It is unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that most narratives of El Clásico ignore the rivalry’s early history. Certainly, today’s heated animosity results from Spain’s Falangist era, but the roots of competition are ingrained in Spanish culture. Doubling as a history of both Spain and its soccer, Phil Ball’s Morbo asserts that regional rivalry has always existed within the whole of Spain, thanks to historic centralization policies of Spanish government. As he notes, “Madrid was built on and sustained by the notion of centralization”[i], physically at Spain’s direct center. The city’s location was purely based on such centrist symbolism, as Madrid “has no harbour, it is not at the meeting place of two rivers, it boils in summer and it freezes in winter.”[ii]
As a result, regional rivalries were natural at the very foundation of most Spanish clubs. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the very first meetings between the two clubs, at a mini-tournament in 1902. Held to commemorate the crowning of Alfonso XIII, the tournament featured two clubs each from Madrid and Barcelona, as well as Basque club Vizcaya.[iii] Barcelona beat Madrid FC (Real’s name at the time) in the opening match, 3-1, and fell to Vizcaya in the final, 2-1.[iv] However, the story finds its political significance in the “third-place match”, hastily arranged once tournament organizers became upset that a tournament for a new Castilian monarch was being largely contested by Basques and Catalans.[v] A trophy was even conjured and widely publicized by the media, even though as Ball puts it, “it must have been something hastily brought along from somebody’s personal silver collection”.[vi]
Such shared hostility remained and grew as the teams continued to play each other over the next decade or so. These contests were mostly dominated by Catalans, to the tune of repeated and poor-spirited complaints from the direction of the Castillans. Overall, “the strife and struggles between the two clubs from 1905 onwards accurately mirror the main contests of 20th century Spanish history… mainly through clear cultural differences.”[vii] If such differences in 1905 were the logs at the base of the fire, the ensuing political mayhem of General Franco’s reign ignited them into full blaze.
In 1939, the end of the Spanish Civil War saw the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco take control of the country. After capturing Madrid on March 28th to end the War, El Generalísimo sought to unify the newly formed Spanish state. He frequently used policies of murder, torture and political pressure to suppress any anti-Nationalist sentiment. [viii] Separatist causes in previously autonomous regions were most troublesome for him, and since Catalonia had fought Franco’s centrist policies very bitterly, the region became a source of particular ire for him.[ix]
At the same time, football had become an important means of cultural expression. Therefore, Franco began to use football as a propaganda tool for the new regime. He sought to disrupt the operations of Barcelona, a symbol of Catalonian pride, while supporting Real Madrid, Barcelona’s archrival from the capital city. [x] Franco had no real passion for the game , but wished to use Real Madrid as a vehicle of the Falangist state.[xi]
History presents many examples of Franco’s systematic interventions in Spanish football. For instance, in order to enforce the strict prohibition of regional languages, Franco demanded that the name of the club be translated from the CatalanFC Barcelona its Spanish equivalent, Barcelona CF.[xii] Symbolically, such a change was a cultural indication that Catalan society was not to be tolerated by the new Spanish State.
The story of the 1943 semifinals of the Generalísimo’s Cup (formerly the King’s Cup) more directly relates to the game of football. Barcelona were seemingly in control after the first leg, which they had comfortably won 3-0 at home.[xiii] However, upon visiting the capital they were surprised by a visit from the director of state security. Supposedly, he reminded the players of the State’s fortunate generosity at letting them remain in the country, and thus implicitly threatened them.[xiv] The players took the hint, and lost 11-1. Though much of Franco’ support remains shrouded in some mystery, there is no doubt that such support existed and boosted the fortuned the Castillan club.
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How to cite this article: “El Clásico as Spanish History,” Written by Austin Esecson, Remy Lupica, and Neel Muthana (2009), Edited and Updated by Austin Ness, Vishnu Kadiyala, Natasha Catrakilis, Julianna Miller, and Basil Seif (2013), Soccer Politics Pages, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/spain/ (accessed on (date)).
[i] Ball, Phil. Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football. London: WSC Books, 2006. p. 23
[iii] Ball, Morbo, 21
[vi] Ball, Morbo, 22
[vii] Ball, Morbo, 22
[viii] “Spanish Civil War.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 15 Oct 09. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/558032/Spanish-Civil-War>
[ix] Generalitat de Catalunya. “The occupation of Catalonia. Franco’s dictatorship. Oppression and exile.” . <http://www20.gencat.cat/portal/site/culturacatalana/menuitem.be2bc4cc4c5aec88f94a9710b0c0e1a0/?vgnextoid=841c5c43da896210VgnVCM1000000b0c1e0aRCRD&vgnextchannel=841c5c43da896210VgnVCM1000000b0c1e0aRCRD&vgnextfmt=detall2&contentid=b6413c084ded7210VgnVCM1000008d0c1e0aRCRD&newLang=en_GB>
[x] Murray, Bill. The World’s Game: A History of Soccer. United States: University of Illinois, 1996, p. 102
[xi] Ball, Morbo, 120
[xii] Foer, Franklin. How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unliklely) Theory of Globalization. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. (203)
[xiii] Ball, Morbo, 25
[xiv] Ball, Morbo, 26