Inside El Clásico, the World's Biggest and Most Bitter Soccer Rivalry

Here's why Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona is such a huge deal.
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Andres Iniesta Lujan (L) of FC Barcelona battles for the ball with Nacho Fernandez of Real Madrid.

Andres Iniesta Lujan (L) of FC Barcelona battles for the ball with Nacho Fernandez of Real Madrid.

La Policía have sealed off the streets one mile from the Camp Nou stadium. On the carless Avinguda Diagonal, a raucous maroon and yellow scarf parade streams west; helicopters buzz overhead. I count beading red cans of Estrella in every third hand. From the vaunted coliseum walls battle chants can be heard echoing, like some weird hymn.

I’ve never experienced anything like this because, well, I’m an American. I can list NBA rosters without blinking. I worship at the Altar of the NFL every Sunday in autumn. But the closest this sort of transcendent voltage mirrors in the States is maybe an SEC/Big Ten football game. As we approach the FC Barcelona stadium, there are even drumlines cracking the cool autumn air.

We are here to experience El Clásico, the bi-yearly soccer match pitting two of the greatest teams on Earth: Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Together these clubs have won 13 out of the last 14 LaLiga Championships and the last five Champions League European Cups. It is, arguably, the biggest soccer game in the world.

Half a billion viewers will tune into watch this game, spread across the planet. It marks a level of global obsession that many Americans simply cannot comprehend. 

When the Patriots overcame a 25-3 deficit over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI to notch the greatest comeback in the history of American football, there weren’t stadiums full of futbalistas in Kolkata losing their minds, or São Paulo or Lagos—and most definitely not in Miami.

 But after this match you could find videos of all the above online. Even if old guys in too much makeup tell us the Super Bowl is broadcast to over 7,000 nations, we all know our touchdowns are not heard around the world.

Croatian superstar FIFA Player of the Year Luka Modrić tries to escape the swarming Barca defense.

Croatian superstar FIFA Player of the Year Luka Modrić tries to escape the swarming Barca defense.

I follow the mass of Barça jerseys into the stadium and find my seats through the buzzing clot. As the teams walk onto the pitch the concrete floor vibrates from the Cant del Barça chorus, FC Barcelona’s official anthem. Holding up colored plastic tiles, a hive of 95,000 humans transform the entirety of Camp Nou into a shield of maroon, yellow and navy. Then, a section across the pitch unfurls a giant gold banner: “Only dictatorships jail peaceful political leaders." Hold up—wait, what?

Suddenly, it is kickoff. Nine claps fill the air, punctuated with cries of "BARCA!" It doesn't take long, about 10 minutes, before Barcelona’s left back Jordi Alba gets a free run up the sideline and floats a long, graceful arc in front of the goal to Philippe Coutinho. 

The path seems almost open, the goal one giant empty safety net, and the high-priced Coutinho punches the ball through as the stadium erupts. It is a Kyrie-to-LeBron alley-oop, Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown deep post. Kareem Hunt blazes up the middle of the field for an 80-yard run, burning a scorched scar through the grass. Camp Nou convulses in collective release.

Only minutes later, the same keeper—Real’s Thibaut Courtois—soars through the air like a Marvel hero, body stretched to its limit, crossing the entire length of the goal in a single leap to swat a surefire score to safety. One moment the heel, the next the hero. The Beautiful Game does not disappoint.

Celebrations in the Camp Nou.

Celebrations in the Camp Nou.

Behind both nets, Barça’s lightheaded zealots do not rest for the length of the match. It is an ocean of waving Catalan and FC Barcelona flags, and sigils of various independent fan clubs. Every team has these superfans, or ultras, that would make the Oakland Raiders’ Black Hole nod with respect. 

"Sergio Ramos! Hijo de puta!" they charmingly chant throughout the match. Barcelona hates every single player in a white Real Madrid jersey, but they loath no one more than team captain Ramos. He is the scorn of their burning ire. In the stands the hatred is palpable. Corporeal. He is their Tom Brady.

Of course, there's a lot of history on this pitch. Over a century's worth, notably through one of Spain's most painful periods where the game symbolized the division of Franco's dictatorship. Central to the blood feud between the two FC’s is their shared history, what each represent: Real Madrid, the beacon of Spanish unity (and at times, Franco nationalist propaganda), and FC Barcelona, the worldwide symbol of Catalan culture.

Which explains the banner unfurled before kickoff. Exactly a year ago from this game, a movement in Catalan declared independence from Spain and its leaders were jailed. It's not an exaggeration to say that for some in this fight for independence the football pitch becomes their most global field of battle.

Barcelona's Luis Suárez and and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos go to war.

Barcelona's Luis Suárez and and Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos go to war.

But others shudder at the mixing of politics and fútbol. "It’s not a big deal," famed Catalan chef Jordi Jacas would tell me a couple days before the match, downplaying the heated political rhetoric. But he does concede a point. 

"In Barcelona, during the entire Franco era, we lived 40 years under dictator oppression," he explains. "And the only area in Catalan where my father could go and yell Visca Catalunya! [“long live free Catalan”] was in the Campo Nou. It was the one place where nothing would happen to you! 

“So Barca in its entire existence has been the club that people immediately identify as Catalan. I’m not saying one is good and one is bad, I’m just saying I think Madrid has a very particular and very concrete way of being, and I think we have a way of being.” 

But at this moment, in this stadium, it is hard to concentrate on socio-politics and the wounds of a nation, no matter how deeply they may cut. Now is not a time for history lessons — it is time for football.

Luis Suárez works his magic around Real Madrid en route to a rare hat trick.

Luis Suárez works his magic around Real Madrid en route to a rare hat trick.

And when Luis Suárez scores the second goal off a penalty kick, putting the home team up 2-0, the stands around me transform into a foaming sea of madness. Camp Nou trembles with chants of Uruguay! Uruguay! Uruguay! Before the day was done, the polarizing superstar/habitual biter would score two more goals — notching a hat trick that had fans delirious in their celebrations.

Despite Barcelona missing it’s greatest player and arguable GOAT, Lionel Messi, the game ends up a brutally lopsided affair. Barça seemingly scores every 10 minutes en route to a 5-1 bludgeoning. It is by far their worst defeat in years; Real were never vanquished like this in the Clásico with Cristiano Ronaldo — Madrid’s erstwhile chiseled talisman who left this year to join Italy’s Juventus. 

But even the loss of Messi’s foil (and other arguable ‘world’s best’) can’t completely explain this epic collapse. The Guardian will call Real Madrid’s showing “insipid”, The Sun “toothless”. It is a most precipitous fall for the Madrid squad after winning the last three Champions League titles with Ronaldo — the only team in Europe to ever win a threepeat. The loss drops them into mediocrity.

The agony of defeat.

The agony of defeat.

The actual professional sports writers amongst us call the game “historic”, the contest generally described, in technical terms, as “an ass-whipping.” Everyone agrees the defeat is going to cost to Real manager Julen Lopetegu his job — which it does, less than 24 hours later. Needless to say, there are a lot of smiling faces as the crowd rejoices in victory.

As we all soak it in, two guys tap me on the shoulder and ask me to take their picture. The pair traveled all the way here from Santiago, Chile, for three days to attend their first Clásico. As I take their photo, stretching maroon FC Barcelona scarves under the bright stadium lights, they share the dumbfounded look of men lost in a post-coital fog, bludgeoned by euphoria. 

The home team celebrates a 5-1 clobbering of their hated rivals

The home team celebrates a 5-1 clobbering of their hated rivals

“It is a dream,” says 30-year old Santiago when I ask them how they’re feeling. “I see Camp Nou every week on television. I cannot believe I am here.” 

I mention that somehow I was hoping for a closer score, an epic comeback, something akin to what an American would call a great game. But for them, simply watching Real Madrid humiliated within these historic stadium walls was more than enough. 

“I have dreamed about this day for twenty years,” Jorge tells me, stars blinking in his eyes. “I cannot describe it.”