Origins of the Rivalry

Pre-Franco History

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.

General Franco

General Francisco Franco

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, (accessed on (date)).


– See more at:

[i] Ball, Phil. Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football. London: WSC Books, 2006. p. 23

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ball, Morbo, 21

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ball, Morbo, 22

[vii] Ball, Morbo, 22

[viii] “Spanish Civil War.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 15 Oct 09. <>

[ix] Generalitat de Catalunya. “The occupation of Catalonia. Franco’s dictatorship. Oppression and exile.” .  <>

[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

7 thoughts on “Origins of the Rivalry

  1. The Wood Cutter

    Recently, over a dozen American and British historians gathered to examine the most enduring strategic rivalries and competitions over the past 2,500 years. Their individual studies were then analyzed to collect those common denominators that sufficiently withstood the test of time to be of use to today’s policymakers. This analysis, built upon the work of political scientists, confirms that since the fall of Napoleon in 1815 over half of all wars have been between enduring rivals. If one adds early conflicts between proto-rivals, that number climbs to over 80 percent.
    Greatest Rivalries in Sports History as,

    Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
    Key moment: January 3, 1920 – The Red Sox sell Babe Ruth and other players to the Yankees for $125,000 cash and a $300,000 loan. Major mistake.

    North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Duke Blue Devils
    Key moment: February 5, 1992 – One of Dick Vitale’s top 3, No. 9 North Carolina defeated No. 1 Duke in a match-up that ended with bloody players and a narrow victory for the Tar Heels.

    Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
    Key moment: June 9, 1986, Game 4 of the NBA Finals – Lakers are down by a point at the end of the game when Magic Johnson makes the famous “sky hook.” With pressure on, the ball swooshes through the net, Lakers took a 107-106 lead with two seconds left to earn a 3-1 lead in the series and eventually win the championship.

    Ohio St. Buckeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines
    Key moment: 1922 – Ohio Stadium opened, and Michigan “spoiled the party with a 22-0 victory

    Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
    Key game: 1972 playoffs, NFC Championship game – The game was played in Washington, where the Redskins had previously defeated the Cowboys that season. Though the Cowboys were first on the board with a field goal, the Redskins soon scored a touchdown and held the lead for the rest of the game, winning the division and sending them to the Super Bowl.

  2. Bianca D'Souza

    It is actually surprising to me that the rivalry between these two Spanish teams is so engrained in the history of the country through the Spanish Civil War and even the world. It should not come as such as shock to me, but my first thought when it comes to looking at teams and their rivalry is to look at previous history of games between the teams, and often I see that if the two teams are high achieving teams they are more likely to have a rivalry. I also thought that the close proximity of two teams in a county in large cities would have a lot to do with it, but I now see how deep historical implications helped form this rivalry from the very start.

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  7. Maga

    Previously the nationalist forces from Franco and today’s nationalist forces from Catalunya, they all represent the worst from human nature: hatred, cultural racism, history manipulation, totalitarism and lack of humanity.

    God helped Spain to get rid of Franco’s nationalist forces. God helps them now to get rid of Catalan nationalists.


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