By Sid Lowe
April 27, 2011

MADRID -- In the immediate aftermath of a tense and often fractious clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga on April 16, something terrible happened. It was just before midnight and the final whistle, barely audible over a deafening din, had been blown. Down in the tunnel, away from watchful eyes, beyond the public gaze, a Barcelona player and a Real Madrid player turned and began to head straight for each other. Face to face they came. And then ...

... and then they embraced.

Some time later, in the entrance foyer by the Bernabéu dressing rooms, Madrid's shield embossed into the floor in yellow and blue, they were still there, talking. Soon, they were joined by others -- a small group, chatting.

Some in Barcelona tracksuits, some in civvies, Spanish teammates. Actual friends.

It should be no big deal -- in fact it should be welcomed -- but for some it feels like a very big deal indeed. The arrival of a series of clásicos has heightened a rivalry that has become aggressive, twisted and manipulated, so infused with false sensibility and moral outcry that some players balk at publicly breaking the barricades. Madrid and Barça are the biggest clubs in Europe, sycophants and praetorian guards aligned behind them. The interests that underpin the rivalry are powerful, while a violently partisan press glories in confrontation and intransigence.

They are portrayed as eternally irreconcilable. What Barceona legend Johan Cruyff famously called the "entorno" -- the entourage -- claim to speak for and defend players, building on that confrontation. However, those who are most uncomfortable with the discourse are usually the players themselves. One of them laments a kind of "obligation" to "hate" the opposition, the construction of an environment in which the other side is constantly demonized -- arrogant and malevolent, enemies not opponents.

"And then," he added, "you join up with the Spain squad and it turns out they're all right."

More than all right. Beyond the bombastic belligerence that some players do not share but cannot entirely avoid, there are some genuine friends. There are always clashes and some genuine enmity but that is not normally the case. Even though it can feel as if some are more comfortable with conflict than camaraderie.

As Real Madrid defender Álvaro Arbeloa put it, the Spanish national team can be a refuge, "a breath of fresh air," away from a club rivalry that threatens to be all-encompassing.

Real's Iker Casillas and Barcelona's Xavi Hernández have been close since winning the youth World Cup in 1999, mischief-makers together. "Some of the [Spain players] are real friends of mine," Xavi said, "especially my beloved Iker." It was Xavi who nicknamed Casillas "Mofeta," and it's Casillas who most laughs at journalists declaring Xavi the best player in the world. "I've been telling you that for years," he said.

He is not the only one who thinks so. Just listen to what Xavi Hernández and Real's Xabi Alonso have to say about each other. Above all, there is mutual respect, a common cause even when that cause is no longer common. So they play against each other, so what? There are different styles, different approaches and different mentalities, but there is a convergence of footballing identity in the Spanish national team and an appreciation that is taken back to the club level. So much so that one Madrid player merely rolls his eyes at the suggestion that Barcelona is "boring," a suggestion promoted outside of Catalunya and with particular relish in Madrid. Most prefer not to admit it, but these lot actually like each other.

Or did.

There has been so much talk of winners and losers over the last two weeks.

But little focus on collateral damage, on who exactly the losers might be.

The fear now is that the loser might be Spain. This rivalry has been so cranked up, both on and off the pitch, that the impact could be deeply damaging for the national team. One of the successes of the Spanish team was the atmosphere in the squad, the card games and PlayStation, the jokes and the ease with which players lived together. "We're a team," they said. It was a cliché, sure, but it was also true.

Some of that died over the last few days. After that game in the league, press reports accused Gerard Piqué of spitting bile at the Madrid players, goading them because Barcelona had won the "[expletive] Spanish" league, having a dig at "españolitos" [jumped-up little Spaniards]. It is an accusation that Piqué has angrily denied, quite rightly reminding people that he literally split his face open for Spain at the World Cup. But it is an accusation that ends up having an impact. And when Casillas noted, "Piqué knows what he said," it was clear that something had happened.

It did not matter that much; it was after that incident that a crowd of players gathered in the entrance hall of the Bernabéu to chat. But worse came in the final of the Copa del Rey last Wednesday. Jose Mourinho's tactic had been to get under Barcelona's skin; it was a tactic that the players, convinced by their manager, undertook -- even those who were a little uncomfortable with it. And it paid off; the question is whether it will be the Spanish national team that really pays for it.

Last weekend, David Villa and Fernando Torres finally scored. It was a rare piece of good news for Spain coach Vicente del Bosque after a week in which he sat powerless and watched players -- his players -- boot each other in the air and square up to one another. In the Copa del Rey final, there were confrontations and clashes all over the pitch. Among Spanish players, too. Arbeloa and Sergio Ramos with Villa, especially. Sergio Busquets and Alonso had words. Xavi got involved. Only Andres Iniesta didn't, but you could almost see his temperature rise. At one stage Alonso slapped his own face -- that classic Spanish gesture that says: "You've got some cheek, sunshine."

"I hope this does not have a negative effect on the Spain team," Del Bosque said, but it may be too late. He will hope that the image after the game -- when Piqué went across to shake the hands of the Madrid players, one by one; when Casillas broke off the celebration to commiserate with Barcelona's players -- is the one that lasts. He will hope that is the emotion that lingers, the lesson. But it appears unlikely. That mutual respect, the admiration, seemed to slip away. Just for 90 minutes, or for longer?

There are still two more games to go. And with even Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola rising to the bait, with his players applauding for finally giving some back to Mourinho, this could yet get worse from a Spanish point of view.

Madrid believes it has found a way to beat Barcelona -- and it involves an aggressive approach, one that Barcelona tends to reject as morally malevolent. In that environment, it seems unlikely that relationships can get better.

When the Spain squad met up at its Las Rozas headquarters a month or so ago, it was striking how laid back the atmosphere was, how relaxed, how convivial. But much has happened since then; much that can be forgiven, sure, but probably not entirely forgotten. Spain meets up at the end of the season and this time it may be different. Del Bosque has work to do.

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