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El Clasico and the fight for Catalunya: How football divides a nation

Written by: Abhranil Roy

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Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have a long history which is intrinsically linked to the nation's political past.

The continent of Australia has been home to mankind’s oldest surviving species: The Aborigines. This may come as a shock to many, but what is even more shocking is the fact that the knowledge we have of their beginnings has caused scholars to date their origin to somewhere between forty to sixty thousand years back. The Aborigines are comprised of over 600 different tribes, each speaking a tongue unbeknownst to the other yet, much like the rest of the world, all of them are united in their belief in a Supreme Being, or God despite having no physical proof of such a creature’s existence.

There is something about being human that is truly terrifying. By its very nature, man is a destructive being capable of unleashing hell on itself and everything around it. As such, man has always sought for absolution for his crimes or emotional support for his solitary existence, be it in creating an Almighty or in developing nationalistic identities or even, playing sport. While the first one will be a topic of discussion at a later date, it is the second and third that combine to make up the content of this article.

While documenting the Aborigines, travellers have found that these primal also engage in sporting activities, the most common of which is kicking a round-shaped object (usually a fruit) to one another in what probably was how football was played in ancient China. Interestingly, the same concept, albeit in a much more modern form is prevalent in just about everywhere else in the world as well, and therein lays another inherent connection between the seemingly forgotten civilization and the fast-paced, memes-driven 21st century.

The Spanish National Team during the late 1920s

Football has been a sport of beauty for decades now. It has connected people, cultures and even momentarily halted civil wars, but that has not always been the case. The game has also been marred with violence, political agendas and vanity and that is nowhere more obvious as it is in the beautiful country of Spain.

Ever since the Spanish War of Secession in 1700, the nation has been caught in constant tug-of-war between Cataluña, the state that was annexed to Spain after the aforementioned War and the rest of the original country. This tension reached its peak during the Spanish Civil War, when the ultra-right-wing fascist dictator General Francisco Franco came into power in 1939 following a 3-year-long battle. His victory was aided by the incumbency of the-then Spanish Government, but it was also the result of an allegedly unforgivable betrayal by the Spanish city of Madrid to the Catalan city of Barcelona.

The arrival of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff spiced up the El Clasico fixtures

Both the cities, home to two of the world’s most elite football clubs had taken up arms to defend itself against the oppressive regime that had begun to engulf the nation when the War kicked off in 1936. Like brothers in arms, Madridistas and Catalans both joined hands to ensure that fascist cronies would destroy the country’s democratic integrity. It did not work out in that manner, as Franco’s fascist comrades laid waste to the cities and ensured that his regime would be instated as the last word in the country. It was from that moment onwards that the narrative between the two cities would change forever and one that would see the dwellers in each city loath the other with hitherto unforeseen hatred.

Right after the breakdown of the resistance, the city of Madrid apparently surrendered itself to the ideals of Franco’s fascism. Real Madrid CF, as a football club turned out to be no different either, with their officials eager to erase all connections to their democratic past. This is especially noteworthy when taken into account that Rafael Sanchez-Guerra and Antonio Ortega, Madrid’s presidents during the Civil War have become nothing more than footnotes in their history.

Both these men were active in organizing militia against Francho and openly proclaimed their opposition toward’s the dictator’s policies. The former was exiled to Paris while the latter was murdered by fascist cronies after being arrested, so it is a shock to see that despite being well-documented in Spanish history, they are offered nothing more than a passing tribute in the Real Madrid website. On the other hand, Josep Sunyol, Barca’s “martyr president” who shared the same fate as Ortega during the early days of the Civil War is still remembered by the club’s supporters. In many ways, this refusal to accept their past is what drove one of the very first wedges between the two clubs.

During the Franco era, Real Madrid trounced Barca 11-1

As the years progressed, Real Madrid CF found itself in a unique position: being Francho’s most favorite propaganda machine. Either willingly or unwillingly, the club was repeatedly portrayed as the General’s favorite outfit. The dictator was not a keen football fan but his presence did have a domino effect on the club with respect to its status both inside the country and in Europe. This was nowhere more evident than the 1943 General’s Cup, where Madrid faced Barcelona in the semi-finals and lost the first leg at Nou Camp 3-0.

However, in a fascinating turn of events, the capital side won the second leg 11-1, a result that to this day irks many Catalans who believe that Franco’s stooges and sidekicks manipulated the referees and bribed and threatened the players to surrender in such a manner. In fact, the repercussions of Madrid’s self-serving attitude was so disturbingly received in Catalunya that they made a parody of the “Hala Madrid” song, which is the club anthem. It goes something like this:

Hala Madrid, Hala Madrid, el equipo del gobierno y la vergüenza del país!”

When translated to English, the verse reads:

“Hail Madrid, the team of the government and the embarrassment of Spain!”


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The divide was further accentuated when Santiago Bernabeu came into power in Madrid. He was a forward for the club before the War, a soldier in Franco’s ranks during it and a club president after that. His rise to the top was exemplary and his love for football and Madrid was legendary. He paid little heed to the fact that both Barcelona and Basque country(another Spanish kingdom, where clubs like Athletic Bilbao hail from) still viewed Madrid as a brother gone astray and desperately wished the city to return to it’s original, democratic roots. Instead, Bernabeu molded the game to suit Franco’s devious needs and he got the help he needed to do so from the corrupt officials of the Government.

It was under Alfredo De Stefano that Real Madrid began their dominance

The notion of Madrid receiving preferential treatment and being the “General’s pet team” was further confirmed in 1953. Alfredo di Stefano was widely regarded as one of the finest footballers in the world at that time, and both Barcelona and Madrid were going at each other to secure his signature. The Argentine was already in a fiasco of sorts, he was playing for Columbian club Millonarios but his home club River Plate claimed that he was still under their ownership since there had apparently been a breach of his contract at his new club. As such, Barcelona, who were the frontrunners entered into an agreement with River Plate but it was Real Madrid who snatched Di Stefano from right under their noses in a coup that is often regarded as the “Deal of the Century”.

It is unclear as to exactly how such a travesty transpired. Many conspiracy theories have been suggested to explain the deal, out of which one includes that the person responsible for overseeing the deal for Barcelona was actually on Franco’s payroll and deliberately screwed up the deal. The Spanish FA actually banned clubs from signing foreigners just before Barcelona presented a concrete offer for di Stefano, so there could be some truth to that as well. Historians, however, suggest otherwise, stating that the long-drawn contract talks between Millonarios and Barcelona gave Madrid the window of opportunity to seize di Stefano, if not illegally then definitely in poor spirit. However, there is no doubt about the fact that seizing the Argentine was a bold move that paid dividends for Bernabeu and his club, they won 5 successive European Cup titles between 1955 to 1960 and 8 Spanish League titles between 1954 to 1964.

He was an era-defining signing and his contributions went a long way to establish the foundations of Real Madrid as a gigantic football club and a financial behemoth. The story would have been very different had the Catalans procured his signature, and it is a crime that many blame Franco for committing knowingly. There are records of di Stefano even appearing in a pre-season friendly for Blaugrana, but it seems none of that mattered to the Madridismo who were bent on signing the player at any cost.

It goes without saying that both Barcelona and Bilbao suffered during the dictatorship, with both of them forced to change their names to suit the national language of “Castellano”, which was Franco’s favored tongue. Likewise, Athletic also had to abandon their policy of only recruiting Basque country players while Barca was made to remove the Catalan flag from it’s crest. Trivial as it may seem now, it was an important part of the identity of the people from these regions and forcing these moves only enraged them as they felt it was a direct threat to their culture and heritage.

During his 40 year rule, Franco’s effect on Spain was profound. He made Madrid his political and financial base and imposed severe taxations on those who did not abide by him. As such, Real Madrid became the horse on which the General rode and advocated his radical ideals. Eventually, both Catalunya and Basque countries started a separatist movement, one that was seen as a huge threat by the dictator and one that he tried to squash on numerous occasions. In doing so, his, and by extension, Real Madrid football club’s unpopularity only manifolded throughout the years that followed.

It must be remembered; however that perspective is one of paramount importance here. To the people of Barcelona, the city of Madrid poses an eternal threat to its independence. To that end, they organized a referendum last year to ascertain whether separating from Spain would be the right choice or not. However, from a bigger perspective, the Spanish Government has taken a lot of steps since Franco’s death to uplift the conditions of both the Basque and the Catalan states.

It is important to keep in mind that the bitter, political rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona which takes the form of fans throwing “pig-heads” on the pitch( when Luis Figo signed for Madrid from Barca) or players speaking on the issue on independence( like Pique did last year) is more than just football and is embellished with a lot of stories like these, the absolute truth of which can never be established.

Published: Sat Sep 15, 2018 12:46 PM IST

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