Note: it's the football offseason, and there are plenty of fans of the other football around BC, so if it's not your bag, baby, click on to the next post.
On Tuesday, Spain's two biggest teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, play. Again. Thanks to the two teams' success, this is the fourth time they've played in about two weeks -- to put this in a little perspective for the BC crowd, imagine Texas playing the Aggies on Thanksgiving, the next week for a conference title, and then again in a bowl game. Plus one.
But the cultural divide that separates Texas and A&M pales in comparison to that between Real and Barca, thanks largely to the Catalans' yearning for political and cultural independence, and Real's association with the Spanish monarchy as well as the dictator Franco, who was no friend of Catalonia. When these teams play, they're not two sets of guys in different color shirts, it's two groups of people, two regions, two colors teeing off against each other.
Adding to the passion is the fact that the teams have been so dominant in Spanish football, meaning that nearly every football fan in the country supports two teams: their local/home side, and Real or Barca. Between them, they've won 51 Spanish league titles and 12 European Cups/Champions Leagues; their rosters have been filled with some of the greatest players ever: Di Stefano, Cruyff, Maradona, Ronaldo (the fat Brazilian one) and many more. Even today they boast arguably the two best players in the world: Leo Messi for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo from Madrid.
On every level, these teams compete: for Spanish league titles, for Cups, for European titles. They compete to sign the best players every off-season; Ronaldo and Messi have been waging a personal battle for top scorer in Spain, with Messi leading with an astounding 48 goals. The battle between their managers played out last week in the press, when Barca coach Pep Guardiola lashed out at continued goading by his Real counterpart -- and one-time Barcelona coaching staff member -- Jose Mourinho.
Their tactics and playing styles differ as well. Barcelona plays some of the most beautiful, free-flowing football you have or will ever see. When I saw them play at home in February, the ease with which they scored their opening goal was simply stunning, as well as their apparent disuse with traditional formations and a reliance on two defenders and eight attackers (often their most far-forward player was the "fullback" Dani Alves). Madrid reflects' Mourinho's much more defensive (and some say negative) approach, based around defensive solidity, holding midfielders and relying on a handful of flair players to create goals.
The teams played once in the league earlier this season, when Barcelona handed out the most comprehensive ass-whipping I've ever seen, winning 5-0 and dominating with 67% possession. It was so bad that towards the end of the game, the Madrid players were trying to kick their Catalan rivals, rather than the ball, but failed to connect with either. That result seemed to set the tone for Real for quite some time, but they are hitting a late-season peak and playing some excellent football.
Clearly there's drama here. Which means there's also going to be some comedy. For quite a long time, my favorite moment in the Real-Barca rivalry came after Portuguese winger Luis Figo swapped the blue and red of Barca for the white of Madrid. On Madrid's first visit back to Barcelona, Figo -- the team's usual taker of corner kicks -- was hit with a barrage of abuse at every opportunity, and then also had a pig's head tossed his way.
Yes, a pig's head.
However, that moment was matched during Real's open-top bus victory parade last week after their Copa del Rey win. Things were going great until somebody passed the trophy to fullback Sergio Ramos (who's always struck me as a stereotypical dumb jock). Ramos took the trophy and started jumping up and down at the front of the top of the bus, then proceeded to drop the cup… in front of the moving bus, which then did what moving buses do to objects placed under their wheels.
In this latest set of tussles, round one went to Barcelona, which went to Real's stadium in a league match and snatched a draw with a late penalty. This result essentially put second-placed Real out of the running for the league title, but perhaps spurred them on to success four days later in the Copa del Rey final, which they won in extra time. The teams met in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final last week (the teams play a home-and-home, with the aggregate scores determining the winner) in Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium. The match was highly anticipated as a showcase for two of the best teams in the world; Barcelona ran out 2-0 winners, but the real loser was football, as the match was one of the most horrific displays of the game in a long, long time.
Madrid's strategy was two-fold: first, park the proverbial bus deep in their own half and defend, defend, defend, while launching the occasional counter-attack. Second, kick the proverbial three shades of shit out of Barcelona's players. For its part, Barcelona played its usual "tiki-taka" attacking game, but obliged the second leg of Madrid's tactics by falling over dramatically any time they encountered a force with the strength of a gnat fart. Mourinho's heavy-handedness backfired, as Real midfielder Pepe was sent off for a high tackle on Dani Alves; Mourinho himself got sent to the stands after winking and sarcastically applauding at the fourth official. Messi later rose above the fray to twice display his class and settle the tie.
This gave Mourinho a narrative, an opening he fully exploited in his post-match comments, where he alleged a grand conspiracy in favor of Barcelona, and against him personally. Mourinho's no stranger to controversy in the Champions League, much of it self-manufactured, reaching back to his days as Chelsea boss. He also alleged that Guardiola's earlier Champions League win was tainted by scandal, and this year's title will be, too. But the bloviating didn't stop there: Barcelona filed a complaint with UEFA about Mourinho's comments, while Madrid called on the governing body to ban six Barcelona players for "unsporting behavior", and have now also alleged that Sergio Busquets made racist comments to their player Marcelo.
Neither team covered themselves in glory last week, but the match served as a tasty entree into the second leg, to be played tomorrow at Barcelona's Camp Nou. Mourinho says that Madrid is out of it and only playing for pride (and that they couldn't overcome the dark forces aligned against them anyway), but at 2-0 down, it's not inconceivable that they could turn things around. But to do so, they'd have to come out of their bus and attack Barcelona, leading to the prospect of an exciting encounter. On the flip side, if they truly believe they have nothing left to play for, it seems likely they'd try to take their frustration out on Barca in less salubrious ways, creating the potential for another 5-0 embarrassment.
Either way, tomorrow's match will be compelling viewing. 2:45 Eastern on Fox Soccer Channel.