How Spain’s Political Past has Shaped El Clásico

Several footballing rivalries across the world transcend sport, but few breach the stage where football is just a side note in an illustriously intertwined storyline. The hostilities between Real Madrid and Barcelona began centuries before the football clubs even existed, before dictatorships suppressed autonomous regions, before Guardiola and Mourinho arrived. El Clásico’s history runs in parallel with politic powers who have shaped the animosity between the two regions, cities and football clubs.

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Not many footballing rivalries are rooted in the 17th century. In 1640, the state of Catalonia rebelled against the Spanish king and formed their own republic under French protection. Troops from Madrid were sent to the east coast and thus sparked a war that would go on for over a decade. A war ending in defeat for Catalonia with the army from the capital newly occupying the region. Some decades later, Catalonia was stripped of its power with the Spanish state abolishing their right to their own laws and language. Catalonia officially became part of Spain.

 

After a period of Catalan nationalism at the start of the 20th century, General Francisco Franco came to power after the Spanish Civil War and began one of the most ferocious dictatorships in recent history. Autonomous regions like Catalonia were stifled as Franco’s Spain-as-one ideology came to fruition. Franco tried to rid Catalonia of its identity. Meanwhile, on the sporting front, Franco maintained his support for Real Madrid as Los Blancos went from strength to strength during the dictatorship. Real Madrid embodied Franco’s oppressive regime while Barcelona became the rebellious people’s club of the country.

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By the time of Franco’s death in 1975 and the end of the dictatorship, Madrid had amassed 16 La Liga titles, 13 Copa Del Rey’s and 6 European Cups. The club’s power ran in parallel to Franco’s in Spain, they were the most successful, most supported (out of fear?) and therefore the best. Barcelona had managed 9 league titles by the time Catalonia was restored as an autonomous region in 1979. Through the dark days of the dictatorship, the citizens of Catalonia saw their football club as so much more than just a football club, hence the phrase ‘mes que un club’ was born and etched into its history as well as the Camp Nou’s seats.

 

To this day, pointers to each club’s politic past still remain. The Estadio Santiago Bernabéu is named after Real Madrid’s former president who fought on Franco’s nationalist side during the Civil War. Barcelona’s shirts always bare the Catalan flag while their away kits are often yellow and red. Calls for independence are still heard behind the goal on the North side of the Camp Nou during matches. Those calls became louder and more meaningful around the time of Catalonia’s attempted independence referendum in 2017.

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Tensions on the pitch between players, managers and referees are evident in every footballing rivalry across the world. None carry the political significance, the historical symbolism or the competitive importance of El Clásico, and we haven’t even talked about the football yet.

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