I should start this off by saying that I am from Boston and an avid Boston (and University of Miami!) sports fan. I’m wicked serious about my teams and tend to take our rivalries to the next level and a little too close to heart. Sometimes I see people here in Barcelona wearing New York Yankees gear and I glare at them. I literally have to remind myself that this person is probably from here and doesn’t even care about the Yankees, he probably just likes that the t-shirt says New York on it. Then I stop and realize that I’m still glaring. Nos tranquilizamos, Salky.
Anyway, given my upbringing, I know rivalries. Red Sox/Yankees, Patriots/Jets, Bruins/Habs, Celtics/Lakers, UMiami/Florida State. The intensity is fierce and, before coming here, I thought these were the greatest rivalries in sports. When I was over here in Europe during the 2004 EuroCup, I experienced all the excitement of European fútbol, and some super emotionally-charged games, especially between, say, Spain and Portugal. But then I came back Barcelona to live and saw the FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid rivalry, El Clásico, up close. Folks, this one goes deep.
The briefest history of El Clásico: essentially the rivalry comes about as Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain and the two clubs are some of the most successful and profitable clubs in the world. The term, “El Clásico” refers to any game played between Real Madrid and FCB (Barça), which now includes not only games in the Spanish Championship, but also within the UEFA Champions League and the Copa del Rey. The trophy count between the two teams is neck and neck, as is the head to head results in competitive matches. But maybe more than any of this, the rivalry behind El Clásico refers to opposing political views: Real Madrid representing Spanish nationalism and Barcelona representing Catalanism, or Catalan Independence. The politics here are too complicated to get into (trust me, I spent time asking my Catalan co-workers about it and it seemed better to just let it go), but as a hardcore Boston fan, I get it. Though not quite the same, the Boston/New York rivalry sometimes goes deeper than its teams and into city vs city territory, but it’s not like every Red Sox fan hates the New York City and vice-versa.
Regardless, I love El Clásico rivalry. The first game I watched here back on January 30th was in a bar in Grácia with Elena. It was the first of two Copa del Rey matches, and the place was packed. Most games are only broadcast on pay-per-view channels, but it’s also part of the culture to watch El Clásico games in a bar with all your friends yelling and shouting at the TV. And yell and shout they sure do! If you know me, you know that this is something I can get on board with. And as far as I know, Elena’s friends actually had to reserve our table ahead of time! I can’t even imagine calling the Cask N’ Flagon back in Boston to reserve a table for a Sox/Yanks ALCS game. Or a table at the Fours to watch the B’s take it to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals 2 years ago. Hombre, por favor.
That first game ended in a draw, 1-1, but the energy in the bar was palpable, nonetheless. Basically it was silent except for the TV announcer’s voice booming over the speaker, which I could barely understand, people’s eyes glued to the big screen at the far end of the bar. And then loud, sharp inhales when Barça got close to scoring, people half-jumping up from their seats, and “oohs” and “eeeehhs” when Madrid came too close, hands covering their eyes and mouths like they were about to see a train wreck. And if you stand in front of the TV and block anyone’s view, forget it. Just duck and run. When Madrid scored it was quiet minus some curse words in Spanish I’ll refrain from repeating. But when Barça scored, the entire city erupted. Well, the bar erupted at least. Hugs and kisses and then everyone chimes in to sing La Canción together. Except for La Canción, this behavior, as you can see, transcends country and cultural borders.
The second El Clásico game I watched with Elena was a couple weeks back at our neighborhood bar, Xalupada. After the last Copa del Rey game ending in a draw, it was imperative that we win this game in order to move to the CdR Finals. All day there was a buzz around the city, people walking around in their Barça shirts and as I walked home from work at 18:00, folks were already in bar seats ready to watch in three hours. I had salsa class until 21:00, so when I entered in the middle of the first half, the bar was, surprise surprise, packed. Heaven forbid I cross the TV upon entering, so I waited until a break to find my friends. Just like at the Garden, I thought to myself, now don’t trip or embarrass yourself in front of these forty diehard fans.
It was already 1-0, Madridth; people weren’t ready to riot just yet, but anxious for sure. The game was intense with everyone going crazy over penalties and (what they thought were) bad calls. I love how when the Spaniards get angry at fútbol (or at anything) they yell, shrug the shoulders and point their hands in the air – much as if to say, “what, what is this?!” arms straight out in front of you, palms up, in disbelief. I wish I had any idea what the broadcasters were saying, but I smirk to myself just a bit as the players roll around the ground, grabbing an ankle, foot, or shin, writhing in pain as if this is the end of his life. So dramatic.
And speaking of dramatic, at one point in the second half, the TV camera switched to show Barça fans throwing bengalas, inside the stadium, at Madrid fans. Bengalas are kind of like flares. Like flare-flares. Like fire. How did these people even get those in the stadium?? This would never fly in the U.S., fans would be locked up and potentially charged with attempted homicide. Now I see fútbol intensity breach the line of madness. Seriously, nos tranquilizamos!
The final score ended in 3-1, Madrid, Barça’s only goal aroused the usual excitement, but being in the final minutes of the game, too little too late. The game ends and fans wind down, grab cigarettes and beers and head outside for a smoke or to leave the bar. The atmosphere less horrid than I anticipated, considering Madrid is now going to the Copa finals. I was under the impression we were going to flip cars.
Last week I finally got to attend my first Barça game in person. They were playing a different Madrid team, Rayo Vallecano, ranked much lower but still a good team. I met Elisenda about 30 minutes before the game, and we were swept into the stadium with the crowd. They didn’t check our bags, so bringing the bengalas inside now made sense. We climbed what seemed like 100 flights to our nosebleed section seats, and when we emerged, the gigantic, notorious field glowed under the lights and I felt that same amazed feeling I get every time I go to a game and emerge to see the field or rink, clean, untouched and ready for action. I can only describe it by saying, “insert ominous angel sound here.” The field is enormous, the stands in three and a half huge tiers, as it holds over 95,000 screaming fans.
Just before the game began, the players came out, hand-in-hand with young children as part of a program in which they participate, for introductions and photos. Fans hollered and applauded at the entrance, and joined together to sing La Canción in Catalan (of which I know the parts where we clap three times and chant “Barça, Barça, Baaaarça!”). The first major difference I notice: no National Anthem is sung. Apparently, they never play this before any game anywhere in Spain, though I guess La Canción kind of serves this purpose if you think about it. Second major difference: when a goal is scored, there is no “Zombie Nation” played, no horns sound, no announcer yelling “gooooool!” The fans go nuts though, shouting and clapping, and when Messi scores, they do the ol’ “we’re-not-worthy” move. But there is no hoopla during the game, no music, no cheerleaders leading the crowd, or “Get Louder!” images on the big screen; the announcer only speaks if there is a substitution.
I missed none of this. Well, I missed having a replay shown after a goal or penalty, but otherwise it was great, refreshing almost. It was raw. It was passionate but no-frills. Just hard-core fans watching their favorite game and their favorite team. I respect how deep their love goes for FC Barcelona, how it encapsulates the city, the people, the politics and the culture as a whole. They even chant for Independencia! at minute 17:14 of each half. As a Bostonian, I understand why they so desperately support this team and live and breathe the rivalry that accompanies, in defense of their own history, the people and the city.
Because to the people of Barcelona, this is life, “més que un club”, and I’m proud I was able to see it all first-hand.
By Amy Salk, Former Barcelona SAE Staff Member