The Uncensored, Raw Passion Of El Clasico
It’s Saturday, 23 December 2017, and the morning air has an icy chill to it, but that’s not all... There’s an invisible veil of excitement ebbing through the pores of everyone’s skin. It’s derby day! Correction. It is El Clasico derby day! The evident enthusiasm is intoxicatingly addictive, and there is a sense of urgency to get to the iconic Santiago Bernabeu as soon as possible.
Scheduled for 14h00 (CAT), the famous encounter between Real Madrid and Barcelona was brought forward to a lunchtime kick-off in order to cater for audiences in Asia and the United States – two of several important markets in which LaLiga are working tirelessly to help grow their brand internationally – and fans are already lining the streets.
Only Real Madrid fans are allowed to tread on Calle de Padre Damian. Here, they frame the street in a sea of Los Blancos jerseys, as they anxiously wait for their team’s arrival. To pass the time, they sing the club’s anthem “Hala Madrid y nada más”, amongst an array of other chants, and swing their scarves proudly and repeatedly in the air. There’s a different feeling in the air… it’s roaring optimism.
On the opposite end of Bernabeu, the few thousand Barcelona fans, who made the trip from Catalonia, are ready and waiting to make their way up to the top corner of the five-tier stadium, their maroon jerseys barely noticeable amongst the 78 000 or so Real Madrid fans. However, by the time the full-time whistle blew, it was their cheers that were heard over the disgruntled mumbles of the home crowd. It wasn’t always like that though…
Inside the stadium, a piercing wave of whistling induces a cold shiver down the spine. It’s not constant throughout the game, but, instead, it ebbs and flows to the rhythm of what transpires on the field. It lies in stark contrast to the upbeat anthem belted out prior to kick-off, when two massive sheets of material met halfway between two tiers to form a giant choreography of a Santa Claus Viking. The words “Blanca Navidad” (White Christmas) printed across the top of the “tifo” in an excellent play-on-words to the club’s Los Blancos theme.
The Real Madrid fans are hopeful, despite trailing Barcelona by 11 points coming into the game, but as soon as Cristiano Ronaldo failed to connect to a perfectly positioned ball inside the box, tensions rose. A synchronized sigh, a choice of swearwords and the middle finger were let out all at the same time, as if an invisible conductor was standing at the center-circle waving his baton. It wasn’t the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s finest moment.
Zinedine Zidane’s men attempted to try and break the deadlock, but they couldn’t breach through Barcelona’s defence. Not even the fans’ attempt to break down Gerard Pique by jeering him with every touch of the ball managed to deter his concentration.
By the time half time came about, there were fears of a Soweto Derby-like outcome. Still, this was a game to tick off the bucket list no matter the result.
In Row 21 sat a young boy, no older than 12, alongside his father proudly sporting the iconic white kit. Unsurprisingly, they are deeply invested in the outcome of the game. They converse in multiple languages throughout the 90 minutes, and provide some of the most animated commentary, much like the rest of the ardent fans encasing the world’s greatest players on the field.
Once the game resumes, the little boy ups the ante of his commentary. With the scoreline so delicately poised, Real Madrid fans know that their side have just 45 minutes to secure a positive result, which would help close the gap on Barcelona. However, their optimism took quite a knock when Luis Suarez connected to the end of Sergi Roberto’s cross for an easy conversion into the back of Kaylor Navas’ net.
In perfect synchronicity, Real Madrid fans rise off their seats and unleash a string of whistles and, of course, the middle finger. The boy and his father remain heartbroken like the majority of the crowd, but they are greeted with a second wind of hope from the Ultra Surs (Real Madrid’s most ardent fans), who attempt to encourage the newly crowned FIFA Club World Cup winners through song. Scarves start to sway in the air and the increasing buoyancy is captivating.
Up top, Barcelona’s fans are experiencing a mixture of emotions. They haven’t lost all season long, but if there is ever a team to undo their unbeaten run, it is their archrivals. After all, what is a one-goal lead in football anyway?
Little did they know that 10 minutes later, they would burst out into song once again…
Barcelona come spilling into Real Madrid’s box, and there are tons of bodies in the area. The ball is dramatically fired into the back of the net, only for it to be ruled out by the referee, who then gives Dani Carvajal his marching orders. He then points to the penalty spot.
Up steps Messi, who walked 83% of the whole game. He casually strolls to the iconic dot inside the box, places the ball down, looks up and eloquently fires it past Navas. For just a split-second, you can hear a pin drop in the ground, and then a mix tape of sounds pound the eardrum. He directs his wide-armed celebration to the corner flag, which sits in line with the Barcelona fans high up in the stands and the little boy in Row 21…
The juxtaposition of the two sets of fans is unique. The travelling fans are on cloud nine, but the boy is heartbroken. He lets out an angry cry of: “F*ck you, Messi!” His dad echoes the same sentiments, with evident disappointment on his face. This wasn’t how their father-son trip was meant to pan out.
As Real Madrid’s continued search to pull a goal back proves futile, a stream of white jerseys starts flowing out of the stadium by the time the 85th minute comes around. And when Aleix Vidal converts his side’s third goal of the afternoon in stoppage time, the majority of the fans have left the ground, including the boy and his father. Suddenly, the atmosphere in the air has shifted once again. It’s now one of disappointment and heartbreak for the majority of the crowd. Even with the sun shining, the sunny disposition of the Madridistas quickly evaporated along with their hopes of defending the league title.
It wasn’t the Christmas present the home crowd had been hoping for, but for the Catalonian supporters, their return trip home on Christmas Eve was more than they had bargained for. Scarves up, chests out and happily bouncing along to their chorus of songs, the Culés willingly remained in an empty stadium to hear their proud voice of success echo across an awestruck Santiago Bernabeu. Another historic win at their nemesis’ ground – bragging rights had been restored!
That was it! The quickest 90 minutes ever experienced flashed before my eyes, and what a showcase it was! El Clasico is not just a straightforward football match. It’s game where pride is at stake. It’s a game where two cities across Spain come to a standstill in order to watch their beloved teams take to the field. The passion of El Clasico can be found everywhere.
From hotel ushers sporting their colours underneath their uniform (yes, this is true), to the fan inside the stadium singing loud and proud hoping to edge on his/her team to glory. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that leaves households divided, makes grown men cry, and forges memories between the different generations in families. Its passion is raw and uncensored, it’s poetic and nerve-wrecking and it was an absolute privilege to have been able to witness such an occasion.
Thank you, LaLiga
When asked how my trip to Spain was, I struggle to find the right answers. I feel very few words can justify the phenomenal experience. But the ones that do come to mind are: educational, fun, unique, lucky and privileged.
I was one of six international journalists from around the world who were flown to Madrid, courtesy of LaLiga, to not only watch El Clasico, but to participate in a week full of activities centered around football in Spain as a whole. The match between Barcelona and Real Madrid was merely the cherry on top.
In brief, we attended two games (Getafe vs. Las Palmas the first game), travelled to three cities, visited four stadiums and participated in a Hollywood-style press junket that allowed us to interview a host of LaLiga’s Ambassadors, which included the likes of Federic Kanoute, Christian Karembeu, Carles Puyol and many more.
We also attended a breakfast with LaLiga executives, who revealed their plans to help globalize the league to specific target audiences in Asia, the Americas and Africa. I found this incredibly insightful and impressive. The league is genuinely going above and beyond to tap into these markets, and there are even plans to bring two LaLiga teams to South Africa this year to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s Centenary.
What was particularly interesting was the trip to Valencia. In the morning, our group sat down with Valencia’s marketing executives to talk about their plans to internationalize themselves outside of Spain. Their marketing video was based around the premise that the club will bring you lots of joy, but it, too, will break your heart at times, based on their inconsistency.
In fact, when they won the league title in 2003/04, six people died of a heart attack in the stands because of the pure shock and magnitude of the occasion. Later that day, our tour guide revealed the same thing happened to his grandfather too when Valencia beat Barcelona. It’s because of this that he attends every home game Valencia play, and when at the stadium, he says a prayer for him too.
In Spain, football isn’t just a game, it’s a lifestyle and culture so deeply embedded into society that a recent survey revealed 60% of Spanish people claim to have missed an important family event due to a football game. In Valencia’s case, men and women have literally died for their team.
I want to take this opportunity to, once again, say thank you to LaLiga for giving me the amazing privilege to be able to witness, learn and understand the essence of football in Spain.