‘El Clasico’ still reigns supreme

This is the eleventh piece in our season-long survey of the big games this season in European football. Check out the FoxSoccer.com archive for past installments, and stay with the Fox family all season long for in-depth introductions to the clubs, the players, and the history of the European game for American readers.

Americans are very fond of claiming they’ve got "the greatest" when it comes to sports.

It’s true that Major League Baseball and the NFL are the best at what they do in the world. You wouldn’t get much of an argument if you claimed that the NBA and the NHL offer the highest levels of their respective sports. But don’t fall for the line that the annual battle between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox is sport’s top rivalry. It’s not.

Monday night, when Barcelona and Real Madrid meet in La Liga for the 161st time at Nou Camp Stadium, you can see the rivalry that truly is the planet’s best. The game known as “El Clasico” has it all — history, power, and talent. An estimated one billion people worldwide will tune in to watch a game with and an outsized influence on Spanish football.

The two teams playing this week present arguably the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on one field for one match. Between them the two sides could field a World Cup player at every position should they choose to do so. In Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo you have the two leading candidates for player of the year — maybe even the player of their era. And Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho isn’t called ‘The Special One’ glibly. He has won everywhere he’s been … about the only missing piece of his resume is leading a nation to a World Cup (there’s time for that, too).

Monday’s meeting will feature many of the players who won Spain’s World Cup last summer in South Africa. Real Madrid normally starts Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, and Xabi Alonso while the Barcelona side usually includes Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa. That’s eight of the eleven men who played most of the minutes for Spain last summer, and the fact that they played as seamless unit belied the rivalry between clubs and regions that had been cited as a reason for Spain’s legendary and historic underperfomances.

That brings up the history. Americans understand what their Civil War did to shape the nation’s politics; we’re still fundamentally divided nearly 150 years after the last shot was fired. The Spanish Civil War is of far more recent vintage, and the division between Barcelona and Madrid — and between the region of Catalonia and the rest of Spain — remains firmly affected by what was one of the grimmest episodes of the 20th Century.

Barcelona is said to embody the identity of the Spanish region of Catalonia, and the team carries the motto "more than a club" to drive that point home. In contrast, Real Madrid has long been considered the club of the establishment in Spain, a view that was enhanced during the Franco era.

While the teams first played in 1902, the first league meeting between the clubs took place in 1929, instantly drawing lines between the teams, their fans, and their identities (several Barcelona players of that era enlisted in the opposition forces fighting the Franco regime). The rivalry gained more heat in the 1950s and 1960s, kindled by a single player. That man was Argentine-born Alfredo DiStefano, who was involved in a bizarre and messy transfer from Colombia’s Milionarios.

What happened was that the Colombian league had gone on strike, leading DiStefano to join River Plate for the season. Barcelona and Real Madrid both coveted DiStefano, and in separate deals with the two South American clubs that claimed to own the Argentine’s rights… bought the same player. Chaos ensued.

Efforts at a negotiated settlement — which would have seen the two clubs sharing DiStefano’s services every other season in a neat bit of Solomonic logic — fell through. DiStefano went on to become a Real Madrid player, a Spanish national team legend (this was in an era of multiple registrations) — and the cornerstone of Madrid’s first golden era. Barcelona supporters have never forgotten that he might have been theirs.

Riding DiStefano, Real Madrid established itself as Europe’s top club, dominating the old European Cup when it was launched. In fact, that Real Madrid doesn’t look all that different from the "galaticos" of today. Real was one of the first European clubs to field a roster of international stars, built around DiStefano, the French legend Raymond Kopa, and the almost supernatural striker Ferenc Puskas of Hungary.

Barcelona’s ascendancy took longer, but also revolves around man qho was his era’s consensus best player — Dutchman Johan Cruyff (American fans with long memories will recognize him from the old NASL’s Washington Diplomats).

Suiting up from 1973-78 in the blaugrana colors, Cruyff fundamentally changed the way Barcelona played the game, and his influence on the Catalans can be seen to this day. The Dutchman was one of the leading practitioners of — and later a proselytizer for — the quick-passing, “total football” style that put a premium on technique over physique. Cruyff would return to manage the club from 1988-1996 and remains a key adviser for the club to this day. In each era, Cruyff brought European notice to Barcelona, helping them rise to equal status on the field with their great Madrid rivals.

In recent years, Barcelona has had the edge over their rivals. They have won the last four derby meetings, led by the play of Messi, who had a hat trick in the 2007 3-3 tie between the rivals. Messi has scored in three of the last four Barca triumphs, and along the way, Messi helped Barcelona’s rookie coach Pep Guardiola crown his first year as Barcelona manager with a UEFA Champions League victory at the expense of Manchester United (2009) that completed a sweep of honors for the Spanish champions.

Ronaldo, in just his second season in Madrid and his first under Mourinho, has yet to open his account in this biggest of matches (Real Madrid was blanked in both league encounters a year ago) but appears to be hitting his very best form on the eve of Monday’s showdown. He so completely dominated Tuesday night’s Champions League rout of Ajax that he appeared to be playing in another dimension — and this on a field which included his own teammates, virtually all of them Argentine, German, Portuguese and Spanish World Cup stars on their own.

With that in mind, fans new to watching this one might keep an early eye on the Germans Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, two of Mourinho’s key additions at Real Madrid. They’ve been in big ones before, but perhaps nothing quite like this.

Barcelona’s Villa is another superstar taking his first step onto the field in this derby. A star at Valencia, he’s faced Real Madrid plenty of times, but never with the weight of Catalonia on his back.

The atmosphere and the match produce heroes — but even the best can be crushed by the expectations. If anything, the intensity of this rivalry is such that the match often fails to produce the expected artistry because neither team can settle in what is a scalding atmosphere.

Finally, the facts:

— When they kick off Monday, Real Madrid will have 32 points, one more than Barcelona. Both are pulling clear in what looks like becoming a straight two-team fight for La Liga.

— Both played Champions League matches in midweek and both are through to the next round with a game to spare.

–Real Madrid enters with a whiff of controversy about them, with Mourinho and four of his players being charged by UEFA with “unsporting behavior,” for ordering two of his players to intentionally collect yellow cards on Tuesday — thus avoiding a suspension in a key second-round Champions League game.

— No matter what happens Monday this is only match 13 of a 38-game La Liga slog. No title will be settled Monday.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering European football.