A Spanish Rivalry for the Ages

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have had a fierce rivalry for decades, one that has defined Spanish football and European football at large. The connection of hatred the two clubs have for each other has virtually no parallel beyond the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, but the Spanish rivalry actually has cultural undertones that not only make it even more serious than Yankees-Red Sox, whose own cultural undertones revolve around New York’s reputation as the financial and media capital of the world while Boston…is not. In fact, the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona stretches back many decades and involves war and discrimination. And I’m going to tell you how it all happened and why it’ll never end.

Understanding the intense rivalry between the clubs actually requires a certain amount of knowledge about Spain’s political and cultural history. Specifically, Catalunya (the region of Spain where Barcelona is) spent decades as the “least favorite child” of a dictatorship, which engendered a deep loathing of the Spanish state in general, which bled into the Spanish monarchy, represented by Real Madrid. 

Francisco Franco, the man who ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1939-1975 after three years of the Spanish Civil War. He looked down upon people from Catalunya, including the fact that they spoke a dialect of Spanish that Franco saw as a bastardization of his beautiful language and outlawed it from being spoken in public. Thus, the only place where Catalán (the dialect) could be spoken was at the Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid, being the club that represents the crown and the royal family, was favored by Francisco Franco. However, a common misnomer is that Franco favored the club because he was a fan, when he only liked them because they were the best and therefore reflected upon Spain well as they established Spanish superiority over the rest of European football. So, Real Madrid weren’t really given any favoritism, but they were seen in an infinitely better light than FC Barcelona.

Now, I know that you might think that this is the only reason why FC Barcelona hates Real Madrid, but I assure you that it runs even deeper than being discriminated against by Franco. In fact, I think that, even though they suffered mightily during Franco’s reign, the #1 reason why FC Barcelona hates Real Madrid is because Catalunya despises the Spanish crown and yearns for an independence they’ll likely never get.

You see, because Catalunya speaks a different language in addition to regular Castilian Spanish, they want to create their own identity, despite having already done so. Politically, it’s a unique and interesting situation because Catalunya is a fully autonomous community. Culturally, it creates a lot of strife within the Spanish community because of the vast differences in opinion. As for how it bleeds over to soccer, FC Barcelona, as the icon and symbolic figurehead of Cataluyan culture, routinely hosts fans who wave flags of Catalunya and sing about leaving the clutches of the crown, despite not getting any of the hatred and discrimination they got for over a quarter of a century from Francisco Franco. Basically, it’s the Cain and Abel story combined with Batman and The Joker, but with reversed roles and Abel is unable to kill Cain because, like Batman and The Joker, one cannot exist without the other.

That’s why, even though I’m a madridista through and through, and I love seeing FC Barcelona enjoy less success than Real Madrid, I don’t want FC Barcelona to fail. After all, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, the only one in my mind that stacks up to the Madrid-Barça rivalry, is not at its pinnacle unless both teams are good. The Real Madrid-FC Barcelona rivalry is the same: if they aren’t both top teams, there’s little reason to watch La Liga. Thankfully, both teams field fantastic squads every season, so the rivalry of hatred will endure.

It’s also interesting to see how Catalunya’s “little brother” mentality bleeds into sport. Just as Catalunya feels like the “little brother” to Spain, because they produce the majority of the country’s total exports, FC Barcelona always expresses its chief desire to beat Real Madrid, while Real Madrid’s aspiration year-in and year-out is to win the Champions League.

Whatever the tension level is between the clubs and the regions, it’ll never stop being fun watching two of Europe’s greatest football clubs constantly have a contentious relationship. I’ll always enjoy it, but understanding the underlying reasons for the rivalry, in my opinion, makes it that much more intense.

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