Snapshot of a transcendent rivalry
Real Madrid and Barcelona will lock horns three times in the next 16 days, playing for the Copa Del Rey and a shot at the Champions League final as an historic four-match, winner-take-all-stretch continues in Spain. It's the biggest rivalry in the world - bigger than anything American sports can offer - and one that encompasses the pride and history of Spain, as well as the glamour of two of the planet's most fabled clubs.
To celebrate this four-part derby, FOX Sports presents a two-week long look at the matchup: the whos, the hows and the whys. Today, we offer a look at the background that has made this pairing so charged as well as a primer on the major figures you'll see over the next two weeks, and how they compare to our sportsmen on these shores.
Arguably, Real Madrid's dominance in the early days of the European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League) created the sport's new world. The first "galacticos," showcasing players from France, Hungary and South America in their 1950s-60s lineup, set a standard that everyone else in Europe strove to match. Behind them, the insularity of league football grudgingly gave way to the European game, which today is inarguably the pinnacle of world competition.
But today, Barcelona is the team occupying the spot that Real once claimed as its own, and you better believe it stings the Bernabeu faithful. The Catalans have what many people believe may be the best football club of all time, one which can be placed right there with the Raymond Kopa-era Real, the Johan Cruyff-Ajax and even the Pele-led Brazilians of World Cup fame.
By usurping the place of their arch-rival, Barcelona has added fuel to a long-burning rivalry which can only be fully understood in the context of Spain's history.
Like Italy, Spain was long a collection of regions rather than a single nation. As nationalism took hold, not always peacefully, the regional cultures and languages continued to be expressed and - again like Italy - it often became the job of the football team to symbolize a region.
Both teams have had plenty of brilliant individual stars, but it is sometimes the little stuff - items which an outsider might find hard to fathom - which define the battle lines. Even Spain's success in Europe and the World Cup, where players from both of the great rivals meshed so effectively, has done nothing to dim the rivalry.
Barcelona, for example, will not have any white as part of the club color scheme - it's Real Madrid's color, after all. The Spanish national team rarely plays in either Barcelona or Madrid - it's just easier to play in another, "neutral" city rather than risk charges of favoritism. The fact is, the division between Barcelona and Madrid - and between the region of Cataluyna and the rest of Spain - remains wide-open following one of the grimmest episodes of the 20th Century.
FC Barcelona, founded in 1899, has become the de facto center of Catalunya, an area of northeastern Spain that has its own language, its own television stations and its own culture. It was a major coup for the region when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics, and Barcelona's recent successes in European football (as well as the fact that Barca's men formed the basis of Spain's World Cup winning side) has been central in an era of great pride.
Real Madrid, which was born in 1902, has come to be associated with Spain itself, especially in the era after the Spanish Civil War - when Generalissimo Francisco Franco was known to be a supporter, and rumors flew that the men who play in those famous white strips were getting what they wanted from the government. That was also the era when Santiago Bernabeu Yeste, namesake of the stadium and the man who revived what was essentially a dead club, began Real's policy of big signings buy inking Argentine Alfredo di Stefano.
Barcelona and Real Madrid both coveted di Stefano and - in separate deals with the two South American clubs that claimed to own the Argentine’s rights - bought the same player. The teams proposed sharing the player, but that fell through. Di Stefano went on to become a Real Madrid player, a Spanish national team legend and the cornerstone of Madrid’s first golden era. Barcelona supporters have never forgotten that he might have been theirs.
Though Barcelona's ascendancy took longer, but also revolved around man who 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 passionate advocate of - 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.
Of late, Real Madrid - despite big-ticket signings - has not been able to replicate its domination in either the Spanish league or on the European stage. The current regime hired manager Jose Mourinho to change that story, but he has only been partially successful. Despite having playmaker and club-leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid has consistently lagged behind their arch-rivals, memorably being thumped this past November 5-0 before eking out a 1-1 draw Saturday on their home turf. That was the first time in six games that Real had taken points in this matchup.
Pep Guardiola, who became the youngest man to win the Champions League two seasons ago, has been far more successful, guiding Barcelona to the treble in his first season on the job and having the opportunity to do so again this year. He has the good fortune to have the best player in the world on his team, Argentina's Lionel Messi, surrounded by a bevy of Spanish talent that plays seamless, flowing football.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.