A civil war masquerading as football: Why Barcelona vs Real Madrid is more than a game

For legions of fans the Spanish Civil War never really ended: every season it flares up again when Barcelona play Real Madrid. And as each side tries to outdo the other with star players and footballing excellence, the fixture has become the world's most keenly savoured club match. Andy Mitten reported for the September 2003 FourFourTwo magazine

When Real Madrid beat Barcelona to sign David Beckham, Barça fans could only shrug their shoulders. Such is the depressed state of their club that few in Catalunya mustered any outrage.

It hasn’t always been this way. But then there has never been such a gulf in success between Spain’s two biggest clubs and historically ferocious rivals. The Barça-Madrid rivalry has always run far, far deeper than football. The clubs represent two languages, two peoples and, in the view of many Catalans, two countries.

And each of those two countries invests enormous national pride and vast sums in their flagship clubs. Which is why the game they call El Derbi remains, whatever the relative positions of the two sides, probably the most emotionally charged yet glamorous domestic club fixture in the world.

Figo's homecoming

The stadium is hard to fill, and even Barca’s recent average gate of 65,000 means that there are typically 33,000 empty seats

November 23 2002, the Nou Camp, Barcelona: Despite what the TV commentary clichés say, the stadium is no cauldron - for many games the atmosphere is forgettable. Its 98,000 seats spread over three vast tiers may make it European football’s largest citadel, but its size can work against it. The stadium is hard to fill, and even Barca’s recent average gate of 65,000 means that there are typically 33,000 empty seats.

Aside from the ultras who stand behind both goals, Barça’s match-going fans are staunchly middle-class. A typical season ticket costs less than half its equivalent at Old Trafford or Anfield, but watching games on TV with your mates in a bar is more popular.

Locals joke that the stadium's loudest noise comes at half time when Burberry-clad ladies unwrap the tin foil off cured ham sandwiches. Either that or when news comes through that Madrid are losing. Which isn’t often these days.

The Nou Camp does match the hype a couple of times a season, though. When the Catalan national side (Jordi Cruyff meets Pep Guardiola) plays one of its non-FIFA recognised matches, the stadium is a feverish amphitheatre of Catalan flags. The other occasion is when Madrid come to town.

Camp Nou is packed out ahead of Real Madrid's visit to Barcelona

Scientists have measured the noise level before kick-off as louder than a 747 at take-off. It hurts. Before Barca’s stirring anthem is played, the teams are read out over the PA. “Makelele, Solari...” then there’s a purposeful pause “...Figo”.

The volume peaks with ear-splitting shrillness -  hell hath no fury like a football club whose star player has defected to its most hated rival - and then again when Madrid’s starting 11 run out to the centre circle and applaud the crowd. “The sons of bitches are taking the p**s,” howls a gent nearby, not a year shy of 70.

Spain has four national daily sports (ie. football) papers. Two are Madrid-based, two Barcelona, and one of the latter has choreographed thousands of cards that are held up to display the word ‘Barça’. It’s impressive.

Ronaldo, who scored 43 goals in one season under Bobby Robson at Barca, is absent, officially with a cold, with speculation that he doesn’t want to return and upset Barca fans

The game starts with the pitch enveloped in smoke, the stench of sulphur reaching even up to the third tier from where the players look like ants. Anti-Madrid flags festoon the stadium, one, in English, reading, “Catalonia is not Spain”. Today the rival club presidents sit next to each other, although this isn’t always the case.

As a spectacle, it’s fantastic. Less enthralling are the monkey noises that greet Roberto Carlos’s every touch. Many Catalans not joining in merely snigger. Racism still plagues Spanish football. Every Figo touch is predictably booed, the Portuguese cutting a forlorn figure.

Ronaldo, who scored 43 goals in one season under Bobby Robson at Barça, is absent, officially with a cold, with speculation that he doesn’t want to return and upset Barca fans. Raul later volunteers, “He had a fever, I think”. But the wink that accompanies the quote says it all.

Whisky and a pig's head

With 16 minutes left and the game goalless, Figo attempts to take a corner in front of a sea of contorted young faces the Boixor Nair (crazy boys) ultras. Objects are hurled towards him, and after remonstrating with the referee, he eventually takes an in-swinger, which results in another corner on the opposite side.

As he walks another gauntlet towards the opposite corner, another barrage of beer cans, lighters and plastic bottles rains down, plus an empty glass bottle of J&B whisky (the company were later said to be delighted with the free advertising) and the head of a pig. Yes, that’s right, a pig’s head.

The television screens show several Barca directors laughing, grins which fade as the players are led off the field by the referee to “cool things down”. The Boixos are delighted, while others wonder why the safety nets behind each goal, constructed precisely to prevent objects being thrown on the pitch, are not in place.

Barcelona showing no affection towards Luis Figo on his return

The teams re-emerge 10 minutes later and Madrid get another corner which Figo goes to take. Again the missiles start, but this time the Boixos have gone too far for most Barça fans and whistles of derision resound around the stadium. Enough is enough.

The Real Madrid players play their part too. Figo hardly seems in a hurry to take corners and when Guti is substituted he sarcastically applauds the crowd and walks off so slowly that the referee chases him to issue a booking.

The game ends goalless, with Barça the better side and Madrid unable to claim a league victory at the Nou Camp for the first time in 19 years. Players shake hands and Figo shrugs his shoulders to some of his ex-team mates before a wry smile appears. He’s survived.

Figo provoked the situation. He walked over to the corner really slowly, picked up the bottle slowly, went back to the corner and all this consciously and deliberately

- Barcelona manager Louis van Gaal

“We were not the villains,” declared the (now-ex) Barca president Joan Gaspart after the game. “I don’t like it when people come to our house and provoke us.” “Figo provoked the situation,” added the Barça manager, the surly Louis van Gaal.

“He walked over to the corner really slowly, picked up the bottle slowly, went back to the corner and all this consciously and deliberately, without the referee doing anything to stop it.” Later, the official Barça website quoted two of their Argentinian players, Riquelme and Bonano, saying that the vitriol “wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary in Argentina.” So that’s OK, then.

Madrid hit back. Jorge Valdano, Madrid’s cerebral sporting director, retorted that “Figo taking corners is not provocation” whilst Figo himself commented, “I don’t know if Gaspart is taking the piss. As for Van Gaal, I’m surprised. He never said anything about my corners when he was my manager for two years and I saved his arse more than once.” Barcelona were ordered to close their ground for two games, a ban that has still to be commuted.

A passion of hatred

“I will always hate Madrid. There’s just something about them that gets up my nose. I would rather the ground opened up and swallowed me than accept a job with them. In fact, I really do not like speaking about them because it makes me want to vomit.”

Not the words of a febrile Barça ultra, but of Hristo Stoichkov, the tetchy Bulgarian striker whose sublime skills thrilled Catalunya for much of the 1990s. The 1994 European Footballer of The Year tells it how he sees it. And how he is loved for it.

Wearing Barca’s proudly sponsor-free carmine and blue striped shirt, he backed up his words with the type of unflinching commitment every fan demands in games against their biggest rivals.

Stoichkov: Not a fan of Real Madrid

Against Real Madrid, he scored extravagant last-minute winners and received two red cards, not to mention a two-month suspension for stamping on the referee’s foot. As Stoichkov's fleet heels lost some of their power and he became a more peripheral figure, new coach Louis van Gaal started him just once in his first season. Against Madrid.

Easily Barça’s best player and European Player of the Year in 2000, he moved for a then world record £38m fee after signing a speculative deal with Florentino Perez, a Bernabeu presidential challenger

Stoichkov didn’t disappoint. To this day he remains a hero. Stoichkov has been honoured by two of Barca’s 1,490 penyas (supporters’ clubs) taking his name. Just six of the club’s many foreign players have been granted this honour. Gary Lineker has one, Ladislao Kubala and Stoichkov two. Only Johan Cruyff - the man who revitalised Barca on the field in the ’70s and did even better as manager in the ’90s when his ‘Dream Team’ won four successive championships and the European Cup - has more, with three.

There was another foreigner with two, but Luis Figo was quickly dropped after events in the summer of 2000.

Figo’s move to Real Madrid still has repercussions. Easily Barça’s best player and European Player of the Year in 2000, he moved for a then world record £38m fee after signing a speculative deal with Florentino Perez, a Bernabeu presidential challenger.

Given that Madrid had just won their eighth European Cup under the incumbent club president, few gave Perez a chance, but the influencial construction magnate who lists the Spanish Prime Minister as a friend promised the impossible: vote for me and not only will I clear this club’s preposterous £200m debt, but I’ll also deliver the best player from our rivals. Perez was soon president, each year delivering to Madrid another franchise player - Figo in 2000, Zidane ’01, Ronaldo ’02, Beckham ’03.

Perez and Figo exchange laughter after Figo's world record transfer

In Barcelona there’s a widespread conviction that the Madrid-based authorities, both regional and national, have assisted the club because they see them as a major draw for the city. To clear Real’s £200m debt, Florentino Perez called on his contacts in high places.

He negotiated a deal to sell their prestigiously located training ground, which they'd acquired from the local council for next to nothing 30 years before. Admirable council support or unfair assistance? Barça, of course, have at times enjoyed an equally cosy relationship with the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government.

NEXT: Mutual hostility