Republican or nationalist? Castilian or Catalan? Messi or Ronaldo? These are just a few of the inextricable couplets which have defined Spain’s biggest fixture down the years.

The rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, otherwise known as ‘El Clásico’, is, on the surface, 22 football players doing their best to win a match with the longer-term view of beating the opposition to silverware. This season is no different. Barcelona sit just two points clear of Madrid at the top of La Liga, however, their recent defeat at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium has left them under pressure. If the title race can resume when the coronavirus pandemic is over, then it is set to be one of the closest finishes of the modern era.

The most important pillar of footballing rivalries is, of course, the football, however, the undertones often with political, religious, or geographical roots are what heighten emotions around particular fixtures. El Clásico is no different. Even with the globalisation of football, meaning both clubs have millions of fans across the globe, a large section of the local support still hold certain political views which manifest themselves in their football club.

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To understand the rivalry between Spain’s two most dominant forces, you must understand the issue of Catalan identity and Spain’s political landscape.

Catalunya is a region in the northeast of Spain which has come under the spotlight in recent times due to various incidents around its proposed independence from the rest of Spain. Barcelona is the capital of the region and a culturally significant city. Catalunya has its own language, flag, and identity and many of its citizens don’t consider themselves Spanish.

Several historical factors feed into the modern-day psyche of a Catalan separatist. Putting it lightly, there was already scepticism of the centralised Madrid government, but it was the Spanish Civil War, won by Francisco Franco’s nationalists, which was key in the construction of today’s landscape on the Iberian Peninsula. An increasing presence of fascism in Europe allowed for a military coup, which led to nearly three years of war. As a majority republican area, Catalunya was one of Franco’s biggest targets. The general wanted a stronger, ‘purer’, united Spain. He, therefore, targeted the separatist areas most and Barcelona was one of those regions on the end of the bombardment.

Franco’s forces eventually won the war and ushered in an era of fascist dictatorship. Until his death in 1975, much of the dictator’s reign over Spain was characterised by his strict oppression of regional identity. The use of the Catalan language was banned in public, as well as the flag and some literary texts, all in an attempt to prevent an uprising.

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Despite General Franco’s intentional repression of the Catalan identity, he and his fascists didn’t manage to eradicate it and it stands strong today. The independence vote of 2017, which the Spanish central government declared as illegal, was the culmination of a resurgence in hostilities due to the actions of the government. The most vocal politicians campaigning for independence claim that Catalunya doesn’t get its fair share of Spain’s wealth. They say the region earns more than it receives. Images of police brutality on peaceful protests went viral and were denounced by a lot of powerful nations. Barcelona’s match that weekend was played behind closed doors because the authorities knew that the Camp Nou could be a place where people could come together in a show of Catalan unity.

The fact that the Catalan flag is sewn onto their club logo and the words ‘more than a club’ emblazoned into their Camp Nou ground encapsulates perfectly the entity that is CF Barcelona. Despite becoming a commercial institution, it still prides itself on providing a voice for its local followers.

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Over the years, the sentiment of independence in Barcelona has projected itself into its the region’s biggest football club. Football has become a form of cultural expression for the people. George Orwell, who himself fought for the republicans in the civil war, once said ‘serious sport is war without the shooting’. To an extent, there is no truer example of this than El Clásico.

On one side there is Real Madrid, of whom Francisco Franco had a vested interest. Their name itself is linked with the ‘establishment’, ‘real’ meaning ‘royal’ in English. The dictatorship directly used the club as a vehicle to demonstrate its power and spread propaganda. They were the best team; they were from the capital of his empire, and they wore a pure white kit.

Once football resumed after the war, the rivalry took on a new significance. It was a chance to showcase Catalunya and beat the powers that be in Madrid. For various reasons Real Madrid were seen as the club of the state and, for Franco, if his Madrid team lost to Barcelona it was seen as a PR disaster. He couldn’t be seen to be weaker than the region he controlled. On several occasions, it’s alleged that he dabbled in the footballing world.

In 1943, the two clubs were drawn against each other in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, though it was known as Copa del Generalísimo at the time. Barca had won the competition the previous year so there was pressure on Real Madrid to put things right.

The first leg of the tie was a disaster for Los Blancos. They lost 3-0 at the Camp Nou and returned to the capital in disgrace. Los Blaugranas were seemingly about to cruise to the final until they were visited by the state head of security before the second leg. There’s no proof as to what happened, but Real Madrid won the second leg 11-1, so it doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

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Another instance of Franco’s regime reportedly taking upon themselves to boost the fortunes of Real Madrid, took place in 1953. A certain Alfredo Di Stefano was on the radar of both clubs thanks to his performances for Millonarios in Colombia. Barcelona tried to sign the Argentinian but ran into complications when his former club, River Plate, got involved. They claimed that they also had Di Stefano’s registration rights. Barca agreed on a deal to sign the forward and he had even played a pre-season game for his new club when the Spanish Football Federation (the RFEF),  ruled that the transfer couldn’t take place as Millonarios hadn’t agreed to it.

Real Madrid took advantage of the situation by launching their own bid for the player. The RFEF decided to let Di Stefano play for both clubs but in alternate seasons. Barcelona rejected the deal and he was Madrid’s. The RFEF, influenced by the regime, was reported to have a bias towards Madrid and therefore tried to thwart Barcelona’s move for Di Stefano. The Argentinian transformed the fortunes of Madrid and made them the dominant force in European football. Though there is no proof of Franco’s involvement, it is still a bone of contention and a key moment in the history of Real Madrid. If this hadn’t happened, they may not be the global phenomenon that they are today.

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These days there isn’t intervention by the state, but Madrid are still considered to be favoured by the ‘establishment’. Years of incidents on and off the pitch fashion the contest on show in the present day. Whether it be a pig’s head thrown at Luis Figo for crossing the divide, or Messi and Ronaldo’s fierce footballing encounters, there is no love lost between the two. The philosophies of the clubs remain opposed. The Galácticos approach by Madrid is considered immoral by Barcelona who pride themselves on promoting from within their famous Masia academy. However, in the last few years, Barcelona do seem to have lost their way with regards to the style of football Johan Cruyff envisioned. This has led to Madrid calling out their hypocrisy when signing foreign stars for extortionate fees, Neymar, Suarez, and Coutinho just to name a few.

It’s important to remember that not all supporters are interested in the political differences between the clubs, but these cultural characteristics are what fuelled the appetite and gave the platform for the rivalry, which is now watched by hundreds of millions across the world.