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In Spain, El Clasico is so much more than a soccer game

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There has never been a more politically-intense, socially-relevant soccer match than El Clasico, the clash between iconic Spanish heavyweights FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, reported The Globe and Mail (Canada).

On Sunday, the teams meet at the Camp Nou (FC Barcelona’s home stadium) for the first time this season. Given the current European landscape – highly-charged, feverish and aggressive – it would make sense that the political leanings of both teams provide a substantial subplot. It is, after all, as much a battle about Spanish independence as it is about soccer.

Barca, as the team is known, is the epicentre and embodiment of Catalan identity. “Més que un club” is their famous, well-worn slogan: more than a club. And indeed, the team reflects the region’s culture, history, politics and language. Writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban famously referred to the team as “the unarmed army of Catalonia.”

Over time, a complex backstory has been oversimplified. The accepted version is that during the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona was anti-Franco, anti-fascism and a bastion of revolution. Meanwhile, Madrid – supposedly – was the perfect contrast. That narrative has seeped into the soccer rivalry, which exploded in the 1990s. As coach of Barca, Johan Cruyff drilled an ideology, a philosophy and an expressive style into his players. It went beyond what happened on the pitch and seemed to tap into a wider, romantic Catalan appreciation of embracing its difference, extending the separatist mentality that began decades earlier onto the soccer pitch.

For Real, it’s always been about success. The club has never peddled a virtuous aura. When quizzed on their DNA and culture, they’ve merely pointed to the overflowing trophy cabinet.

Under the presidency of Florentino Perez, Real built a team around galáctico, or superstar signings. The era began in 2000 with Portuguese player Luis Figo leaving Barca to move to the Bernabeu, Real’s stadium. On his first return to the Camp Nou, incensed Barca fans threw various objects at Mr. Figo as he prepared to take a corner kick, including – memorably - a pig’s head. It said much about the intensity, bitterness and societal gulf that existed between both teams. For Barca, the Figo signing was classless. Nothing more than a display of financial superiority. Just another flagrant transaction.

There is an edge, always.

Last year, the same day as the Catalan independence referendum descended into chaos and violence on the streets, soccer was front and centre. Barca decided to go ahead with a scheduled league game at home but elected to play in an empty Camp Nou for safety reasons. Their opponents – Las Palmas – disagreed with the ballot taking place and had small Spanish flags embroidered on their shirts in protest.

Meanwhile, Real hosted Espanyol, another team from the Catalan region, later in the afternoon; chants of Viva Espana rang around the ground before kickoff as a litany of Spanish flags were unfurled.

A year later, and little has changed: On Wednesday, when Barca faced Inter Milan, two banners were on display at Camp Nou. One read, “Welcome to the Catalan Republic,” the other simply “Freedom.”

Expect something similar tomorrow.

El Clasico does find itself in a slightly unusual position these days. The long-time, hardcore fans – the same group that threw the pig’s head at Mr. Figo all those years ago – are now joined by tourists taking selfies, posting on Instagram and checking in on Facebook. That’s the reality of the soccer business. Barca and Real are high-profile organizations and appeal to massive international fan bases (it’s hard to pinpoint a definitive number for El Clasico’s worldwide TV viewership, but it’s probably close to 150 million).

There’s something so electric and intoxicating about El Clasico. And the match always delivers. The last time the two teams met – back in May – there was, supposedly, nothing to play for. Barca was already the league winners. Still, it was an exhilarating contest that ended in a 2-2 draw. Almost 98,000 watched on from the stands. Spanish newspaper El Pais compared it to “fishing with dynamite.”

El Clasico is a beautiful, complicated mass of history and culture deeply embedded in the fabric of a nation. It is so much more than a game.

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