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The gigantic Santiago Bernabéu football stadium will resemble something akin to a powder keg on Saturday night when it hosts the latest encounter between its owners Real Madrid and visitors FC Barcelona, writes Jimmy Burns.
The expected global television audience of 3bn reflects the importance attached in the world football calendar to the Spanish League’s “gran classicó” – one of the most passionate and politically charged of all sporting rivalries.
However, as the match coincides with the 30th anniversary of the death of Francisco Franco it will serve as a reminder of the extent to which the dictator, who also known as El Caudillo (the leader) ruled for four decades, influenced every aspect of Spanish life, including football.
It was during the Franco years that the political scars left by the Spanish civil war found enduring expression in the rivalry between the clubs. While Real Madrid allowed itself to become closely identified with the Franco regime, Barcelona became a channel for Catalan regional identity that was repressed beyond the playing fields.
José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has not endeared himself to Madrid fans by being the first democratically elected prime minister to declare himself a Barcelona fan. This week the prime minister waged a bet in a parliamentary sweepstake that Barça would win 2-3.
The mythology surrounding Barcelona’s democratic credentials was dented last month when the Spanish press published documents showing that Alejandro Echevarría, a club director and brother-in-law of its president Joan Laporta, had as recently as two years ago been a leading trustee of the Francisco Franco foundation, set up by the dictator’s family to honour his memory.
Surrounded by busts and portraits of the dictator and energised by the number of nostalgic pro-Franco demonstrations being planned in the run-up to tonight’s kick-off, the foundation’s secretary Felix Morales smiled when pressed about Echevarría.
“Sure he was one of our patrons, and what’s wrong with that? The reason we exist is we believe that Franco made a positive contribution to the development of Spain and we want to pay honour to his memory,” Morales said.
The controversy has nevertheless forced Echevarria to resign from the club and left Mr Laporta´s credibility tarnished given that he insisted last year that his bother-in-law had never been a member of the Franco foundation.
The row has seen Laporta criticised by some fellow Catalans, while making him no new friends. Real Madrid fans despise him as the head of a sporting organisation whose political pretensions as the club of Catalan nationalism remain embedded in its motto “mes que un club” (more than a club).
Moreover, the 30th anniversary of Franco’s death comes against the backdrop of an increasingly divisive political debate over Catalan demands for greater autonomy and the controversial attempts by La Caixa, the Barcelona-based savings bank, to create a national energy champion from its stakes in several Spanish utilities. All these political elements have stirred pre-match passions to a degree not seen for many years.
As one of Spain’s leading historians Luis Suárez told me this week: “It feels as if we are reliving the arguments that generated the civil war all over again, with the politics of nationhood and regional aspirations influencing a football match in a way that should best be kept outside the stadium.”
Even without the politics, today’s match will still defy any semblance of the merely ordinary, involving as it does two of the world’s leading clubs with a dazzling line-up of players.
They include David Beckham, who was born the year Franco died. Such is the Englishman’s celebrity status worldwide, that he sells more Real Madrid shirts than any of his team-mates. Judging by this week’s training, he will also try and make his trademark curling crosses and free-kicks a key and lethal element in Real Madrid’s goal-creating strategy.
Among some of Madrid’s other star players, doubts have remained all week about the fitness of Brazilian Ronaldo, France’s Zinedine Zidane and Julio Baptista, one of the club’s big signings over the summer. But the Spanish and Real captain Raúl has recovered some of the form many fans feared he had lost as has his compatriot Guti who has impressed in an advanced midfield position in recent matches.
The attacking armoury at coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s disposal has been boosted by Brazilian protégé, Robinho, while the defence will depend on the experience of Robert Carlos and the added strength provided by the younger Sergio Ramos, the versatile recent signing from Sevilla.
Among the visitors, it will undoubtedly be Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroon international, who will generate the biggest reaction from Madrid fans. They have not forgiven the striker for celebrating Barcelona’s league championship victory last season by publicly calling Real Madrid “cabron” (cuckold).
But Eto’o is also proving a hugely effective goalscorer, a key component of a team whose collective brilliance had one of the world´s greatest chefs, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli restaurant, wax with mouth-watering lyricism this week. Adrià drew a simple analogy: “A good team, like a good dish, does not just have the best ingredients, it has to ensure that they work well together,” he told the Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.
Most sports commentators would agree Barcelona have shown signs of gelling into one of the most organised, entertaining and successful teams in Europe while Madrid have been displaying signs of disfunction.
Eto’o, together with Fifa’s player of the year Ronaldinho, the Portuguese international Deco, and the Argentine teenager Messi are – according to Adrià – like “good caviar, tender pine-nuts, chemical-free sea salt, and the purest of virgin olive oils”. They are backed up by more unsung players such as defender and captain Carlos Pujol. “Barcelona without Pujol is like a kitchen without eggs. He provides the professional backbone,” said Adrià.
Tonight’s game matters in purely footballing terms too. Just one point separates the two teams among the leaders of the Spanish League. They are also serious contenders to win the European Champions League this season. Of the two, it is perhaps Real Madrid that is under greatest pressure in sporting terms having not won any major trophies in two seasons despite spending £342m on transfers since Florentino Peréz became president five years ago.
Barcelona, having spent a great deal less, won the league last season after five years of not picking up any silverware and have been playing for most of this season with a renewed sense of purpose under Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard.
In Catalonia, hopes are running high not just of winning greater political independence from Madrid, but also of recreating the glory days of the early 1990s when the so-called “dream team” managed by another Dutchman, Johan Cruyff, won the European Cup and four successive league championships.
Whatever the outcome of tonight’s game, not all Barça fans will react the same. Ferran Adrià says he will not lose his appetite, whether Barcelona win or lose. “I recommend a post-match meal in a good restaurant either to celebrate or drown one’s sorrows.”
Jimmy Burns’s ‘When Beckham Went to Spain: Power, Stardom and Real Madrid’ is published in paperback by Penguin $16