Why El Clásico Matters

The Sociology of Rivalry


Despite the lack of “homegrown heroes” in football’s modern era, examples such as Figo’s transfer show that a sacred trust between fans and their teams clearly persists. Rivalries on the field are engendered by deep-seeded politics and bolstered by fundamentally opposing identities. The depth and intensity of such rivalries is best understood through the Spanish notion of morbo[i].

Morbo: It is a word which, “defies easy translation… most treat it as a noun and translate it something like ‘disease’ ” yet despite the slippery problem of nailing down its meaning, “no history of Spanish football can pretend to be complete without it.”[ii] It is best exemplified in the mutual loathing between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Their derby matches are as much maligned as they are revered for being the “bitterest rivalry in world football.”[iii] Each clubs’ fans taken in isolation are some of the most passionate the world over, but when they meet on the soccer pitch, a strange mixture of humors results in an other-worldly stirring of emotions — there is mucho morbo there. To understand the rivalry and ultimately the irreconcilable identities of the catalonians and the madrileños, one must navigate a great breadth of cultural currents running throughout Spanish history.

It would seem plausible to attribute mid-20th century football rivalries to fervent regionalism. It was not uncommon for clubs to draw nearly all their players from their home country or even their home region. Much of this was a result of both league mandates and a pre-commoditized sense of football’s grassroots nature. However, everything changed with the 1995 Bosman decision, which forever shifted the player market from the provincial to the global[iv]. Both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona were early adopters to the “post-modern age of the mercenary,”[v] where players went not to their home teams, but to the highest bidder. Yet, the passion of the fans didn’t falter, and the animus of their rivalry never waned. Clearly an explanation based solely on the origin of their players was insufficient to explain impassioned fans, who felt losses as personal failures, and wins as declarations of their community’s superiority; fans that continue to fuel the sense of morbo that accompanies every meeting of these mortal enemies.

Barcelona and Madrid are two pluralistic metropolises, yet each is able to unite a disparate populace around their respective clubs. If the argument holds that “modern life tends to… erode the communitarianism and fixed social identities found in pre-industrial, traditional societies,” then Richard Guilianotti in his Football: a sociology of the global game, claims it is through the commonality of football groupings that “…sport may repair much of this social damage by enhancing cultural bonding an social integration.”[vi] Within this framework, fanhood becomes a social institution grounding one within the context of a larger inclusive community, a community with a shared identity.

Rivalry, which is more than the sum of one team’s players versus another’s, serves to pit one codified regional social identity against another. If there are any tensions between the peoples represented, then the match becomes “ritual sublimation of war, eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city or the nation.”[vii] And there are plenty of tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, none of which fail to be manifested in their epic rivalry. As Guilianotti explains “the football dyad at club level… [becomes] an exterior site in which ethno-nationalist tensions are symbolized and expressed.” Barcelona, synonymous with Catalonian nationalism, “displays a richer luster in confrontations with Real Madrid (the team of Castile and Franco).”[viii] Notions of Barcelona’s resistance to Castilian authority as well as General Franco are fundamental aspects of their abhorrence of Madrid:

“Twice Castile tried to subjugate the city (and the region), dismantling its institutions and outlawing its language, Catalan. The last attempt, by Franco, ended with his death in 1975.”[ix]

Tensions between the Spanish state, seated in Madrid, Castilian in language and origin, and the desires of many Catalonians for self-governance remain hotly debated political issues, a veritable powder-keg waiting to be ignited upon the soccer pitch.

Within this framework, a player can transcend his status from merely one of among several teammates, into the integral part of the narrative, the story that people tell themselves, which makes the notion of their team a vital part of their identity. In the modern epoch of football it has become the fans themselves who, through self-identification with a franchise, ultimately define the myths of their teams. While the independence of a team’s identity from that of individual players seemed to be in perfect accord with the newfound mobility of the post-Bosman system, the linkage of the player to both his fans and club has not been completely severed in the modern era. As evidenced by Figo, when people place a player within the mythology of their self-ascribed identity, he becomes one of their own, and every bit a native. His betrayal serves to re-affirm the importance of sport with modern notions of identity, manifested in the dyadic rivalries between football clubs.

To continue to A Recent History of El Clásico, click here.

To return to the main page, click here.


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//why-el-clasico-matters/ (accessed on (date))

[i] Ball, Philip. Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football. London: WSC Books Limited, 2011. Print. p. 17.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Rookwood, Dan. “The bitterest rivalry in world football.” The Guardian. 28 August 2002. Online.

[iv] Castillo, Juan Carlos. “The concept of loyalty and the challenge of internationalisation in post-modern Spanish Football.” Intellect. 1. June 2007. Online. p. 25.

[v] Ball, Philip. Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football. London: WSC Books Limited, 2011. Print. p. 191.

[vi] Giulianotti, Richard. Football: a sociology of the global game. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Print. p. 17

[vii] Galeano, Eduardo.  Soccer in Sun and Shadow. New York: Verso Press, 2003. Print. p. 17

[viii] Giulianotti, Richard. Football: a sociology of the global game. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. Print. p. 12.

[ix] Friedrich, Jacqueline. “Barcelona’s Great Urban Spaces.” The New York Times. 24 November 2002. Online.

14 thoughts on “Why El Clásico Matters

  1. Pingback: What Catalan Independence Would Mean for Poker Liquidity Deal

  2. Pingback: April 3, 2016 – Barcelona, Spain | Abroad Perspective

  3. Jacob

    in being the poor commoners. The Clasico gets worldwide attention because, well, its Barcelona.

  4. Jacob

    Foreigners are most likely naïve to this fact, but to natives the “derby Madrileño” (R Madrid vs Atletico Madrid) is more important than El Clasico. This game is also political as Real Madrid resembles the upper class, while Atletico Madrid PRIDE THEMSELVES

  5. Ed

    How does this game being earn millions of dollars every time it’s played?

  6. Pingback: What is El Clasico? - Dear Sports Fan

  7. Pingback: Messi Upstages Ronaldo Again Before Wednesday’s El Clasico | Football Supporters Club Newsroom

  8. Pingback: Messi Upstages Ronaldo Again Before Wednesday’s El Clasico | Nigeria Breaking news

  9. Pingback: Messi Upstages Ronaldo Again Before Wednesday’s El Clasico | 247 Nigeria News Update

  10. Frederick

    in this context “morbo” means “allure”
    or “attraction”; the “somewhat sick allure” that Barca vs Real rivalry has for the fans.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *