Barcelona’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (2L) celebrates his third goal with teammates during the Spanish league football match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on October 28, 2018. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)
El Clasico is the biggest game in world football. This is not a subjective statement either — there is simply nothing compared to it in terms of impact and feeling, significance and consequence. Millions the world over watch Barcelona and Real Madrid battle for, not just footballing superiority, but the very soul of a nation.
I was part of a group of 15 journalists invited by La Liga to witness the first Clasico of the season, and we were given an insight into the passion with which football is lived in Spain.
That these are the two biggest teams in the world means the stakes are remarkably high, and so following Barcelona’s rampant display and humiliating 5-1 defeat of their arch rivals this past weekend, it came as no surprise at all that Real Madrid moved to dismiss their manager, Julen Lopetegui.
For the Catalan giants, it was another huge blow to Spanish nationalism. It is on the pitch, in lieu of in the political structure, that their yearning for Catalan independence finds expression.
The atmosphere inside Camp Nou – Barcelona’s sprawling edifice which there are plans afoot to refurbish and expand, from its current 99,354 capacity to 105,000 — was charged with sentiment, some of which boiled over into abuse of Madrid’s captain Sergio Ramos.
Outside it though, in the aftermath of the victory, fans from the region, and from all around the world, celebrated the triumph like they would a major trophy. For them, it was more than just one game.
It transcends just 90 minutes for La Liga, being the league’s flagship season after season. As the dominance of both teams has grown, the scale of the Clasico has risen also. Both sides line up internationals from all over the world — no fewer than 10 nationalities were represented on Sunday – a command loyalty and followership to an ever-increasing degree. La Liga also leverages on it for all its worth.
The trip also gave us the opportunity to understand the core values and working mechanisms of clubs like RCD Espanyol, FC Barcelona, and Girona FC.
As Barcelona upholds the banner for continued Catalan defiance, they cast a very large shadow. The more modest duo of Espanyol and Girona inhabit this shadow, and they have, in rather novel fashion, opted to forge their own path to stay relevant in the region.
Espanyol’s unique philosophy is to build toward an entirely home-grown team in a few years. In their minds, it is practically impossible to get close to their big city rivals, either in terms of clout or success, and so this is their victory. Barcelona has the renowned La Masia, of course, as well as the very top of the line in training facilities, but lately, youngsters have found their path to the first team blocked due to the global appeal of the club.
It is hard to see a way into the team when the first team can shell out the sort of sum it did to bring in Ousmane Dembele before he had even turned 21.
“When the young players see multimillion euros signings like Dembele and Coutinho it makes them feel a little upset,” admits Sergio Vallecillo, Head of Methodology at La Masia.
“But it also serves as motivation for them to do better and not feel discouraged.
“La Masia is home to the best young players raised in the philosophy of the biggest club in the world,” Juan José Luque, Director of Residence La Masía added.
This is the chink in their armour, the avenue by which Espanyol could upstage the Barça juggernaut.
Girona, on their part, is reaping the reward of a partnership with Manchester City. This has seen them acquire talented prospects from the English side, as well as enjoy the residual visibility that comes with being associated with them. It entails a lot of loan deals, meaning the club can often seem like a layover rather than a harbour. That, however, is a small price to pay for quality and a level of competitiveness that their modest resources would ordinarily be unable to provide.
So, it is very much a complex ecosystem of varying approaches and interests, all of which have found a means of coexisting.
Barcelona, the lifeblood of the region and, by virtue of its sheer size, the major income earner; Espanyol seeking to win the hearts of the local population; Girona seeking ingenious ways to compete.