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Leah Temple Lang / Gavel Media

El Clásico and Soccer as an Ideology

Last weekend, Barcelona and Real Madrid met once again in the El Clásico, a soccer match that routinely pulls in millions of viewers from around the world. 

In a match that would be all but decided by halftime, former Barcelona Legend Xavi returned to the Bernabeu and was able to oversee a stellar performance by his Barcelona side that saw them run out as 4-0 victors. 

Ferran Torres and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, both new transfers from the Premier League, left their mark on the game through their direct play and intensive finishing. 

However, many viewers are unaware of the politically and culturally driven conflict that underscores every match between these historic Spanish rivals.  

In 1936, a general in the Spanish Army named Francisco Franco began a military revolt in the rural fields of Spain against the republican government. With the support of the Nazi government and Italy, he was able to slowly overwhelm the republican forces through targeting bombing, often killing civilians. Franco believed in a strong state built upon Nationalism, Catholicism, and Fascism. As depicted in the famous Picasso painting, Guernica, civilians were often the victims of military actions.  

Barcelona, as the capital of Catalonia and the Republican resistance, stood as the symbol of resistance against the Franco regime. Following the war, the stadium of Barcelona Football Club was one of the few places where the Catalonian language and culture could still survive. The team was forced to change their name as well as remove the Catalonian flag from their crest. Victories for Barcelona CF became victories for a people whose culture was under attack. 

In an effort to unify the nation following the bloody conflict, Franco undertook a campaign of violent suppression of any ideas counter to his government and Catholicism. Soccer had begun to take hold of the country's people so Franco adopted the sport into his propaganda machine. 

Franco had no passion for the game but still sought to use Real Madrid and their success to represent the benefits of his government. As a result, he often undertook targeted actions against Barcelona. 

In 1943, the two sides were matched together in the Copa del Generalísimo. Barcelona won the first leg in front of their supporters, however, in the second leg they would lose by a humiliating score of 11-1. 

Author Jimmy Burns alleges that military officials threatened the players and reminded them of their duty to the general and the country. Real Madrid would enter half-time having scored eight goals against a team of players fearing for the safety of their families. 

Ironically, the symbol of the royalist domination would go on to lose the final to Athletic Bilbao, a team solely composed of Basque players, another Spanish ethnic group subject to Franco's culture war.  In Franco’s attempt to create a more hegemonic Spain, this match was a symbolic victory for the ideology of the oppressed. 

This was the moment that transferred the hatred of the Catalonians towards the war and the Franco regime onto Real Madrid Football Club, but it would not be the last instance of Franco’s interference with the two clubs. 

Four years after the semifinal, an Argentinian superstar by the name of Alfredo di Stefano became the subject of a bidding war between the two clubs. Franco, not wanting Barcelona to secure a player that would undermine his ideology, intimidated the Barcelona board and had one of his government men placed in charge of negotiating the transfer for the Catalonian club. Even still, Barcelona inched closer to a deal until the dictator passed a law banning the signing of any foreign players. 

With the power now in his hands, Franco proposed a compromise: have the player alternate for each club every year. Two years later, Franco would get full control of the player with the consent of the Barcelona board that he had helped to appoint. 

Di Stefano would go on to score over 200 goals for Real Madrid, helping them win five consecutive European Cups. Real Madrid became the kings of Europe, showcasing the brilliance of Spain and as a byproduct, Franco's regime.  

As time progressed and the Franco government eventually fell, the influence of the former dictator began to fade into the back of some fans' minds. After Franco, Real Madrid began a period of sustained dominance both in Europe and in Spain. 

Real Madrid became a factory of superstar talent while simultaneously attracting the world’s greatest players. Raul, Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas, and Luis Figo. 

Figo in particular represents the divide in ideology between the two clubs. Born in Portugal, Figo was bought by Barcelona in 1995 for 2 million euros. Under the training of the coaches at Barcelona, he became one of the best players in the world by the turn of the century. Florentino Perez, wanting to make his mark as the new president of Real Madrid, made a splash by signing Figo from his hated rivals by triggering a release clause in his contract. 

Perez was beginning his era of the Galacticos, a policy of signing the world's most renowned players. In his second game returning to Barcelona, Figo would receive a symbol showing what Barcelona fans thought of the new Real Madrid; a severed pig's head, which was famously captured after Barcelona fans threw it onto the pitch. 

Barcelona believed they stood for something more than money, and for them, it was as if Figo had abandoned them for the dark side. The empire struck once again. 

The phrase “Mes que un club” is often used in reference to Barcelona by its supporters. It is a phrase that has come to represent the cultural struggle of an ethnic group. At times, they fell victim to the suppression and domination of Real Madrid and Francoism. More recently, Cruyff and Guardiola's ideology helped show how tactical brilliance can triumph over the spending of the Galacticos. 

These victories are representative of the survival of Catalonian culture despite the best efforts to erase it. When their culture was threatened through sport, each match became a battleground for ideas. Victors showed not only the strength of their team but also the strength of their ideology. Sports are not as simple as results and statistics. There is a whole cultural and social history that shapes every moment and influences the consequences of any outcome. 

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