November 27 2009
If you were lucky enough to be at Old Trafford on September 20 you will have seen a sensational derby game between Manchester United and Manchester City. The Reds triumphed 4-3 thanks to a debut goal from substitute Michael Owen, scored in the sixth minute of injury time. The home fans and the United bench were delirious with joy. There are other fiercely held rivalries in British football, such as United versus Liverpool and Glasgow’s tribal “Old Firm” contests between Celtic and Rangers, but they tend to have too much real hostility to be enjoyable for neutral observers.
An equally passionate but more uplifting aura surrounds the football matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona, arguably the two biggest club sides in Europe, if not the world. The first of this season’s duels takes place on November 29 in Barcelona’s legendary Nou Camp Stadium, and the sides will be competing for more than just bragging rights in football’s hottest league. This is a major cultural collision as both teams’ supporters are intensely proud of their history and traditions.
Real or “Los Blancos” are the Princes from Castile and synonymous with the nation’s sophisticated official capital and home of the Spanish monarchy. But Barcelona, whose famous motto “Ma’s que un club” means “More than a club”, represent not only one of the most exciting party cities in Europe, but the whole independent spirit of Catalonia, once cruelly subjugated by the authorities in Madrid and nowadays a thriving autonomous region. What makes their clashes so special is that both sides believe the game should be played with an abundance of skill, while the two sets of fans believe in turning the day and the night of the match into a right royal party whatever the outcome.
Adding spice to tomorrow night’s contest is the test it will provide of Real’s controversial “Galácticos” policy, which is closely identified with the club’s president Florentino Perez. The 62-year-old construction billionaire first took the helm at Madrid in 2000 and, initially, his determination to sign one of the world’s top players every summer was a resounding success. The great Zinedine Zidane, brought to Spain from Juventus for a thumping £46m fee, helped Real to their ninth Champions League triumph a year later and fellow Galácticos Luis Figo, the Brazilians Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, and England’s David Beckham followed.
After a while, however, it seemed that Madrid had too many stars and not enough spear carriers and the squad failed to win any titles between the 2003/4 season and February 2006 when Perez resigned. But to the frustration of Madrileños, their team couldn’t win anything without the Galácticos either – an unthinkable situation for a club of that stature. So in June this year Señor Perez, still seemingly flush with funds despite the credit crunch, was voted in as president for a second time and immediately went on another spending spree. The football firmament gasped as he acquired Manchester United’s poster boy Cristiano Ronaldo for a world record £80m, and Kaká from AC Milan for £56m, with subsequent purchases taking the total bill past £200m. Outsiders are wondering if a moment may come when the big names and big egos will begin to scrap among themselves if they don’t all get an equal share of the limelight.
By contrast, Barcelona have retained the team spirit that brought them such success last season when they won both the Champions League and La Liga and continue to mix resolute defending with the all-round brilliance of their Argentine winger Lionel Messi and their two Spanish midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who can thread a pass with pinpoint accuracy through opposition legs.
However they fare – at the time of going to press Real are trading at 7-4 for La Liga with Barca odds-on – both sides have their eyes on another Champions League trophy next May, especially as the final will be played in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Los Blancos, 11-2 with Blue Square, have wow factor, but in terms of overall cool I feel Barcelona FC should be able to retain their crown at 7-2 with Coral.