Ahead of El Clasico on Saturday, Sid Lowe discusses his new book about the famous rivalry.
Premier League fans are used to rivalries such as the one between Manchester United and Liverpool where the differences are quite nuanced. In comparison, these two teams are really juxtaposed historically aren't they?
Yeah, that's true of a lot of Spanish teams and is one of the things that interests me about the game in Spain. Every team is seen to represent something. For example, to use that example of Manchester United and Liverpool, a Spaniard would always ask which one is the real people's team, which one is the working class team. They want to know what the teams represent because they're very conscious of that identification. It stretches to all Spanish clubs but, of course, nowhere is that more powerful than in the case of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Although part of the point of the book is to try and show the nuances and show the bias and the myths in the popular conscience of it, there is no denying that it is seen as this battle between democracy and fascism, a fight between the centre and the periphery, between Castilian and Catalan. It creates a very clear narrative that makes it really quite seductive.
On top of everything else they are probably the two biggest and best clubs in the world with the two best players in the world and the two richest clubs in the world, with only Manchester United perhaps ahead of them. So you have this rich symbolism and added to that you've also got the best football that there is.
You mention that there are certain myths associated with the rivalry. Did your view of the clubs change a little through the process of researching the book?
A little bit. It's strange really. During the research, you expect your perspective on them to shift. But in a way, what did change is that I became more clear-minded in my own perspective that the general assumptions about the two clubs needed to be challenged and possibly needed to be challenged even more powerfully than I had initially thought.
I had always rejected this simplistic notion of Barcelona being the freedom fighters and Madrid being the Francoist team. I'd always rejected the notion of it being as simple and clear-cut as left against right, although there are elements of truth to that. So my perspective probably didn't change but it is true that through the research, digging through the archives and talking to people, I became clearer in mind that these things needed to be challenged more head on than I'd anticipated.
The book discusses the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the clubs. To what extent do you feel they need each other and are defined by each other?
Obviously, the nature of the rivalry shifts over time but Real fans will always say that one of the key facets of the rivalry has always been that Barcelona are obsessed with them. Real will claim they aren't so bothered because they're too big to be bothered about them. And Barcelona players of a certain era would agree with that. They'd say that they were obsessed with them. That they were defined by the fact that they were their victims, the downtrodden ones with Real always being favoured by referees.
But one of the things that's really clear on this is that in the last 20 to 25 years, that has shifted slightly. This idea that Real Madrid are not really bothered by what Barcelona do is just not true. They both define themselves against each other as well as what they really are. Barcelona certainly have historically done more to create a story to make themselves as more than just a football team going out there to try and win games.
There is a great extract from the book that covers the treatment Luis Figo received when he moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid and the point is made that this was different to previous transfers between the clubs. Does that also hint at the fact that it is a changing relationship?
Exactly. I think it's a changing rivalry. The context shifts enormously for lots and lots of reasons. Obviously in some ways the rivalry could never get less fierce because everything that happens is always building in to it so there is a cumulative effect. But there are also periods when it feels quieter. There is a quote from Jorge Valdano where he says something along the lines of there always being a "latent violence" and it's not always there but it just takes one spark to set it off.
That spark can be called Jose Mourinho or it can be called Joan Gaspart or it can be called Luis Figo and then it all comes back. So those moments when it's particularly bad or particularly tense and nasty, that doesn't come in a vacuum. It is like that because of the previous 100 years.
I think the other main shift in the rivalry is that it is now much more international than it ever was. The fact that now with Twitter and the speed of news, it is greeted in a different way in itself lends itself to being more vociferous and shouty; that little bit angrier about things. That feeds into this rivalry more than anything else.
For example, there seems to be this assumption that this season will be quieter because Mourinho is gone. Actually, I think that is unfair as it suggests Mourinho created a rivalry. He didn't. He tapped into one. Things won't, of course, be hunky-dory from now on.
Right now the rivalry is encapsulated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. With Messi a home-grown talent and Ronaldo a world record buy, does that feed into the idea of how these two clubs choose to identify themselves or is it too lazy to say that?
No, that's absolutely right. Obviously, the assumptions that go with that need to be challenged and one of the points of the book is to do that. But Messi and Ronaldo have really helped to make the narrative that surrounds it crystal clear because it almost is Messi versus Ronaldo. Certainly from a Barcelona point of view, they will tell you that he is home-grown and he's humble but he's brilliant and he wins everything. But he just wins everything because he's brilliant.
They will then tell you to look at the guy from Real Madrid - they had to spend millions on him and he's arrogant, he's all about himself and he's still not winning everything. That's the Barcelona perspective. The Madrid perspective will say that, yes, they do represent the rivalry because, as usual, the Madrid guy will be presented as the arrogant one. He's the victim of a media that wants to see things in terms of good and bad when it's never that simple.
I think we've seen the rivalry crystallised in two players and that makes the narrative very powerful and quite seductive as well. Add to that the other thing, that in footballing terms they represent a very different approach. Messi is all about touch, technique and creating space. Ronaldo also has that but is about ambition and drive.
I think those two players have helped to create something that is seen as almost eternal when, of course, it is not eternal. Once upon a time it was Real Madrid developing their youth players and Barcelona spending millions on players. Barcelona playing the passing football and Real Madrid playing the direct attacking football isn't always true as well. But we have this idea about their identity.
Looking forward, do you believe TV money and the financial struggles of the other teams in La Liga will lead to a duopoly that just adds to the rivalry?
Absolutely. And personally I think that's a real problem. I think that Spanish football is suffering enormously because of the power of these two clubs. They just dominate everything too much. They will probably win the league for the next 10 or 20 years and that's a problem. But it's also part of the book in a way. The point is that that's the social reality. They generate more TV money than anyone else because they have more fans than anyone else. They have the history that everyone knows about.
As a result, I have pangs of guilt in writing this book. I've always been someone who has written more about the other 18 teams. I've tried very hard to champion the cause of everyone else in Spain. And then, of course, I go and contribute to the idea of these two being the only two in Spain.
But in the long term I think there is a risk for them as well as the rest of Spain. If they find themselves in a situation where they're not pushed week-in week-out then when they come across Champions League sides they will struggle - and it is in Europe these clubs are judged much more than domestically. I think we got a small glimpse of that last season when the two German clubs beat them in the semi-finals.
So what do you think the future holds for El Clasico and, by extension, Spanish football?
I think the collateral damage for the rest of the Spanish game is going to be quite important. I think that's something that the Spanish league needs to contemplate very carefully. It's something that Barcelona and Real Madrid themselves don't seem to see and at some stage they need to be alert to that. At the moment, they're probably not. Structurally, the Spanish league have problems they need to confront.
The exit strategy for the two clubs is a European Super League. But the problem they have with that is that their perspective of what that is remains very different from what the very biggest British, Italian and German clubs envisage. That's their problem. They look at Europe as something that can replace the domestic league, whereas British, Italian and German clubs look at it as something that would supplement the domestic league. That's why they don't have the exit strategy they appear to think they have got.
But I think they will continue to be dominant and they will continue to have the best players in the world. In terms of generating money, they will dwarf everyone else in Spain and almost everyone else in Europe. That's the first thing to say. To put it in very simplistic terms, they have Ronaldo and Messi tied down to very long contracts. In Neymar and Gareth Bale, the next generation of superstars are, in theory, more or less guaranteed too.
Fear and Loathing in La Liga
by Sid Lowe is available to buy here