This is the final installment of Inside the SuperClubs: Barcelona. This week's Sports Illustrated features an in-depth look at the club and its global appeal.
BARCELONA, Spain -- It's usually fascinating when parallel sports cultures collide, so when I sat down with several FC Barcelona stars I asked them a question: What's the best way to explain the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry to someone in the U.S. who isn't intimately familiar with it?
They smiled. When you're in the middle of what may be the fiercest rivalry in world sports, you rarely have to pull back and explain something as deeply important and ever-present as drinking water or breathing air. But with the latest edition of El Clásico taking place Sunday (1:50 p.m. ET, beIN Sport), Barça's Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué were game enough to play along.
"It's completely different to everything around the world," Fàbregas said. "Maybe in America with the soccer teams New York and Los Angeles is the biggest game of the season, I don't know. But I played in England [with Arsenal] and I saw games in Germany, derbies, and you can't compare them to Real Madrid and Barcelona. Maybe the one in Argentina between Boca and River. I want to go to that one. But that's the only one you can compare it to. Barcelona-Real Madrid is very, very big, and whoever loses will spend the next week quite down."
As Piqué noted, however, another element takes Barça-Real Madrid to a new level.
"The rivalry is really strong, and not only because of football matters like Madrid and Barcelona," he said. "It's more political as well. Here in Barcelona we're in Catalonia, and for a lot of people Catalonia is like a country. The rivalry is also Catalonia-Spain, not only Barcelona and Madrid. That's why every game there's a lot of tension, a lot of fights. If you see it as a fan from the outside, I think people love it, because it's 'Wow, yes! Come on! Yeah!'" -- here Piqué claps loudly and pumps his fist, as though he's at a pro wrestling event -- "but finally it's too much. I think we have to [calm down] a little bit. Because if not, one day something really wrong will happen, like a big injury or something, and we don't want that."
I would argue that Barcelona-Real Madrid is the world's greatest sports rivalry. Unlike the U.S., where multiple sports are popular, Spain truly cares only about one sport. Barça and Real Madrid are probably the two best teams in the world, featuring a constellation of global stars, and it would be a fantastic rivalry based on the history just on the field over the last century.
But there is much more history off the field. I explain the political aspect and the connections to the Spanish Civil War in more detail in my story in this week's Sports Illustrated magazine, but it's fair to say here that for many of the seven million Catalans, Barça is a leading symbol of Catalonian identity and the desire for independence from Spain. Meanwhile, for millions in the rest of the country, Real Madrid is a leading symbol of Castilian Spain, a team that was the favorite of the former Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, and a triumphant face of the country to Europe going back to Real Madrid's five straight European Cups in 1956-60.
It's a lot more complicated than that, of course: There have been many inside Real Madrid who hated Franco, and there have also been right-leaning leaders of Barça. But the broad strokes are clear: Real Madrid tends to be the choice of conservatives and Castilians, Barça the bastion of progressives and Catalonians.
In fact, Sunday's game may be the most politically charged Clásico in years. During a Champions League game at Camp Nou last month, large sections of the stadium sang decades-old chants for Catalonian independence, the result of Catalan political leader Artur Mas' calls for fiscal sovereignty from the rest of Spain and a subsequent march of 1.5 million Catalonians in the streets of Barcelona on Sept. 11. It wouldn't surprise anyone to hear more of those chants Sunday.
What's more, Fàbregas (who rejoined Barça last season from Arsenal) argues that the pressure from his own fans at Barça is even greater than it is from home supporters in other countries, including England. "In Spain whatever you do, after one or two months it's forgotten," Fàbregas said. "Forgotten. You can't say to the fans, 'Oh, we won this one month ago.' People forget. They just want new results and new results. That's what makes the Spanish fans so competitive, you know?"
"I think this helps in a way," Fàbregas continued, "because that makes you always be aware of the situation. You can never go to sleep. Like at Arsenal, when I was there the fans would adore you, whatever you do. They would always support you until the end, always sing your name. It's completely different here. You lose two games and you panic because you know the fans will not like it and will make you pay for it in a way. I'm surprised, and I like it. It's new for me to play professionally in Spain."
As bitter as the rivalry has been in the past, it got even nastier in the spring of 2011, when Barça and Real Madrid met in the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey in a short time frame. Why, even most Madrid fans will tell you the arrival of José Mourinho to coach the Merengues added even more of an edge to the proceedings -- both on the field, where Madrid played a physical style to try and disrupt Barça's passing game, and in the media, where Mourinho seemed to enjoy playing mind games with Barça and former manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola's assistant, Tito Vilanova, is now in charge of Barça, but you could argue that he's still best known worldwide as the target of an eye-gouge by Mourinho after a Spanish Super Cup game last year.
"It went mad," said Aitor Lagunas, a leading journalist who edits the thoughtful Spanish-language monthly Panenka. "Mourinho brought a new personality. Before, it was hard, but not like that. This topic also had some impact on the national team in Spain. [Coach Vicente] Del Bosque said he was worried because his players were involved in a war that could be harmful for his team."
Fortunately for the national team, the players were able to ease the tension and win Euro 2012, becoming the first team ever to hold the World Cup and two Euro crowns at the same time. But tensions remain, and the Spanish media tends to take sides, with some major newspapers favoring Real Madrid and others Barcelona. "We don't have tabloids or sensationalist media," said Lagunas, "so perhaps in Spain our tabloids are the sports media."
For his part, Barça's Xavi thinks his club's remarkable achievements in recent years have been obscured in Spain by the fixation on the rivalry with Real Madrid. "It's being valued more overseas than here in Spain," he said. "Because of the Barça-Madrid war, we're not really valuing what Barcelona is doing, because Real Madrid wants to win as well, and there's a quasi-war, political as well. Some criticize here, others criticize there, and we're not taking worth of what Barcelona and Messi are doing, which is spectacular."
So many opinions. So much passion. So much bitterness. Put them all together, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are must-see TV whenever they meet.