As a dedicated fan of the beautiful game, no matter who you support, there are a number of dates each year that just about all of us circles on our calendars as “can’t miss” matches.
The obvious ones are the dates of major international finals, Europe’s Champions League final, and South America’s Copa Libertadores. There are also a number of club rivalry matches — the so called “derbies” — that get the same treatment. Even if you don’t support the teams battling it out, the history and passion wrapped up in the matches often make them extremely entertaining affairs. Notable examples are the Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter, the Superclásico contested between River Plate and Boca Juniors, the currently-muted Old Firm Derby between Rangers and Celtic, and more recently the Manchester Derby between United and City.
However, the crown jewel of rivalries has to be Spain’s El Clásico.
With apologies to a very excellent Atlético Madrid side, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the two best sides on the Iberian peninsula in both a historical and modern context. Between them, the two European giants have won 53 La Liga titles, 44 Copa del Reys, and 13 European Cups. That said, the rivalry runs far deeper than just bulging trophy cabinets. It also has deep roots in the highly charged cultural and political tug of war between the Catalonia and Castile regions of the country.
And this weekend, we all have the privilege of watching the first Clásico of the season as Real visits Barça’s cavernous Camp Nou. Oddly though, the hype in the lead up to this match seems dull in comparison to years past.
Part of the reason for that is that recent editions of the match have been more El Circo (The Circus) than El Clásico in recent years. Four red cards in the 2011 series of matches tells half the story, as do constant sightings of the teams crowding the referee and flops galore in matches since then. The fallout from all of the drama necessitated Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque to arrange peacemaking session to keep harmony within his side. This will also be the first such edition of the match without human lightening rod/former Real Madrid manager, José Mourinho. His absence alone is enough to take an edge off the game. From conspiracy theories to eye pokings, the now once-again Chelsea boss is the master of creating a cloud of controversy surrounding matches.
Also notable is the fact that we’ve all pretty much overdosed on Clásicos of late. Thanks to pairings in the Copa del Rey and Champions League and Spanish Super Cups, there have been seasons where we’ve been treated to up to seven Clásicos — proving there is truth in the saying “too much of a good thing.” It’s just not as easy to get excited about a match that seems to be happening every other weekend.
Furthermore, both sides’ have been guilty of relatively ho-hum starts to the season. Yes, Barça sit attop the table and Madrid are only 4 points behind in third, but they both find themselves in odd periods of transition. Each side has a new manager this season who have installed drastically different approaches on the pitch and in the locker rooms. Lionel Messi has been out injured, as has new world record signing Gareth Bale. Old faces like Xavi and Iker Casillas are starting to see their powers and influence fade.
But even with all of that dulling El Clásico’s luster, the circumstances actually make this a perfect match to restore it to its former glory.
The aforementioned Bale — who’s had a rough start to life in his greener pasture after his move from Spurs — seems likely to get his first start for Real Madrid today. Barça’s own major signing, Brazilian star Neymar, has a quicker start to his career in Spain and appears to be growing in confidence. Özil-displacing, Spanish starlet Isco seems to be bedding in even quicker for los blancos. The new, more direct tactical approach Gerardo Martino is instilling for the blaugrana has breathed some freshness in the surprisingly staling tiki-taka. And with many expecting this to be a slightly more dull affair than we’re used to, it makes this a prime opportunity to catch us all off guard.
So what if this might be the quietest it’s been in the lead up to the world’s most watched and biggest rivalry? I’ll still be watching. And you should too.