Barca-Madrid world's top sports rivalry

Barca-Madrid world's top sports rivalry

Published Apr. 18, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It's the biggest rivalry in all of sports, bar none.

Forget the Red Sox against the Yankees. It's big in the East (of the U.S.) but hardly Asia. Celtics-Lakers? OK, the Chinese probably do pay attention, but that's a stretch. Ohio State-Michigan? C'mon. They don't even care about this one in Alabama to say nothing of Malaysia.

We're speaking of course of Barcelona against Real Madrid, two of the best-loved, most avidly followed teams in the world. Yes, they are Spanish - though Barcelona would argue strenuously against such a point - and no, the passion does not end at the border.

Tens of millions around the globe will watch these two giants of global soccer clash three times in the next 16 days, with the Spanish Cup and a berth in the finals of the Champions League on the line. At stake is an almost unimaginable pride, fired by over a century of division. What this means for the clubs' global following is simple: three epic clashes between two of the greatest teams ever assembled in any sport.


Barcelona are perhaps the world's best known and best followed club today, with their jerseys adorning the backs of people from Moscow to Santiago and all points in between. Part of the reason is the fact that the club became a powerhouse at precisely the moment that global soccer became a television phenomenon.

With the formation of the so-called "Dream Team" under ex-player Johan Cruyff beginning in 1988, Barcelona was a clearinghouse of global talent with names like Romario (Brazil), Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria), Michael Laudrup (Denmark) and Ronald Koeman (the Netherlands) on the roster. In American terms, think of the 1992 Olympic basketball team, with names like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and Magic Johnson.

But Barcelona were more than money: They have one of the justifiably legendary development systems that has stocked not only the current championship side but also other clubs around the globe. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas is one of the most famous away graduate. Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique are just four of several players either wholly developed or finished at Barca's youth academy.

Real Madrid made their legacy in the post-WWII era, with the era's blockbuster signing of Alfredo di Stefano. But racing to catch up with Barcelona at the turn of the 21st Century, club president Florentino Perez began an arms race that has had pan-global implications. Real Madrid became the model for clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea, hoovering up talent like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Raul and Ronaldo. If George Steinbrenner's Yankees defined free agency in American baseball with his Bronx Bombers, Real Madrid made it a worldwide soccer tactic.

If Barcelona, with their focus on youth, are the Red Sox, then Real Madrid are almost certainly the Yankees - just not as successful. In fact, while Madrid won the 2001-02 Champions league with the glitterati, they followed that up with a three-season fallow period. They have not won their own league title since 2007-08 and their slippage has many questioning if they are still the global megabrand of old. Indeed, Manchester United undoubtedly has surpassed them in many parts of the world, even some of the Spanish-speaking areas that have traditionally been Madridista.

There is no question that the lineups of both teams have clubs around the world drooling. Both can start a World Cup winner or national team standout at every position. Both are full of players who are the absolute best at their position, or darn close. And both have reserves of talent that can make outrageous substitutions look more like reloading.

Consider that last week Real Madrid was able to swap out Cristiano Ronaldo in a Champions League game ... for Kaka. That's kind of like being able to bench Kobe Bryant in favor of Jordan. Ronaldo is also having what even his detractors concede is a monster season, with 41 goals overall and 29 in league play. Kaka, injured, is simply playing his way back to form.

The thing is, Ronaldo - like Real Madrid - is coming up short behind his main competition: Barcelona's Messi. Messi's stats are so otherworldly he can only be compared to Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice or the Intimidator himself, the late Dale Earnhardt. An unholy amalgam of Pele, Diego Maradona and Ronaldo, Messi is clearly the greatest player of this decade and the arguments have already begun about where he ranks all-time. And, folks, Messi arguably can get better; he's not anywhere near football "middle age," meaning the best may be yet to come.

This season, the Argentine has 30 goals in the league to lead the golden boot race and a record 49 goals for his club overall. How good is he? Despite the fact that Barcelona have one of the best pure strikers in the world in David Villa, Villa doesn't have to score for the team to win. Villa is not exactly a slouch, either: he's found the net 21 times. Just by way of comparison, the Premiership's top scorer is Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United: he has 21 in the league, and 22 across all competitions.

Wednesday's Copa Del Rey matchup will be just the sixth time that the teams have met in the final, but both have enviable runs in the tournament's history. Barcelona have taken the title a record 25 times while Real Madrid have won it 17. It is the only competition in which Barcelona has an edge on their bitter rivals, with Real eclipsing them in league titles and top-flight European glory. Both are hungry, and Wednesday's game is the simply the latest opportunity for both sides to land a killer blow.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.