Both clubs are at the top of the La Liga table, vying for an elusive league championship. Yet last week’s Real Madrid-FC Barcelona meeting was focused more on off-pitch issues than on-pitch play. We get more context behind the final El Clasico of 2019, one of the most unique matchups in the rivalry’s storied history.
“Barça is the un-armed army of Catalonia.” -Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
A quick background if you’re unfamiliar: The December 18 showdown was initially scheduled on October 26, but safety concerns after numerous riots and protests between Catalan pro-independence citizens and police caused the nearly two-month delay.
Tsunami Democràtic, the political movement and platform behind many of the protests, used the magnitude of the derby match to amplify their message, with countless people flooding the streets outside of Camp Nou and throughout Barcelona. The slogan displayed during the protests has been “Spain, sit and talk.” What is happening here? Why is this political slogan related to football?
To understand the protests’ connection to football, we must first go back through Spain’s 20th century history. The first thing you need to know is that Spanish politics and football march hand in hand together.
From a fan perspective, the country’s two largest clubs are associated with both sides of the political spectrum. On one hand you have Real Madrid, who are linked to the Spanish monarchy all the way down to their name and crest. Spanish King Alfonso XIII bestowed the “real” (“royal”) moniker upon the club in 1920, and Madrid has always been considered as a conservative club — the side that probably represents Spain to the rest of the world.
On the other end of the scale lies FC Barcelona. Representing the political prisoners calling for Catalonian independence, Barca has been recognized as the dissent to Spain’s centralism. So here we have two rivals who are polar opposites in matters completely dealt with off the pitch.
Spain’s sports-politics connection is evident outside the El Clasico rivalry as well. La Liga President Javier Tebas has declared his hardcore support to Vox, the far-right political party in Spain. He has been very critical with the Catalan independence movement, and he is neither well considered nor appreciated by several Spanish club fan bases, with Club Atlético Osasuna going as far as declaring him persona non grata.
As if there wasn’t enough controversy over the reasons why the game was to be postponed, the rescheduling itself was highly squabbled over as well. El Clasico is one of the most widely viewed matches of the year, and this of course includes markets outside of Spain. The original October 26 date was not scheduled by coincidence, it was planned to maximize global viewership, particularly in China and Japan.
Rescheduling from a Saturday to a Wednesday at a suboptimal time was not met kindly from Tebas, yet the Spanish FA was resolute in their decision, and the match took place on December 18. Almost two months from the originally scheduled date, and the external factors and public alarm surrounding the game seemed to only intensify.
The weeks leading up to kickoff were filled with debates about demonstration rights, freedom of expression, and police control instead of Lionel Messi’s and Karim Benzema’s form, Real’s midfield with the Uruguayan Valverde, and Barca’s strike force with Antoine Griezmann.
But game day finally reached us. FC Barcelona was hosting Real Madrid at home with the same amount of points at the top of the league, so the clash was even more important, a unique game for the spectators. You could notice the atmosphere in the city, especially when kickoff time was closer. It was not a regular game, neither a usual Clásico. For Barcelona and Real Madrid fans, this was the biggest game of the year, one where they’d love nothing more than to smash their rival. These are the matches that people retain clear memories of for years.
Just before the start of the match, there were some troubles and riots outside with protesters and the police, a usual tendency during the last months in Barcelona. In a “chaos mood,” fans were having the prematch drinks and the proper pyro, showing their love and support for the teams. It is always a thrilling experience and one of these games that it is always on your bucket list. I am fortunate to be born in Barcelona and attended many Clásicos when the football atmosphere in Camp Nou was even more passionate and electric.
With a kind of laziness, the game ended with an anticlimactic non-scoring draw. In my opinion, too many outside factors had affected the previous days of the game and the major public distracted both clubs from football. I don’t really know how the 2019 El Clasico will be remembered. Probably, we need to wait for some years to get a better and more positive perspective from the events.
Photography by Ignasi Torné Gualdo for Urban Pitch.