Rivalries exist throughout the sports world. America has its Yankees-Red Sox and its Duke-Carolina. England is where Manchester United and Liverpool, and Chelsea and Arsenal each tilt twice a year. And in South Africa, the Kaizer Chiefs-Orlando Pirates rivalry brings Johannesburg to a halt. Very rarely is the rivalry actually political, however, as is the case in Spain’s larger-than-life El Clásico, the 254th of which takes place today in the first leg of the semifinals of Spain’s Copa del Rey.
Not to overlook that the mutual quality of play is great—FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost always among the most talented and victorious clubs in the world—is the fact that each club also has a long association with differing politics. Barcelona has long represented the identity of its liberal home, Catalonia, while Real Madrid gained the reputation for being the “establishment club” during the Francoist regime in the middle of the 20th century. While this division has not always been so cut-and-dry, polls conducted even today show that Madrid’s followers tend to adopt more right-leaning views, while Barcelona’s are more closely aligned with the left-wing.
Adding to the hysteria, extremist political groups on both sides were born out of support for their beloved clubs, and went onto become known for hooliganism and violence. Ultras Sur, for example, was created in 1980 as a far-right Real Madrid group, while Boixos Nois started the following year as a far-left Barcelona group. In 2000, when former Barcelona star Luis Figo made his return to Camp Nou (Barcelona’s home stadium) as a Madrid player after a transfer, Boixos Nois threw a pig’s head at him. Other groups have followed, with one of the most violent of the Barcelona groups—the Casuals—having evolved into a full-fledged criminal organzation.
Feature film-worthy drama aside, there’s also football, with the teams squaring off twice a year in La Liga, and occasionally in other tournaments like Copa del Rey and UEFA’s Champions League. In total, the clubs have played 253 times, with Barcelona winning 105, Madrid 92, and 56 draws. Those numbers include “friendly” matches, though—of “competitive” matches (the Royal Spanish Football Federation has some convoluted logic as to what differentiates these two classifications), Madrid has won 88 times, Barcelona 86, with 46 draws. Conclusion: it’s pretty competitive between these two, even if there isn’t a clear-cut way to judge who has been more successful. That is why the rivalry is followed around the world, with one of its most anticipated showdowns—the 2002 Champions League semifinal—having been played to a worldwide audience of more than 500 million.
In case you miss today, you won’t have to wait long for the next one. The teams will play the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on 27 February, and again the following week in La Liga.