You can give me the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, or the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. All three are great, if not historical sports rivalries that have transcended time and history. That much I can’t argue. But no rivalry in sports can compete with the level of history and personal, social, and cultural animosity that exists between La Liga powerhouses FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
You can try to argue against that but you’ll ultimately fail. Like it or not, Barcelona vs Madrid is more than just a game between two teams. It represents so much more than just 20 men passing the ball around a football field and two more manning the opposite goal posts. Football, or any other sport for that matter, may be a respite for a lot of people from their everyday lives. Two hours to forget about everything and focus entirely on what’s in front of them. But that doesn’t happen whenever Barcelona and Real Madrid plays. Quite the contrary, actually.
I’m not going to dive deep into the political tension between Barcelona and Madrid. That would be a different bag full of worms entirely. But I do know that there’s incredible political tension between the two cities, one representing Spanish nationalism (Madrid) while the other viewed as representing Catalan nationalism (Barcelona). Supporters of both sides view the others as rebels to the country’s cause, with some even taking that ideology to extents that lead to inevitable hostility.
So you can imagine what it must feel like when these people flock either Camp Nou and the Bernabeu Stadium to root for the home squad and raise holy hell on the away side. The cheers and jeers aren’t fabricated, nor are they canned as some NBA teams are allegedly doing. What you hear during an El Clasico is as real as it is vile, born from a disdain of opposing beliefs and the feeling that the home squad they cheer for are the vanguards of their perceived superiority over the other.
In the pitch, you can’t find two teams in the world that boast of the star-power that Barcelona and Real Madrid have. Luis Suarez plays for Barcelona. He was the English Premier League’s Player of the Year in 2014. Gareth Bale plays for Real Madrid. He was the English Premier League’s Player of the Year in 2013. Neymar Jr. plays for Barcelona. He’s considered the third best player in the world and is likely the one that will ascend to the throne when the two men ahead of him enter the twilight of their careers. James Rodriguez plays for Real Madrid. He won the Golden Boot as the top scorer in the 2014 World Cup.
On any other team, these players would be considered cornerstones and franchise players. They’re still considered as such in the Blaugrana and Los Blancos, but nobody will identify these men as the center of their respective universes.
Those two spots belong to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Much has been said about the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry and the stark contrast by which their play reflects the overall attitude of the cities they represent. On the pitch, no two football players are considered their peers, just complementary pieces that revive around their aura of dominance. Ronaldo has won two Ballon d’Or trophies and yet only one player has won more of them than he has. That player? Messi.
Picking between Messi and Ronaldo as the world’s best player isn’t so much a choice born from facts; it’s merely opinion and extended semantics. You can pick one over the other and you wouldn’t be wrong.
The two men are the embodiment of their teams, and there’s no mistaking that El Clasico takes on a different meaning because two of the best players have starring roles in them.
But this isn’t just about Messi vs Ronaldo, or Bale vs Suarez, or Neymar vs Rodriguez. This isn’t even about FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, or the fact that bookmakers have consistently placed both of these teams as the favorites to win any competition they enter.
Right now, Barcelona’s the favorite to win Spanish La Liga at 2/7 odds. Their recent 2-1 victory in the latest edition of El Clasico put them four points clear of Madrid for the title chase, enough to put Los Blancos at 11/4 odds to win the title. Despite the disparity, there’s no question that Madrid’s still in the equation. Even the teams’ respective odds to win the Champions League are right at the top with Barcelona at 5/2 odds and Madrid at 7/2 odds, bested only by Germany’s Bayern Munich at 2/1 odds.
The rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid extends to what happens on the field in those 90-plus minutes they share. It extends well after the game ends into the heart of their respective cities.
FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid is more than just a game between two titans of the football world. It’s a call-to-allegiance between two cities separated by their cultural, social, and political identities.
If that isn’t a rivalry, I don’t know what is.
Odds courtesy of Bodog