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the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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El Clásico

Goya, Fight with Cudgels

I spent twelve hours sorting through the clichés and evasions trying to get to the truth, only to realize that the truth was in the cliché. Early in the first half, maybe even before the game started, Phil Schoen said Pellegrini would be fired if Madrid lost, because “right or wrong, that’s just how Madrid do business.” After the match (this is where my mind was: I watched the press conferences), someone asked Pellegrini whether he’d be back next year, and he said, “As far as coming back, that’s not up to me.” Then they asked him whether he deserved to come back, and he said, “As far as deserving, that’s not up to me.” Which was a cold dose of theology for that hour on an April night.

The match itself was what you saw; there’s not a lot of need for analysis. Guardiola’s weird tactics in the first half (Dani Alves as a quasi-winger, Puyol as a right back) seemed to throw Madrid off not so much because they reconfigured Barça’s attack as because the Madrid players were never sure who was coming at them from what angle defensively, with the result that most of their breakaways ended with them cunningly dribbling right into the space a defender was closing in on. Barcelona’s midfield dominated the entire game (Xavi had 60% of the possession by himself, stop the presses) in part because Madrid attacked a three-man Barça unit with Xabi Alonso and Gago, who would have been outnumbered against a two-man Barça unit. Diarra—I mean Lassana, but I’m embarrassed to call him Lass—stayed on the bench, where his ability to win the ball was relatively useless. Thus: Barça hoarding possession and building unhurried attacks; Madrid, that is, Ronaldo, blaring down the field into nothingness.

A lot of obvious points that made up a clever, efficient win for Barcelona and that, by themselves, don’t say much about why this match took on an air of unwholesome doom or why it melted my Twitter account. That was something else, and not just “Spanish Bombs” or the usual brisk telemetry of this rivalry. These two teams became the crux of all conflict in world football this year not because they’re historic rivals or because Real Madrid were the only obstacle standing between Barcelona and lasting greatness (at the moment they aren’t even standing between Lyon and lasting greatness) but because the logic of their rivalry has locked them into a deliberate, accelerated, exaggerated polarization of meanings that goes far beyond the usual contained enmities of a derby clash.

Yes, the Civil War stuff is part of that, as how could it not be, but it has just as much to do with the procedural realities of being a soccer club every day. That black sword hanging over Pellegrini, who’s so in thrall to the power of Pérez that he can’t even judge what he deserves, isn’t just “how Madrid do business,” it’s how they do business in response to how Barça do business. It’s been that way for years, of course, but Madrid’s reaction to Barça’s rise to prominence over the last few seasons took the contrast out of all restraint. If Barça were going to hire an untested young coach, a beloved former player for the club, and shower him with faith and support, Madrid were going to hire a successful outsider and keep him beholden and terrified. If Barça were going to build a team carefully around a specific, articulated style of play, Madrid were going to build a team by devouring superstars and foaming in a sea of money. If Barça were going to make themselves a joyful superpower, dedicated to openness and beauty and everything else Més que un club is supposed to represent, Madrid were going to abandon all pretense of valuing anything but crushing their opponents at soccer. How do you say “only a club” in Spanish? Barcelona gave up $100 million to donate their shirt sponsorship to a children’s charity. Madrid spent $100 million on Kaká, then chopped down a lilac tree and slit the throat of a new faun in public.

Again, this isn’t only a media narrative. It’s how the clubs have actually acted. You can take your pick between them—it’s certainly possible to find Barcelona cloying and prefer the frankness of Madrid’s designs, i.e. “they’re exactly the same, only Madrid are honest about it”—but you can’t deny that the contrast is real or that, for the moment, it’s crystallized the possibilities for meaning in top-level soccer. It’s a cliché to say that a game is about “more than the result,” but when Messi and Xavi calmly link up down the spine of the Bernabéu, they’re saying something about the game as much as about this game. It’s a cliché for a manager to declare that the future isn’t up to him, but when Pellegrini declares that Pérez controls what he deserves as well as what he receives, he’s saying something about the massive granite ministry of justice at the heart of not only Real Madrid but a lot of big clubs besides.

Barcelona fans like to talk about how lucky we are to be able to watch their team play. “Just enjoy it, man,” Ray Hudson said to Phil and the world on GolTV last night. But the truth is that we’re lucky to have both sides of this rivalry, if for no other reason than that the extreme contrast between them tells us more about each side than we could tell from that side alone. The more they lock in on each other, the more they explain themselves. Madrid’s ruthlessless clarifies Barcelona’s commitment to style: Barcelona’s style becomes not just a style but an anti-ruthlessness, which in turn raises its stakes as a style. And Barça’s flair and jubilance, particularly in the amazing ascendancy they’ve enjoyed these last two seasons, draws out and intensifies Madrid’s ambition by giving it a taunting, maddening, elusive, frustrating target, one that Madrid will spend insane sums of money and burn miles of bridges to catch.

Watching the game, I kept thinking of Seamus Heaney’s line about Goya’s Fight with Cudgels, “that holmgang / Where two berserks club each other to death / For honour’s sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.” That’s what this rivalry feels like right now. Only one side isn’t sinking.


El Clásico

by Brian Phillips · April 11, 2010

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