This weekend sees LaLiga host the game of the weekend and perhaps of the season to date. Barcelona welcome their long term rivals Real Madrid to El Camp Nou in the latest instalment of the ‘El Clasico’. The two biggest, wealthiest teams in Spain will do battle on Saturday afternoon - unfortunately during the football blackout period in the UK - as the race for LaLiga, even in December, reaches a crucial stage. Will Zinedine Zidane outfox Luis Enrique like he did last season or will Barcelona breathe new life into their faltering title challenge?
Fans all over the world will etch into their diary a two-hour window in order to watch the game. Depending on where you live, babysitters will have to be arranged, a meet up with the lads in the pub or in the case of the UK, streams will be searched for. It’s like taking your seat in the cinema and waiting to be entertained. Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar versus Lucas Vazquez, Gerard Pique versus Sergio Ramos. Moments of brilliance laced with moments of play-acting. It’s as if no one else matters, just these two teams.
And that last sentence is exactly why, while the rest of the world is excited about El Clasico, large parts of Spain hate everything to do with this fixture.
The idea ‘no one else exists’ isn’t a new concept in Spain. Chances are if you speak Spanish or simply want to look at the pictures of the sport newspapers over here, one of Real Madrid or Barcelona will be draped over the cover. Not just this week but practically every day of every week. SPORT, a Catalan based newspaper, even opted for Messi as their cover star today despite the tragedy of what happened in Colombia yesterday.
There’s a feeling of not being needed, or wanted, if you support any other side than those two. And sometimes, even when the football team isn’t playing, the basketball side [of the same two] are instead on the front page. While this favouritism is common place, and to a certain extent accepted, this weekend is essentially the black hole of information pertaining to other sides. You could win 10-0 and, at best, you’d get a small piece in the corner.
Every radio show, football TV show and poll from the mainstream media will centre around El Clasico. And we’re not talking about one or two days before, we’re talking about an entire week dedicated to the game. Will Zidane change his system? Do you think Luis Enrique is angry or calm about Barcelona’s recent form? Will Cristiano score more goals than Messi? Who will get sent off? Who has the better boots? What cologne did Marcelo use? How many times will Pique be referred to as an ‘independentista’?
While this might be exciting for fans of the two involved in the match itself, for the rest it becomes the cherry on the top of this enormous cake dedicated to them. What’s worse, the hyperbole surrounding the fixture attempts to make neutrals pick the lesser of the two evils. As I mentioned in my articles last year about the negative aspects of football in Spain, this ideology of picking a 'second team’ during El Clásico is relentless.
“Which team do you want to win El Clásico this weekend?“
“I don’t care, I support Villarreal.”
“Yeah, but which one would you rather win? Real Madrid?”
“Villarreal. We play Leganes on Saturday too.”
“Okay. Barcelona then?”
[Real Sociedad released a video parodying this with the hashtag “YoNoTengoSegundoEquipo” which roughly translates to “I don’t have a second team.”]
And it’s a real shame that the attitude here in Spain is like that. We’re talking about one of the best games you can see in a domestic league anywhere in the world. It doesn’t need the excessive hype because the teams themselves are enough to ‘sell’ it. Even casual fans in countries where football isn’t the biggest sport know about this match. Not because they read it about it for days beforehand but because it features two of the biggest sides in world football. Why do we need to be force-fed needless news and speculation about it 24/7?
It reaches a point where it feels like you’re insulting the intelligence of every fan who isn’t emotionally involved in El Clasico. I suppose fans in England might’ve said the same a few weeks ago when Sky Sports ran the ‘Red Monday’ stuff but even still, it didn’t mean that other news was simply discarded out of hand. These games should be enjoyed and looked forward to by neutrals as well, not made into another example of ‘Them vs Us’.
“I don’t believe I’m the only one who is tired of the games of this magnitude,” a fan told me. “We’re tired of the bipartisanship in the league and the privileges these two sides have compared to the rest.”
However, in saying that, I still think most people in Spain will watch El Clasico. Not because of the hype but simply because it’s a clash between two good sides and, more often than not, it’s an enjoyable encounter. There’s also a lot at stake, especially for Barcelona, as a victory for Real Madrid would give them a nine-point lead. Is that potentially too big of a gap to make up with nearly half a season gone?
A Barcelona victory would close the gap to just three points and should Sevilla and Atletico Madrid also pick up wins, four points would separate the top four. Three points for the white side of Madrid could potentially leave their main rivals in fourth place should results elsewhere go against them. It would also put huge pressure on Luis Enrique as speculation continues to swirl that he’ll walk away from the club at the end of the season.
Zidane answered his critics with a victory at the Vicente Calderon but that ‘lucky’ tag popped up again after Madrid struggled to see off a poor Sporting Gijon side last weekend. Make no mistake about it, should he lose to Barcelona then a few would begin to question him, as ridiculous as that is. Any error, tactical or personnel wise, is scrutinised in El Clásico. There’s a desperation amongst Madrid fans to win LaLiga this season and an injury crisis won’t be accepted as an excuse.
It’ll be a fascinating battle which will have a knock-on effect to all of the sides near the top of the table. Although it would be nice if those other sides were remembered a little bit more.
Remember LaLiga is for life, not just for El Clásico.