This Saturday will mark this season’s first head-to-head encounter between Barcelona and Real Madrid. You will hear from various media outlets that this match is “arguably” the biggest game in all of sports. But there is no argument. This is the biggest game in all sports. It is big in the sense that a global audience of between 400-500 million viewers will tune in worldwide for a regular season match played by two Spanish teams.
Combined, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won 54 Spanish league titles (Real Madrid 32, Barcelona 22) and 13 European Cups. Real Madrid has the record with nine Champions League wins, while Barcelona has four.
Programming note: For viewers in the United States, the match is being shown exclusively on beIN SPORT, beIN SPORT Espanol and DishWorld. The pre-match programming begins at 11am ET Saturday, with kick-off at Noon ET. Even if you don’t have a TV subscription to beIN SPORT, you can access those channels via online streaming service DishWorld for $10/month. Read our review of DishWorld. And sign up for DishWorld via their website.
Here are some of the storylines heading into this season’s first ‘El Clasico’:
More often than not, you will hear television pundits refer to a player as “world class.” Sometimes that label can be overused. But when Barcelona and Real Madrid face-off, there will be a number of world class players on the pitch.
Over the past few years, the focus of the world has centered on the matchup between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Without a doubt, these are the top two players in the world (We’ll save the argument as to “Who is the best?” for another article).
But Barcelona added the third best player in the world to their roster this summer, Neymar. The 21-year-old Brazilian winger has been a sensation for years at Santos before his transfer to Barca this summer.
He has started off well at his new club with three goals and six assists in thirteen contests. Although, he has provoked some early season controversy in Spain regarding his frequency of going to ground (or going down too easy). It is something that was raised during his time in Brazil. But he has started well for the club and there can be no argument of his quality.
Along with Neymar, Barcelona boasts a squad is full of players who start for their various national teams: Xavi, Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas, Carles Puyol, Alexis Sanchez, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Daniel Alves and Víctor Valdés.
Not to be outdone, Real Madrid added a world class player of their own to their roster. Even though it took until the final day of the transfer window, Los Blancos were able to land Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur for a record transfer fee of £85.3m ($138m).
Bale was the 2013 PFA Player of the Year/Young Player of the Year and the FWA (Football Writer’s Association) Player of the Year. He was one of only two players to have won all three honors in the same season, the other being Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007.
Due to lingering injuries which saw him miss Tottenham’s entire preseason, Bale has not featured as much in Madrid’s early season. Despite the injuries, he was able to score a goal in his very first appearance for Real Madrid.
Aside from Bale, Madrid also has a lineup full of national team players: Iker Casillas, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Sami Khedira, Karim Benzema, Marcelo, Xavi Alonso, Luka Modric, Ángel di María, and new signing, Isco.
Neymar should be a lock to play on Saturday, but Bale is currently fighting fitness. He did come off the bench during Madrid’s mid-week Champions League match versus Juventus. But it has yet to be determined if Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti will give him a start against Barcelona.
More than likely, a notable absence from the match will be Barcelona defender, Gerard Pique. He suffered a hamstring injury during Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with AC Milan on Tuesday.
Barcelona is currently top of La Liga with 25 points after nine matches. Real Madrid is in third place with 22 points. A Madrid win would only put them level on points with Barcelona because of the Catalans’ superior goal differential.
But a Madrid victory could still knock Barcelona from the top of the table. Should second place Atlético Madrid win their match on Sunday versus Real Betis, they would vault ahead of both Barcelona and Real Madrid into first place in La Liga.
‘El Clasico’ overview
Aside from the fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid are two very good clubs with long histories in European football, there are political and philosophical differences between their supporters which intensify feelings towards this match.
To simplify, Real Madrid’s philosophy is to spend money and buy the best players in the world. Some would say that not much thought is put into team chemistry and most people would agree that the players have more power than the manager at Madrid.
Barcelona has shown that they will spend money, but for the most part they have invested in young players and over time developed them according to their playing philosophy. The manager is a key figure and team chemistry is quintessential at the club.
Or you could look at Barcelona from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s point of view: “None of the lads acted like superstars, which was strange. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, the whole gang – they were like schoolboys. The best footballers in the world stood there with their heads bowed, and I didn’t understand any of it. It was ridiculous.” He went on, “Everyone did as they were told. I didn’t fit in, not at all. I thought, just enjoy the opportunity, don’t confirm their prejudices. So I started to adapt and blend in. I became way too nice. It was mental.”
(Most would feel that Zlatan would fit in better at Madrid than he did at Barcelona)
Political and Cultural differences
The two clubs political and cultural differences really can’t be explained easily. Again, to simplify:
Barcelona is one of four provinces which comprise Catalonia. Catalonia is an autonomous community of Spain and an officially recognized nationality. Although a portion of Barcelona’s population speaks Spanish, the majority of its people speak Catalan.
Barcelona’s motto is “Més que un club” (More than a club). Their matches are a point of national pride in the Catalan culture. The Camp Nou is a shrine for Catalans and really transcends the sport of football.
Madrid is the capital of Spain as well as the home of Spanish government. The majority of Spain supports Real Madrid. Madrid supporters feel that Barcelona and the Catalan people do not honor Spain, much the same way some Canadians feel about Quebec (whose people speak French and have attempted to secede from Canada numerous times).
Madrid is very conservative, while Barcelona is progressive. Madrid supporters feel that Los Blancos are Spain through and through. They speak the country’s native tongue and dance to flamenco music before, during, and after the home matches at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Aside from the rivalry on and off the field, there will be an extremely emotional event taking place while the players walk out on the pitch. The Spanish media are reporting that Barcelona will honor their former manager, Tito Vilanova, with a mosaic prior to the start of ‘El Clasico’. Vilanova was forced to resign from his post in July to continue his treatment for throat cancer.
The mosaic that will be displayed in both Barcelona’s red and blue colors, as well as the yellow and red of the Catalan flag, and will spell out ‘Força Tito’ (‘Chin up, Tito’).
You can see a rendering of the mosaic here:
A statement from Barcelona’s website read: “Once the Barcelona and Real Madrid players take to the field on Saturday, the Camp Nou public will form a mosaic which will read ‘Forca Tito’, a message of support for the former coach of the club who had to leave his post with the first team in July 2013 to continue treatment for the illness that was detected nearly two years ago.”
Football matches are known for their mosaics. But this one, as well as the singing of Barcelona’s anthem “Cant del Barça”, will be particularly moving.