As football fans, we are often told to savour the moment. The most important thing is never to take the good times for granted; blink and you might just miss them. It is harder than it sounds and something of a paradox. Fear of missing something restricts an ability to become lost, engulfed in the majesty of what is being witnessed. Simultaneously, it is true that appreciation is often only at its zenith after the event, which brings us to El Clasico.
Saturday night’s instalment of El Clasico felt like looking at the Mona Lisa if the colours had faded. The understanding of greatness was still pure but the emotions being stirred up felt diluted and, in part, generated by nostalgia, rather than the prospect of seeing a football match befitting of the history and fanfare. Despite retaining its crown as the best spectacle the sport has to offer, there is no getting away from it; Real Madrid nor Barcelona are the powers of old and their meetings have lost some of the stardust of yesteryear.
We are back to where we were; watching every second of Lionel Messi for fear of missing out on a single drop of his genius before it is consigned to the history books. Part of the fun of watching Messi is being spoilt by him, care-free in the sense of intoxication he creates. But one day, and one day soon, he’ll take his last dance; judging by Barcelona’s financial outlook and the Argentine’s contract situation, notwithstanding the need for an intervening truce over what became an increasingly ugly power struggle at Camp Nou, he may well has taken his last El Clasico bow.
The entire fixture forces viewers to confront the realisation that they have already been down the path with the Clasico itself; scrambling to remember it at its peak. It simply doesn’t have any of the same ingredients which have made it great in the early 21st century anymore; it is no longer star-studded, no longer a clash of the two very best clubs around and no longer a hate-filled soap opera. Neither club embodies their own respective identities better than anyone; Los Blancos cannot overpower opposition with a cluster of the best players on the market — their financial power is matched by the likes of Paris Saint-Germain — while Barcelona’s footballing philosophy has been adopted and improved upon elsewhere.
The memories of Luis Figo’s first return to Cataluña after crossing the divide — and instigating a power swing at the turn of the century — in 2000, or Ronaldinho stunning the Santiago Bernabéu into applause five years later, are distant. It is a decade since perhaps the modern height of the fixture; Jose Mourinho was in Madrid, eyes fixed on his former friend turned nemesis Pep Guardiola, nearly three years into arguably the most powerful dynasty ever seen in club football at Barcelona. The pair had worked together, but soon came to represent polarising attitudes to football itself.
Guardiola demanded style as well as substance, and they were of equal importance. Barcelona had looked to counter Real Madrid’s dominance of the transfer market by turning their youth facility, La Masia, into a superstar factory. By 2011, that was at it’s peak, and with Mourinho bringing a relentless obsession with usurping Guardiola and Barcelona, the animosity in the games took on a new level.
Every match had a storyline and the sort of simmering heat which made it headline news before a ball was kicked, as well as causing frictions in a Spain team which was almost entirely made up between the two clubs at the time. Messi’s rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo, as the two players who perhaps best summed up the club’s respective ideologies — homegrown modesty against lavish extravagance — added yet more spice.
Because both clubs were enjoying a simultaneous spell of sustained success, El Clasico was ferocious beyond the reigns of Guardiola and Mourinho, who became the first manager ever to beat his rival over a season. His constant mind games and relentless pursuit tired Guardiola out and was a key factor in him stepping aside in 2012. Even without the edge of that battle in the dugout, which really culminated in a string of four successive meetings in spring ten years ago, it was the players which really made the difference in these games.
Even as Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, lynchpins of the Guardiola era, became less influential, the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez emerged took responsibility at Barcelona. For Madrid, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale helped keep them competitive. But that quality has dissipated on both sides more recently, and the golden age soon passed. Karim Benzema who, like Messi, is one of the reminders of that era, scored in a victory for Zinedine Zidane’s side at the weekend, but it felt like a glimpse into the past, pining after what has gone before.
El Clasico is guaranteed a certain appeal because of the historic, political rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the fact they will always be part of the La Liga title conversation. But it is hard to look back at the previous games and then at the current state of the fixture and see any real resemblance.
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