approach is to say that Madrid held their formation and looked for a goal on the counter. The unkind way is to say that they looked like a bloodthirsty foosball table.

Either way, it worked, or it would have if Mourinho’s tactics hadn’t also called for an enthusiastic exploration of the line between clean, hard tackling and criminal battery. Madrid players have been sent off in four consecutive Clásicos; they’ve finished a man down in every match in the current series. Messi, Barcelona’s tousle-headed striker, is without peer as a player, but Pepe’s lumbering presence kept him just about bottled up in Wednesday’s first half. Then the Portuguese defender got a red card—controversially, but as Gerard Pique pointed out later, Madrid was playing with fire—and Messi scored two goals.

Though the games have been intellectually intriguing, in every other way—emotionally, aesthetically—they’ve landed with a thunk.Two of the world’s most beautiful teams, given an unprecedented opportunity to test each other’s skill, have instead goaded the worst out of each other. Barcelona, which could play against elves and still be the finesse side, has reacted to Madrid’s tough defending by diving (and writhing around, clutching their faces, thanking the academy, etc.) at the wispiest opportunity. Madrid has displayed an entirely different brand of cowardice by deciding, despite having one of the most awesome batteries of weaponry in the modern game, to power down the neutron core and play like clumsy underdogs. The matches have been tense and nasty. At one point on Wednesday, after Pepe was sent off, Messi dribbled through five Madrid defenders and skipped the ball past the goalkeeper to score. It was a breathtaking moment that felt weirdly unconnected to anything else that was happening, as if Messi were just dropping in from another plane of existence.

And in fact there is another plane in these matches, it’s just that it isn’t Messi’s. It’s the plane of hype, spin, and conspiracy-mongering—the joyful element of Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. Billowing over the entire series, like a dark cloud leased from Karl Rove, has been a cloak of lies, innuendoes, counter-lies, and counter-innuendoes, most of them released into the world by Real’s manipulative coach.

Mourinho spent most of April casually needling Barcelona in the press and accusing referees of favoring Real’s rival. Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola is such a whiner, Mourinho vamped, that he’s invented a whole new category of manager—one who complains not just about the referee’s bad calls but about his good calls, too. Finally, Guardiola—usually a pretty chill dudeerupted during one of his own press conferences when the topic of Mourinho came up. “In this room”—i.e., when holding court in front of the media—”he’s the fucking boss, the fucking man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don’t want to compete with him at all. Off the pitch, he has already won. … On the pitch, we’ll see what happens.” The outburst was studied like Zapruder footage and widely declared a mind-games victory for Mourinho. He’d gotten under Pep’s skin! The Barcelona players, however, gave their coach a standing ovation.

On the pitch, Barcelona won the next game 2-0; this was the Champions League semifinal, the one where Pepe was red-carded for aiming a high tackle at Dani Alves. After the sending-off, Mourinho promptly earned a red card himself for berating a sideline official. After the match, he unleashed a historically weird and paranoid rant for the media. Alluding to a secret plot to put Barcelona in the Champions League final, he declared that “it’s disgusting to live in this world.” When asked why such a conspiracy would favor Barcelona—after all, Madrid is just as rich and powerful—he murmured something about his rival club’s sponsor. The shadowy force that advertises on Barcelona’s shirts, by the way, is UNICEF.

Barcelona filed charges against Mourinho with UEFA, citing unsportsmanlike behavior. Madrid counterfiled countercharges against Barcelona, citing, presumably, the Bavarian Illuminati. UEFA sniffed and opened its own cases against the two clubs. The next day, Real Madrid’s official website released a video “proving” that Pepe’s red card had been unwarranted. extended the point by quoting various sporting luminaries who were disgusted by the call. It’s not clear whether this marked the first time that Chad Ochocinco’s Twitter feed had been entered as forensic evidence.

All this extra stuff, this cobweb of grudges and media ploys, has overshadowed the flesh-and-blood games to a degree that’s hard to overstate. (The conspiracy-bewailing and countersuit-filing, remember, came shortly after Messi’s great, instantly half-forgotten goal.) These Clásicos, in other words, have been emblematic of the increasingly ambient, fragmentary way in which the world consumes its favorite rivalry. The feud is waged half in headlines, so the games—endlessly recorded, endlessly talked about, endlessly replicated—never really have to end. The best players in the world are involved, but they don’t usually get in the way.

That’s not to say that these three games deserve to be remembered. At their best, Madrid and Barcelona are among soccer’s most exciting clubs; Barcelona’s passing could get a camel into heaven and Madrid’s raw, careening power can be amazing to behold. It’s just that everything else surrounding their rivalry has gotten blown out of all proportion to the soccer and turned it into a realm like politics, where there’s always another story, no one can be trusted, and everyone is angry all the time. Of course the play suffers in that environment. The cliché about the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry is that it’s about more than soccer. In the last few weeks, it’s somehow managed to seem like it’s about less.