On the pitch or off, drama always a component of Clasico
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There are typically two components to any Clasico showdown. There’s the match itself between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and then there’s everything else.
Depending on the ever-changing circumstances of Spanish football, one element will run hotter than the other.
During the nine years of Messi vs. Ronaldo, in which the two clubs won a combined six European Cups and took the sport to magnificent, breathless heights, it was the actual games that boiled blood.
And, to some extent, that will always be the case, what with the pair perennially in competition for major prizes.
Now, however, the dynamic seems to have shifted, as boardroom drama, courtroom drama and interpersonal drama have recently driven temperatures to fever level.
Marca, although prone to embellishment, probably didn’t exaggerate when stating this week that Sunday’s Clasico (3 p.m., TSN+) “has raised the atmosphere to unknown limits within the last decade.”
Quite appropriately, one of the bigger talking points ahead of kick-off concerns the referee.
Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea, a Basque (it shouldn’t matter, but it does), will have the whistle at Camp Nou — his second Clasico assignment, incredibly, in barely two months.
It’s a statement of trust from referees’ chief Luis Medina Cantalejo (the headset-wearing fourth official who got Zinedine Zidane sent off in the 2006 World Cup final, as a piece of trivia), although Madrid might need convincing.
They lost the first Bengoetxea Clasico in the final of the Supercopa de Espana, and in 2017 the then-31-year-old made headlines after sending off Ronaldo. But that was six years ago, and since then he’s established a reputation as an honest, implacable referee — firm, yet someone the players know they can reason with. He’s not the issue here.
No, Madrid are clutching their Meringue pearls because of what they see, or claim to see, as a much bigger, more far-reaching problem: systemic favouring of Barcelona.
It’s both understandable, albeit from a patronizing point of view, and altogether ridiculous.
OK, much of world football certainly did get all swept up in tiki-taka, Messi-mania and the notion, mostly naïve, that Barcelona as an establishment, as an idea, was virtuous and good — particularly during Pep Guardiola’s tenure as manager, and especially as Madrid signed this player and that, including the villain Ronaldo.
Meanwhile, the Catalan giants were strolling onto the pitch for their latest game of keep-away, their shirts advertising UNICEF for free.
Madrid were always going to despise their archrivals’ trumpeting from the high grounds, both moral and aesthetic. And then, last month’s report of possible influence peddling involving Barcelona and Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, the former vice president of the Referee’s Committee, confirmed what they’d always suspected.
Only, it really didn’t, because they first had to remember what it was they were upset about, those four Champions Leagues in five seasons having rather taken the edge off the cynicism.
Did Caso Negreira, as the scandal’s been nicknamed, actually benefit Barcelona? Given they supposedly made multiple payments over several years, it’s likely that it did. Which, it goes without saying, is extremely troubling.
The Spanish courts are looking into it, and they’ll be thorough. No worries there. They have a special taste — even a craving — for the flesh of entitled football directors, a number of whom have been known to end up behind bars.
The public prosecutor has already stated that, “in exchange for money,” Enriquez Negreira performed “actions to the benefit of FC Barcelona in decisions by referees,” so it doesn’t look good for the Blaugranes.
Not surprisingly, Real Madrid will attend the court proceedings as a claimant, having registered as an injured party. Which, again, is both understandable and ridiculous.
Yes, it’s plausible that Caso Negreira impacted specific results among the whole of the Spanish top flight and perhaps the Copa del Rey. Moniker aside, it’s also unlikely to have been a one-off scheme.
Retired referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez, for one, claimed Monday on Cadena SER that Madrid president Florentino Perez once put him in a separate room for a sort of high-pressure interrogation at the Bernabeu. And he’s previously remarked that Spanish officials are routinely “run over by the Real Madrid bus.”
It’s all quite deplorable, though not the least bit surprising.
Madrid and Barcelona have always done whatever is necessary to retain La Liga primacy, be it bending transfer rules to their advantage, auctioning their own broadcast rights, or exerting pressure on referees.
Where Madrid may rightfully feel they have the momentary upper hand is in the business realm — a place that has recently brought their adversaries low.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta’s inability to re-sign Lionel Messi in 2021 revealed a financial mess that a year later required the club to sell stake in their commercial assets in order to register the squad. Even more embarrassing was the renaming of their iconic stadium to “Spotify” Camp Nou — a soul-selling that led to the ultimate degradation: wearing Drake-branded jerseys for October’s Clasico.
They’ll be sporting Rosalia’s logo on their shirts for Sunday’s clash, and with additional revenue required to sign players in the summer it’s likely Laporta will conjure up further degradations to exchange for those precious euros.
Real Madrid won’t be placated by their opponents’ humiliation, however comprehensive, nor the possible sentencing of guilty administrators, however severe. Somehow, despite themselves, Barcelona sit comfortably atop the table at the season’s three-quarter mark—nine points clear of the second-place Blancos.
Xavi Hernandez, orchestrator of those outstanding Guardiola teams, has been organizing his players as effectively as a manager as he did as a midfielder.
His cobbled-together backline has conceded just eight goals in 25 matches, and, predictably, his lineups have enjoyed more of the ball than any other. In the likes of Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati, he’s also training three of European football’s blue-chip prospects.
Quite incredibly, Barcelona look set to win a first title in four years, ending its longest barren streak in nearly two decades. To Real Madrid, that’s completely unacceptable.
Tempers may not flair on the field Sunday, even if the 90 minutes are still entertaining. No, this Clasico’s tension is of that other component. And the gamesmanship has already begun.
In a break with tradition, Laporta and Perez will not share a pre-game lunch.