Saturday's Real Madrid vs. Barcelona Match is More Than a Game - It's a Lesson in World History

(Editor's Note: the Real Madrid vs. Barcelona match will be shown in Colorado this Saturday at 2:00pm MT on GOL TV and PayPerView).

By Paul Cannon -

"Just hearing the name Real Madrid makes me want to vomit" said ex-Barcelona forward and full-time grump Hristo Stoichkov. Such a comment is not just an isolated gripe by a player with a grudge. It is the nature of the relationship between Spain's two most celebrated football clubs.

When Real Madrid's players walk out onto the Nou Camp's hallowed turf in front of 90000 fans on Saturday night they will be entering the realm of history. The memories of past incidents and the ghosts of legendary players haunt this one like no other game.

On one side there is royal Madrid forever associated with the regime of Generalissimo Franco and on the other is Futbol Club Barcelona a symbol of Catalan autonomy.

The 68 years since Franco assumed power of Spain have seen such tumultuous contests between the two teams that the tie has established itself as the classic game in Europe.

Barcelona players to have graced the derby include 'Lobsterman' Pepe Samitier the local striker who scored 326 goals in the golden age of the 1920s and was immortalized in the tangos of Carlos Gardel — Ladislao Kubala the mythical hard-drinking Hungarian target-man of the '50s who distributed his earnings like confetti among the bars of Barcelona — and Johan Cruyff the Dutchman who brought 'Total football' and an inferno of cigarette smoke (he smoked 40 a day) to Catalunya in the 1970s.

Then came Diego Maradona one-man cocaine industry and possibly the world's greatest ever player for a fleeting visit in the '80s. Michael Laudrup Hristo Stoichkov Romario and 'Pep' Guardiola under the stewardship of Cruyff formed the so-called 'Dream Team' of the 1990s which was involved in some memorable tussles.

For the merenges of Madrid an Argentine called Alfredo Di Stefano inspired five title triumphs in five years during the '50s and '60s and was a great scourge of Barcelona not least because they had hoped to buy him but were checked by some dodgy dealings. Ferenc Puskas 'the magical Magyar' of the '60s — Emilio Butragueno 'the vulture' who terrorised La Liga in the '80s — and Hugo Sanchez the acrobatic Aztec of the nineties side. Each of these men strode onto this the ultimate stage in Spanish football and secured a place in legend with their sublime timeless skill.

And from 1936 to 1975 there was of course Franco who in his brutal subjugation of the Catalan region and outlawing of the Catalan language developed a deep suspicion for the Barcelona club which was viewed as anti-Spain.

Over the years of Franco's rule FC Barcelona developed a justified paranoia that referees and league officials were against the club. Farcical decisions and exaggerated bans and fines against Barca were as common as condiments in a curry. Meanwhile Real Madrid's players unfairly had to carry the burden of being political representatives of the regime which favored it.

These political and cultural differences caused mayhem at matches. During one match in 1970 Barcelona fans became so incensed by the referee's performance they threw 25000 seats onto the field. In another game a Fascist troop attempted to arrest the Barcelona groundsman Angel Mur on grounds of being a communist. And more recently there was the notorious tossing of a pig's head onto the field at the feet of Luis Figo who had betrayed Barca to sign for Real. Figo politely declined having already eaten his dinner.

So to Saturday's game and possibly one of the most outrageous collections of talent seen on Mediterranean shores since the days of Homer. Zidane whose attacking skills would have made FC Troy quake in their boots Roberto Carlos a man to make the Trojan wall part with his explosive left foot Ronaldo racing forward at top speed into the Trojan defense with the diminutive warrior Owen awaiting his turn concealed in the horse. Or maybe not.

Nevertheless how Madrid had torn Albacete apart on Sunday night! Ronaldo broke forward on the Alba defense again and again like a relentless tide. Gradually Albacete eroded and Madrid hit six. Ronaldo plundered two Raul Zidane Samuel and Owen one each.

Zidane pulled the strings in midfield leaving opponents with little more to do than stamp on his shadow in frustration. In one moment the ball was played out a few yards behind him on the wing. Without slowing his pace he trailed his right foot behind and flicked the ball ahead and into obedience of his rhythm. What a player — right up there with Kubala Di Stefano Cruyff and Maradona.

Equally worth a place among the greats is Ronaldinho. The absurdly smiley Brazilian would have had serious problems had he been faced by Kevin Dillon's character in 'Platoon.' 'What are you smiling at? Huh? Stop smiling goddamit!'

Fortunately though the good-natured South American is not an extra in a Vietnam movie. He is one of the greatest soccer players in the world capable of a single moment of genius to rescue any game. On Sunday he almost almost saved a point from the wreckage of Barca's visit to Real Betis. With the score at 2-1 in favor of Betis Ronaldinho plucked a harmless ball out of the air guided it between two defenders and performed a mesmeric series of twists and dummies before squeezing a shot just beyond the post. The score remained the same and Barca lost their first game of the season.

The opposing fortunes of the two clubs in last weekend's games makes for an ever better clasico now that only four points separates them. A Barcelona win and seven points will separate them. A Madrid victory will narrow the gap to one point.

As Spain gears itself up for the game everyone has their own opinions about the outcome. I've only got room for one here but it's from Johan Cruyff:

'If Barcelona plays as it has done against Milan and Deportivo (La Coruna) if it can impose the same fast-paced football then Madrid will have to play it's best game of the season to come out of the Nou Camp alive.'

Amazingly as many as 15000000 Spaniards could lose the chance to watch the game due to a dispute between broadcasting firms FORTA and TVE. One region which will definitely get to see the game is Catalunya whose local channel TV 3 will be showing it live.

Whoever watches it will be on the edge of their seat. Football doesn't get much more glamorous or political than this. Enjoy.


Saturday, September 16