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More than just a game

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, the two biggest sporting clubs in Spain, play football matches against each other every year. These games are transcendent, and represent a Spanish nation-wide derby, and not just a match played between La Liga’s best two teams. They have significance in several key areas, in addition to the obvious that both teams believe they have the world’s best football player in Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. The rivalry between Read Madrid and FC Barcelona stretches back over 100 years, and is an attraction viewed by an approximate 400 million viewers worldwide. It is impossible to remain neutral and unmoved by the festivities, as the rivalry represents meaning transcendent across the sport, politics and cultural identity.

Out of all sports, football is the world’s most popular, with the FIFA World Cup’s occurrence every four years attracting viewership reaching heights of 3.2 billion people (measured during the 2014 event). Its significance lies beyond the realm of football itself, with exorbitant funding from governments invested into developing national academies to nurture footballing potential. All for the ultimate goal of qualification, and the pinnacle, raising the coveted golden trophy. Led by Guus Hiddink, South Korea’s fourth placing in the 2002 World Cup can illustrate the dramatic change a successful result can have on a nation’s future trajectory in the sport. The diaspora of the event, which takes place in a different location every four years, is global, and effects true unison when countries, despite possible political tension, gather during opening and closing ceremonies.

If the FIFA World Cup is the show stage of 32 of the best footballing nations, then ‘El Classico’, named after matches played between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, is the representation of the world’s best footballing talent. Indeed, the salaries commanded by the teams’ player rosters cumulatively exceed one billion dollars, with names such as Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Neymar, Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez respectively the emblem of their country’s footballing potential. As a measure of popularity, viewership in the US was close to two million during the El Classico earlier in 2017. Real Madrid and Barcelona, unsurprisingly, are among the top five most valuable sporting teams in the world, worth $3.65 billion and $3.55 billion respectively. Real Madrid, in particular has a reputation for fame and money, ranking as football’s richest club until this year, when Manchester United claimed the mantle.

Whilst glitz and glamour is often associated with Real Madrid, particularly with its flamboyant president Florentino Perez’s reputed habit of buying the world’s most expensive players (think Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale), Barcelona’s diaspora stretches to every corner around the world. Whether it be among China’s second tier clubs, Middle Eastern academy training grounds or non-league clubs in the Pacific, aspiring football clubs from the ground-up aim to replicate the spirited free-flowing philosophy embodied consistently by Barcelona’s matchday squads. Pep Guardiola, is perhaps an apt example of the club’s soft power. Having pioneered an attacking style of play led by players such as Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Pique over the past decade, his arrival at Manchester City was followed by many of his Barcelona support staff, illustrating the motivation that football clubs, even the Premier League’s richest, have in adopting Barcelona’s model of play. Revolutionised by Johan Cruyff’s idea of ‘total football’ in the 1980s, Barcelona’s subsequent managers have refined and spread the idea – that any outfield player can substitute for the role of any other player at any time during a match, thus contributing to a free-spirited, attack oriented style of play.

Lionel Messi is perhaps the brightest light of Barcelona’s dominion of world football since the turn of the 21st century. Having won the prestigious Ballon D’Or a record 5 times (which was only recently matched by bitter rival Cristiano Ronaldo), he has, in the eyes of many experts, taken the position as history’s greatest footballer. The only argument against this position comes from the fact that Messi, unlike Pele or Maradona, has not led his country to win a World Cup. But arguments comparing eras will always be arbitrary. Facts however, don’t lie. And Messi has tallied 51 goals in 56 total appearances in 2017 in comparison to Ronaldo’s 45 in the same number of games. These statistics, whilst mind-boggling for any other player in just one season, are consistently replicated by both players during every season, stretching back to 2010. It is no wonder that the Ballon D’Or not been awarded to any other player since the Brazilian Kaka in 2007. Having undergone extensive HGH therapy in treatment of his diminutive stature, Messi has without a doubt established a stature a galaxy away from earlier career fears.

With the recent upheaval in Spain’s political scene, namely Catalonia’s petition for independence, El Clasico matches represent even more than usual. Geographically symbolic, Real Madrid is often seen as the jewel of Spain’s nationalist and conservative base, and Barcelona, based in Catalonia, bring a transcendent ‘more than just a game, more than just a country’ identity to these gargantuan clashes. During games at Camp Nou, Barcelona’s home stadium, flags are frequently flown in accompaniment to chants in favour of independence on the 17th minute of each match to symbolise Catalonia’s fall during the Spanish War of Succession in 1714. At the Bernabeu, national Spanish flags are waved across legions of fans with chants of “Viva Espana” ringing throughout the stadium when Spanish police forces cracked down on Catalan separatists in 2017.

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