By all accounts, this weekend is jam-packed on the sports front. The Yankees are in town to help the Sox commemorate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. The Bruins host a pivotal game 5 against the playoff-upstart Capitals. The Celtics continue their intriguing playoff push. But you owe it to yourself to find the time, or the space on your DVR, for this weekend’s El Clasico between rival foes Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
For the uninitiated, this game features the two best football (soccer to us on this side of the pond) teams in the world. Host Barcelona (or Barca, as they are popularly referred) trails Real Madrid by 3 points for the Spanish League title with only a few games to go. In addition, Real and Barca are two of only four teams remaining for this year’s European-wide Champions League title. (They play Bayern Munich and Chelsea, respectively, this upcoming week.) The clubs showcase the two best footballers on the planet, in Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and Lionel Messi (Barcelona).
But, as with all Clasico matches, the game features not only players competing on the pitch, but teams who symbolize divergent Spanish political undercurrents with powerful histories as well. It’s like the Sox-Yankees rivalry, except instead of being built upon the Curse of the Bambino, it was nurtured by the political hostilities of the Spanish Civil War.
Even now, decades later, the events of Spain’s Depression-era Civil War have lost little of their power to provoke the passion of which the Barca-Real contest is a perfect embodiment. The two clubs share a long, tempestuous, and often bloody history, where Real Madrid served as ambassadors for Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship, and an occupied Catalonia placed its hopes and dreams on the play of FC Barcelona.
Literally and figuratively, Real Madrid represents the historical winner of that war. Its crest includes the royal crown, and in the 1930s it was the favorite football team of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Real Madrid has won more Spanish League and European Champions League titles than any other team. In contrast, Barca had widespread support from Catalonia’s left-wing politicians and intellectuals during the Civil War. As a result, Franco harassed and persecuted the club mercilessly. His troops bombed the building in which the team’s trophies were kept, he closed Barca’s stadium for six months, and ordered the execution of its president.
It’s a long story, with many chapters. The latest of which will be written at Barcelona at the Camp Nou this Saturday, for all the world to see.