Few games generate as much hype as one that graces the Spanish Footballing Calendar at least twice a year and few football games throughout the world are followed as closely as this one is throughout the year.
On Sunday, Real Madrid and Barcelona face each other at the Santiago Bernabeu in what promises to be a game of the highest standards. A game of this magnitude is followed by fans throughout the world. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona boast some of the highest numbers in terms of fan followers across the globe.
The rivalry between Spain's finest has been one of the nation's oldest, and not only is it a rivalry simply between two football teams, it is one that is fought on many fronts: ideological, historical, geographical and even political.
The two clubs are indeed run in complete contrasts from one another. Barcelona are known for blooding home grown talent through their stable at La Masia, with some of the more auspicious names including Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Francesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez and of course, Lionel Messi.
Recent senior team players that have rolled off the Academy's production line include the likes of Andreu Fontas, Thiago Alcantara and Marc Bartra. Think of Real Madrid, on the other hand, and one cannot help but think of the years when Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Luis Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Raul Gonzalez and Michael Owen were on the same teamsheet.
Even the current crop of recruits have been purloined from clubs across Europe for jaw-dropping sums of money. Madrid broke the bank for Zidane when they bought him from Juventus, only to go one better and set the new transfer record when they bought Kaka from AC Milan for 56 million pounds in 2009. He was joined that season by Karim Benzema, Raul Albiol and then Manchester United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. The latest recruitment drive has seen former Bundesliga trio Nuri Sahin, Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil join the current ranks at the Bernabeu. However, both Madrid and Barcelona are looking long-term, which would explain Jose Mourinho's dealings in the market.
Politically speaking, both clubs are antitheses of the other. Real Madrid was a favourite of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, while the Camp Nou was seen as a symbol of resistance against the Spanish Civil War, and was one of the few places where Catalan was spoken freely in all of Spain. A month after the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, several players from Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona joined the ranks of those who fought against the military uprising.
In March 1938, the City of Barcelona was bombed, resulting in the destruction of some of the club offices. A few months later, Catalonia was placed under military occupation. As a symbol of 'undisciplined Catalanism', the club was required to remove the Catalan flag from its crest.
In 1943, Barca faced Madrid in the semi finals of the Copa del Generalissimo. Barcelona beat Madrid 3-0 in the first leg. Before the second leg, Franco's head of security visited the Barcelona team, and 'reminded' them that they were only playing 'due to the generosity of the regime'. Real dominated the match and won 11-1.
Barcelona continued to remain a symbol against Franco, making the club more than just a symbol of Catalonia, and many progressive Spaniards saw the Club as a staunch defender of rights and freedoms.
The stats would show that whoever wins the Clasico usually goes on to win the title. In 2004-05, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11, Barcelona went on to win the League, while the 2006-7 and 2007-08 wins for Los Blancos paved the way for their title victory in those years.
The white hot rivalry between the two sides has only been exacerbated over the last two years due to Jose Mourinho's antics which have made him quite unwelcome in Spain and the war of words between the two sides. But Mourinho has always proved himself time and time again as coach. He did so with Porto, with Chelsea and with Inter Milan. He may not have won plenty of silverware in his first season with Madrid, but the Portuguese coach has asked critics to judge him not on the basis of his first season, but on his second.
For a while now, Barcelona might have gotten the better of their capital rivals, but Madrid are three points ahead of their bitter rivals with a game in hand, and while it might be too early to verify what Mourinho has said, he seems to be heading in the right direction.
On the pitch, Madrid and Barcelona are matched blow-for-blow in every area. Victor Valdes is an excellent keeper, but is second in the Spanish National team's pecking order due to the presence of Iker Casillas, who is one of the best keepers on show at the moment. Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal are at par with Sergio Ramos, Ricardo Carvalho, Kepler Pepe and Fabio Coentrao.
If Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas in midfield, they are more than given a run for their money by Xabi Alonso, Kaka, Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil. Barcelona may have Alexis Sanchez, but Real Madrid have Angel di Maria. The Blaugrana may field David Villa and Pedro up front, but Real will play Gonzalo Higuain and Benzema. And then of course there are the two titans of the game.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo seem to be neck and neck in the race for becoming the world's best footballer, not they have have purposely hunted for the mantle.
Xavi has said that 'Madrid are doing well, they have 11 straight wins in the league and they have three more points than us. The advantage means they are in a better position than us but in El Clasico it is not about the ranking. Anything can happen. Madrid will arrive at the game in better shape than in the past three or four years. They are physically strong. But to win at the Bernabeu would be a pleasure. We will tighten up and play a very physical game.'
While former Madrid midfielder Guti predicts a 3-1 win for the home side. "Real Madrid will definitely beat Barcelona. I think that they will win the match 3-1. Barcelona are quite dependent on Lionel Messi. If Barca are without Messi, they usually tend to struggle. Real Madrid on the other hand have a fantastic squad. They have two great players in every position. If Cristiano Ronaldo is unavailable, they still
have plenty of class and play some great football."
Whatever happens on the night, football fans everywhere will be salivating in anticipation of a veritable footballing feast. One that will serve up enough action to keep you on the edge of your seats for ninety action-packed minutes.
Catch it live in India: Ten Action, Sunday, 0225 IST
First Published On : Dec 9, 2011 16:18 IST