totalBarça Exclusive: El Clásico: Barcelona vs Madrid – Football’s Greatest Rivalry

totalBarça Exclusive: El Clásico: Barcelona vs Madrid – Football’s Greatest Rivalry

After the success of totalBarça’s Twitter contest for Graham Hunter’s updated book, we were contacted by another writer of another Barça book. Richard Fitzpatrick recently wrote a book we would all likely want to get our hands on. The book is called El Clásico: Barcelona vs Madrid – Football’s Greatest Rivalry.

Drooling yet? We are.

totalBarça’s very own Padraig had the opportunity to interview Richard to discuss the motivation behind the book, Irish heritage effect on football, and being a current resident of Barcelona.

We all know Barcelona FC is more than a club. Is El Clásico more than a match?

Yes, you only have to look at what happens in Spain for the two weeks around the match. The place goes bananas. The players who I interviewed for the book told me that there is nothing like it in other club rivalries around the world (from their previous club experiences) in terms of public interest and media focus. What surprised me was the way in which the rivalry splits the country. It’s basically a proxy war in a divided land. Unlike in, say, British cities, football fans around Spain will support Barcelona or Real Madrid as well as their hometown team. I couldn’t believe it when I discovered that more people support Real Madrid in Seville than support Sevilla and Real Betis combined. It would be like Chelsea having more fans in Manchester than Man U and Man City fans combined.

What inspired you to write the book?

There were two main reasons. First, I watched the 2010 World Cup in the bars of Barcelona, having moved to the city six months earlier. I was surprised at how muted the celebrations were to Spain’s eventual victory in the city, especially given the fact that seven of Spain’s starting XI in the final were from FC Barcelona, a record for the highest number of players from a single club side on a World Cup winning team; the Spanish press had coined the term “Barceloña”, a play on the words “Barcelona” and “España” to denote the side. The Barça fan, as it was said at the time, was watching Spain’s progress out of the corner of his eye. I wanted to explore this ambivalence.

Second, Jose Mourinho was appointed as manager of Real Madrid on the eve of the World Cup. I knew, to use his own parlance, that he’d add pepper to the fun. I wanted to see what impact he would have on this ancient Barça-Madrid rivalry (sure enough he became one of the greatest hate figures in the annals of el clásico). When I scratched around, I discovered there had only ever been one book written on the rivalry and that was in Spanish back in 1996 so I was off.

How does an Irish man fall in love with Spanish football with the Premier League practically on his doorstep?

I grew up grazing on English football. I’m a Liverpool fan, but circumstances brought me to live in Spain so it’s been easy to fall in love with Spanish football, and I had these loose connections regardless. The 1982 World Cup in Spain, for example, was the first World Cup that I can remember watching as a kid; the memory of Gerry Armstrong’s unlikely winning goal for Northern Ireland against Spain at the Mestalla stands out in particular. Also a family friend worked as an au pair during the 1960s for Alfredo di Stefano (and I was always reading books about soccer history so it was vaguely exotic to know her), and then in the 1980s I watched as various stars left the English league, like Steve Archibald, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes, to play with Barcelona and who couldn’t have been enamoured with the verve of Cruyff’s Dream Team in the 1990s?

There are specific things I love about Spanish football like its stadiums, a lot of which are old and charming and the Bernabeu is for me the finest stadium in the world to watch a football match, with its steep stands hanging over the pitch like “the teeth of a monster”. I love the technical skill of La Liga players compared to, say, in the English Premier League where often players struggle to put three passes together and obviously it’s a unique moment in Spanish football when its galactico players are joined by Spain’s golden generation. I have one caveat, however: the league is a two horse race. Last year third placed Valencia finished closer to the relegation zone than it did to Barcelona in second place; Real Madrid banged in four goals for every one they conceded. I find this duopoly deeply dispiriting.

There are many sporting events charged with political tension for example the Glasgow derby. In what way is El Clásico steeped in politics and issues of national identity?

Both teams represent constituencies in Spain, with Barcelona a kind of unarmed army for Catalan separatism, and Real Madrid, especially during the isolation years of the Franco dictatorship, as standard bearers of Spain’s essence overseas. FC Barcelona are overt in their political positioning, which irks a lot of people around Spain. Real Madrid, meanwhile, are treated as the establishment team, most noticeably in their coverage on Spain’s national television station, which is all puff and smiling. It’s an oversimplification, however, to suggest that FC Barcelona represent leftwing Spain and Catalan independence, with Real Madrid as the right wing team. Both teams draw support from a broad base of political sympathies, and of course they both have huge international followings, about 300 million fans around the world each, which dilutes the internecine, ethnic factor.

Do some Catalans consider Barcelona to be their national team?

Yes, as Joan Laporta, the former president of Barcelona said to me in exasperation, he couldn’t support the Catalan team in the World Cup; hence Catalans look on FC Barcelona, in his words, as “a symbolic church for our country”, and the best propaganda tool for promoting the image of Catalonia to the world. The interesting thing for me as an Irish person, who can see echoes between the separatist sentiment of Catalans and the situation in Northern Ireland is that it is wrong to equate Catalonia with FC Barcelona. There are lots of football fans in Catalonia who don’t support Barca, who support Espanyol, for example. There’s even about a million Real Madrid fans in Catalonia. You have extremists on both sides in Catalonia, those who either want independence or those who vehemently want to preserve a united Spain. If you talk to the third group, the majority of people who are sandwiched in the middle, they support Spain when it plays international matches but they would prefer if they were able to support a Catalan team. They’re happy to live with this dual identity.

After which game were the celebrations more intense in Barcelona? The Champions League Victory in 2011 or the Spanish World Cup victory in 2010?

I was in London for the final of the 2011 Champions League final and didn’t get back to Barcelona until late on the Monday night but I can assure you the celebrations would have been more boisterous for the Champions League win than for the World Cup win the previous year. There was a fiesta atmosphere in the city in July 2010 when Spain won the World Cup but it was mainly guiris (Northern European tourists and expats) and people just enjoying the chance at a street party rather than when Barcelona win the league or a Champions League when you can feel the electricity around the centre of the city, with lots of clashes with the police, firecrackers on the streets, cars being tipped over, loud bangers going off, like as if the indians were coming.

El clásico has been the arena where some of the greatest footballing talent has been unveiled to the world. Is there one player that could be considered the greatest of them all?

My favourite player is probably Diego Maradona because he was so outrageous on the pitch. I always loved the elegance of Zidane and a lot of older people in Spain still swear that Alfredo di Stefano was the greatest player ever, greater even than his contemporary Pele, but I think history books will record that Lionel Messi is the greatest of them all. Unless he gets badly injured or does a Tiger Woods in his social life, he’s going to leave an incredible legacy. He’s only 25 and look at what he’s achieved already.

For me the notable thing about Messi is that when Barca flew back to Barcelona after winning the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley (which was an unbelievable symphony, given the stage and the opposition) his teammates were carousing on the plane, cracking open bottles of cava and there he sat playing a PlayStation (a friend said he was probably playing himself playing football). He doesn’t have any other distractions and he plays with the unadulterated joy of a kid. You can’t seem him going off the rails like Maradona or Ronaldinho.

What would be your ultimate Barcelona and Real Madrid 11 be if you could pick players from different eras?

An impossible question! Every Ballon d’Or winner since the mid 1990s has played with either of the two teams, not to mention the dozens of great players that went before them like Stoichkov, Romario, Laudrup, Schuster, Neeskans, Kubala, Puskas, Didi, Kopa… For what’s it worth, I’d pick an attacking side, maybe with three in the back, with Casillas just nudging it for the goalkeeper’s spot in front of Zubizarreta. I’d have Roberto Carlos making raids up the left, with Fernando Hierro (Gerard Pique’s favourite player as a kid, which is saying something) in the middle flanked by Carles Puyol on the right to add some more solidity. I’d have four across the middle. Zidane, Ronaldinho, Cruyff and Maradona. And upfront I’d go with Di Stefano and Messi. I know people will gripe that I’ve left out the two Ronaldos, Figo and Rivaldo, and, of course, Iniesta and Xavi but what can you do? There isn’t even space for the only Spanish player, Luis Suarez, to ever win a Ballon d’Or on the team.

What was your favourite Clasico?

I’ve been to some great ones over the last few years. Some of the Spanish Supercopa games were brilliant, basically because the players were a bit more relaxed I guess. The 5-0 Barca win in November 2010 stands out. It was such a master class but I guess my most memorable game, for sheer drama, was Barcelona’s 2-0 win at the Bernabeu in the semi final of the 2011 Champions League. The football was dreadful, apart from Messi’s famous slalom through Real Madrid’s defense for the second goal, but the dust up between both teams at half time, the sending off of Pepe (unjust I thought) and Mourinho, Mourinho’s histrionic (“Por que?”) performance in the post-match press conference, the irate reaction of Real Madrid’s fans, Guardiola’s outburst on the eve of the match when he sarcastically called Mourinho “the fucking man”. It was all captivating.

Who would you vote for in this year’s Balon D’or? Why?

I’d probably give it to Messi. He beat Gerd Muller’s scoring record for a season last May. He finished as top scorer of the Champions League again, the fourth time in four seasons. And he’s continued apace this season. He just does things (consistently) that Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta or Casillas can’t match. I mean to score five goals in a knock out match in the Champions League, as he did against Bayer Leverkusen last March, is preposterous.

Any predictions for Tito’s debut year or the upcoming season?

He’s doing well so far obviously but I think the jury’s out on him. It’s too early to make an assessment. I think February will be a key month. It’s often when teams have a dip in form, Guardiola noted one time. Barca will, I think, meet Real Madrid in the semi final of the Copa del Rey at the end of January. Were Barcelona to lose there, and wobble a bit in the league, the knives would be out for Vilanova. We know it only takes two defeats for a crisis to set in at the Camp Nou. The pressure is so intense. Only two managers served longer terms than Guardiola.

Cruyff had a heart attack in the job and never managed a team again, while Rijkaard ended up moving out of his family home into a hotel for his last, chaotic season in charge. By his own admission, his nerves were shot. We have yet to see what Vilanova’s mettle is like. Eight points is a healthy lead over Real Madrid, however, so if I were a betting man I’d put money on Barcelona prevailing in the league but falling short in the Champions League. There’s something a bit unconvincing (despite all the league wins) about them to date this season.

El Clasico-Bloomsbury

If you are interested in purchasing El Clásico: Barcelona vs Madrid – Football’s Greatest Rivalry, you can find it on Amazon here and here. It is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Thank-you to Richard Fitzpatrick for contacting us and sharing his words, wisdom, and experiences with our community. If you are interested in hearing from him, you can follow him on Twitter here: @Richard_Fitz.

Who knows, perhaps there will be some free copies of his new book on totalBarça someday…