El Clasico: The Most Intense Sports Rivalry On Earth

This Saturday’s match between FC Barcelona (Barça) and Real Madrid (Los Blancos) will mark the 216th/241st (official/friendly match tally) time the Spanish teams have faced each other on the field. The game is known as El Clásico (The Classic) or El Derbi Español and has grown to become the most watched, most anticipated and most intense rivalry in sports today.

More than just a game...

The rivalry exists thanks to a number of cultural, historical, and political reasons.

From Xoel Cardenas for Bleacher Report:

Real Madrid has always been seen as a symbol of Spanish pride and nationalism. Most Madridistas in Spain are Castilians who share relatively conservative political and social views. Most Real Madrid fans in Spain are loyal to the monarchy and continue to value monarchical traditions.

Culés {fans of Barcelona – Afro.} are very much opposite in political and social viewpoints. Most Catalans will never acknowledge that the city of Barcelona and all of the land that “was” Catalonia is Spain. Catalans prefer democracy to any kind of monarchical rule. They have more liberal political and social views; they see Catalonia as an unrecognized country.

Madrid is the capital of both Spain and the autonomous region of the Community of Madrid (Comunidad de Madrid) and holds the honor of being the country’s largest city. It became the capital in 1561 after Philip II moved the seat of the court from Seville to Madrid. Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia (Catalunya) in northeastern Spain.

Catalonia has a long history of defending itself against the suppression of its autonomy and its culture from monarchic forces beginning with the rise of the Kingdom of Spain in the 13th century culminating with the fall of Barcelona on September 11, 1714.

The 20th century saw a number of major developments in politics and sports in the country. FC Barcelona was established in 1899 (yes, technically that’s the 19th century but we’ll give it some leeway) and Real Madrid in 1902. King Alfonso XIII assumed power in 1902 and the Copa Del Rey (The King’s Cup) was established to celebrate his coronation. It was in this tournament that both teams met for the first time.

This will make more sense a few paragraphs from now

In 1920, Alfonso XIII dubbed Madrid with the “Real” (meaning “Royal”) prefix along with the crown in the team’s logo. Around this time, he appointed Miguel Primo de Rivera as his Prime Minister. Rivera enforced Spanish (Castilian) nationalism via a number of laws including the abolition of all languages in Spain other than Spanish (Catalonian, Basque, etc.). The reign of Alfonso XIII and Rivera came to an end the following decade with the formation of the Second Spanish Republic which gave Catalonia its first statute of autonomy.

Catalonian autonomy, however,  faced another attack, this time by Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain for nearly half a century. Franco and the military destroyed the government of the Second Spanish Republic after the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939).

Franco used Real Madrid to promote Spanish/Castilian nationalism as well as his right-wing, fascist views and policies. This pitted Catalonians and FC Barcelona against their athletic rivals on political grounds as well. Many leftist movements sprung up in Catalonia during this time and Barça became a symbol of Catalan nationalism thanks to Barça president Josep Sunyol.

Sunyol was a lawyer, journalist, politician and president of FC Barcelona during the 1930’s. He and Barça became the face of Catalonia. He even took an oath to promote anti-Castilian propaganda through football. In 1936, Franco’s police force arrested and executed Sunyol. Years later, Catalonia, the last of the unconquered territories, would fall to Franco’s regime thereby ending the civil war.

Franco took his revenge on Catalonia by imposing laws similar to those during Rivera’s reign under Alfonso XIII. He banned and suppressed the region’s language as well as anything associated with the political movements practiced in the region including anarchism, communism, socialism, and democracy. By law, FC Barcelona was forced to adopt a Spanish name becoming Club de Fútbol Barcelona during Franco’s reign. The Catalan flag was also removed the group logo.

Franco went as far as renaming the Copa del Rey to the Copa del Generalísimo (The General’s Cup). In one semi-final match between Barça and Madrid in 1943, Franco’s director of state security paid Barça a visit in their dressing room to “remind” the team that they were being allowed to play thanks to the “generosity of the regime.” Madrid won that game 11 – 1.

In 1968, Barça president Narcís de Carreras adopted the club’s motto Més que un club (more than a club) to reflect its history of Catalan nationalism. Catalonia regained much of its autonomy and culture after the death of Franco in 1975 and the adoption of the democratic Spanish Constitution in 1978.

The history of Spain and Catalonia are an important part of El Clásico, which makes the game more intense than most other rivalries. Add to this the fact that it’s played between the two top sports teams in the world in many, possibly all, respects and you have what amounts to one of the most emotional matches in all sports worldwide.

Catch El Clásico this Saturday at 1 p.m. Pacific time.

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