El Clasico: Why Barcelona vs Real Madrid is the biggest game in world football

The giants do battle for a place in the final of the Spanish Super Cup, exclusively live on BT Sport.

By Robert Cottingham Published: 7 January 2022 - 1.59pm

“For a player, El Clasico, is the most beautiful match that exists in football,” was Zinedine Zidane’s verdict as he prepared for his first Barcelona vs Real Madrid match as a coach.

The clue is in the name. Simply put, El Clasico is the classic football fixture.

It’s the game of Diego Maradona and Ferenc Puskas, of Johan Cruyff and Alfredo di Stefano, of Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo and of Pep Guardiola vs Jose Mourinho.

From the pig’s head thrown onto the Camp Nou pitch upon Luis Figo’s return, to Lionel Messi’s infamous hold-his-shirt-to-the-crowd celebration, it’s a game that has brought about countless, well classic, moments.

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Given the stature of both sides, it’s a game that has so often decided La Liga titles, European Cups and this Wednesday, who advances to the Spanish Super Cup final - live on BT Sport 1HD from 6.30pm.

But the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one that carries significance far beyond the football pitch.

Spanish Super Cup on BT Sport

With roots in history, politics and a divide that has defined a nation, El Clasico was not only the highest-quality football match in the world for many years, it’s also the most significant.

The animosity between the two teams has regularly spilled into violence and viciousness.

As Phil Ball, the author of Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football says: “they hate each other with an intensity that can truly shock the outsider”. And when you read the Spanish history books, all is explained.

Barcelona became the embodiment of the Catalan independence movement.
Barcelona became the embodiment of the Catalan independence movement.

Barca became a symbol of Catalan identity as long ago as the 1930s and almost a century on, are am embodiment of the movement. They self-proclaim themselves as Mes Que Un Club - More Than A Club - and embrace their role as a pillar of Catalonian values. Even the club’s crest contains the red and yellow of the Catalan flag.

So significant were Barcelona to the Catalonian movement, the club logo was banned by General Franco, the nationalist leader of the Second Spanish Republic and dictatorial leader of Spain for 36 long years of repression. The club was among the first organisation to be targeted by the Nationalists.

Real Madrid, in stark contrast, are the team of the establishment. Madrid, who enjoyed decades of success during the Franco dictatorship, are the club of Castilla. They are the image of Spain as a united nation. If Barcelona are progressive, Real Madrid are conservative.

Whether you wore the blue and red or the white, it could define your political stance, your belief system and perhaps which side of the Spanish Civil War - a war that killed almost 1million people - you were on.

A Real Madrid fan wears a t-shirt declaring Barcelona the "eternally hated".
A Real Madrid fan wears a t-shirt declaring Barcelona the "eternally hated".

The civil war battle grounds of the Jarama and Ebro, where the Republicans and the Nationalists fought, would morph into the streets of Madrid and Barcelona whenever the two teams met with Barca’s Boixos Nois ultras group taking on the Ultras Sur – the Real fans group associated with the far-right.

Politics is entwined into everything these clubs do.

When the two teams vied for the signature of Argentina’s Di Stefano in the 1950s, Blaugrana had all-but signed the forward only for Real Madrid - with the alleged help of Franco – to rip up the contract and sign the player themselves.

In 2000, Barcelona star Luis Figo caused outrage by crossing the divide despite insisting he was “not as mad” as to sign a pre-contract with the club's arch rivals. The transfer involved a deal with current and then-Real Madrid president Florentino Perez that essentially would force Barca to pay compensation to keep their own player.

When the Portuguese midfielder returned to Camp Nou for his new side, banners with ‘Judas’ and ‘Scum’ were hung around the stadium. Bottles, knives, cigarette lighters, mobile phones and, most memorably, a pig’s head were thrown from the stands and Figo was abused relentlessly.

Luis Figo was pelted with missiles on his return to the Nou Camp with Real.
Luis Figo was pelted with missiles on his return to the Camp Nou with Real.

Less than three years ago, as Barcelona erupted in protests following the imprisonment of two Catalonian independence activists, El Clasico was forced to be postponed.

With these events in the backdrop, the two clubs grew and grew and grew, becoming the top two on the list of the world’s most valuable football clubs.

They are unquestionably the dominant forces in Spanish football. Real have won La Liga 34 times, Barcelona on 26 occasions. In a distant third lie Atletico Madrid with 11. Since 1984/85, 31 of the 37 La Liga titles on offer have been claimed by either side.

At the pinnacle of their powers came the height of the rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The two finest players in world football took El Clasico to new levels of global attention. More than 75million people watched the 2011 Champions League semi-final between the two teams.

The rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho was fierce.
The rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho was fierce.

On the touchline, the tension in the 2010s between Real manager Jose Mourinho and Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola spilled over into nastiness.

A brawl broke out on the pitch in the Spanish Super Cup clash in 2011, involving almost all 22 players plus substitutes and coaching staff. Mourinho took the opportunity to poke the late Tito Villanova, the Barca assistant coach, in the eye.

With the world so often watching, moments in matches become legendary.

In 1999 when Los Blancos icon Raul scored a late equaliser at Camp Nou, the Spanish forward lifted his finger to his lips in an iconic shhh-ing celebration to the home fans.

An outstanding display from Barcelona’s talisman Ronaldinho at the Santiago Bernabeu drew a standing ovation from the home fans in a rare display of respect between the two sets of supporters in 2005.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's rivalry defined the modern era of El Clasico.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's rivalry defined the modern era of El Clasico.

When Messi scored a late winner at the Bernabeu in 2017, the Argentine instinctively took off his jersey and displayed his name and number to the infuriated Real supporters. It was mimicked by Ronaldo when the pair met in the Spanish Super Cup later that year.

More recently, the stars don’t shine quite as brightly on the pitch. Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo have since departed Spain and Barcelona have been beset by financial problems.

Yet the rivalry will always remain as fierce as ever and on Wednesday, the two teams will do battle in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Arabian Peninsula as they meet in the semi-finals of the Spanish Super Cup.

El Clasico takes to King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, with a place in the Spanish Super Cup final against either Atletico Madrid of Athletic Bilbao up for grabs. The story of the world’s greatest rivalry gets another chapter, exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD from 6.30pm.