Date with history adds another scintillating sprinkle to El Clasico

Date with history adds another scintillating sprinkle to El Clasico

Published Oct. 23, 2014 4:56 p.m. ET


Lionel Messi will always remember his first 'El Clasico' in Madrid. He was 18 and it was no ordinary Real Madrid versus Barcelona. At one stage, a significant number of Madrid supporters rose to their feet to applaud a performance of individual excellence which stood out, even by the high standards set by club soccer's most intense fixture.

The moment is preserved on YouTube, an iconic image. One cameraman had picked out a Madrid fan, about 60 years old, his white scarf around his neck, his trim mustache giving a certain old-fashioned dignity to his face. There he was, standing and applauding not the teenaged Messi but Ronaldinho, Barcelona's dynamic star of the day. Madrid were disheveled, beaten 3-0, and this madridista's generous appreciation of the brilliance of the visiting team, whatever the historic enmity between his club and Ronaldinho's, became a symbol, an emblem of good sportsmanship, but also of Barca's unchallengeable swagger, of Madrid's inferiority, and the beginning of an era in which the Catalan club would regularly achieve more than their rivals.

The fan, it turned out, was named Juan Sanchez. Think of a name to give to a Spanish Average Joe, and you'd come up with something like Juan Sanchez. This Juan Sanchez still gets asked about his 15 seconds of fame, nine years later.


Ahead of Messi's 15th El Clasico at the Bernabeu, the question about how many Juan Sanchezes, madridistas who appreciate soccer with a purity that can rise above rivalry, there might be in the Bernabeu Saturday is pertinent. Messi's enduring greatness is about to be endorsed in a way Ronaldinho's never was. The Argentinian's next goal in the Spanish League, his 251st, will make him the most prolific goalscorer in the history of La Liga's top division, alongside Telma Zarra, icon of the 1940s and 1950s. His 252nd goal gives Messi the all-time record.

Tradition suggests that if Messi makes that landmark in Madrid, players, spectators and officials present should pause to give him an ovation. Are there 80,000 Juan Sanchez-types in the Bernabeu ready to do that, if Messi scores once, or twice, on Saturday? In the furnace of a Madrid-Barca clasico? In Cristiano Ronaldo's home arena? Even Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, one of the most measured, cool veterans of this fixtures, thinks the idea a little contrived. "It would be unusual, and I'm not sure how the public would react," said Iniesta. "If Leo scores two goals, all the better for us, but if we don't celebrate [the landmark] there, we can celebrate it later, here in Barcelona."

There are plenty of stadiums outside Barcelona where the name Messi is chanted long and loud. There are plenty where he is not even present where the Messi ovation has been heard. Not so long ago, a fashion started among supporters of teams who host Real Madrid, or even play at home to the Portugal national side, to chant the word "Messi" in order to goad, to antagonize Ronaldo. The idea developed because of the easy perception Ronaldo struggles with an envy, a powerful sense that his epoch-defining brilliance is seen as second-best to Messi's.

Right now, that envy is in remission. Coming into this Clasico, the likeliest headliner is not Messi, despite his fetching record of 12 goals in 14 visits to Real Madrid, nor Luis Suarez, who is eligible to play his first competitive match for Barcelona following his $101 million summer signing and the completion, at midnight on Friday, of his four-month ban for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini while representing Uruguay at the World Cup. The main man, the figure towering over this giant clash, is Ronaldo.

Never, even in the prolific five years that Ronaldo has been at Madrid, vying with Messi as chief standard-bearer of the sport in the 21st century, has a Juan Sanchez, an Average Joe, felt so certain that Ronaldo will give him reasons to stand up and applaud. If Ronaldo does not score Saturday, it will be freakish. In seven Liga matches this season, Ronaldo has scored in every one, usually more than once. He has 15 Liga goals in total. In European club games, he has five in four.

In Ronaldo's ever-evolving joust with Messi, he is way ahead in 2014-15. And, subtly, he has been defining himself as less of a prima donna than Messi, too, a shift in the customary caricature of Messi v Ronaldo. Last weekend, Messi very obviously dismissed the suggestion from Barcelona's head coach, Luis Enrique that he should be substituted in the win against Eibar. By contrast, Madrid's head coach, Carlo Ancelotti, remarked after having substituted Ronaldo against Liverpool -- he wanted to rest him once Madrid had a 3-0 lead -- that he did not "need to ask" his superstar before taking that decision.

It was a tease. Ancelotti, like Luis Enrique, knows that his club, just like Barcelona, has a relationship with their standout superstar which demands a level of indulgence, special care and extra appreciation. And madridistas, every Juan Sanchez of them, know Ronaldo is worth indulging, that he has given to Madrid a sustained excellence that even Ronaldinho, provider of impetus and magic, did not give Barcelona. Better still, as Ronaldo prepares to enter his 30s, he seems to get better, hungrier, and, maybe, less liable to feeling goaded by hearing Messi's name chanted, maybe more deaf to the idea there may be someone better than him.