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Just over two months ago, I received a copy of El Clásico, More Than a Game in the mail direct from the producers. Very kind people, they are, and I agreed to review it for them because, well, it’s hard to keep me from watching something about El Clásico anyway and I happen to run some sort of blog or something and I need to fill the dead airwaves (webwaves?). And so now, in mid April, I’m getting to this just as the actual Clásico circus comes to town.
Directed by Matt Robertson, Sam Johnson, Zachary Fernandez, and Taylor Shwartz, El Clásico is the story of Barcelona vs Real Madrid. In short, it tells the history of the two clubs against each other and what makes the rivalry such a complex and intense bit of business. The long form of that is, of course, exactly why it takes a documentary to scratch the surface of such a deep historical, cultural, and personal rivalry.
For starters, this movie isn’t really for those of you (us?) who know the story, have read the story, and live the story every day. It’s not for those of you who have studied the differences between the regions and make it something of a personal goal to understand what goes into making this game exactly what it is. Only that’s sort of the part that this film gets exactly right: there isn’t something that this game exactly is. It isn’t definable with any sort of dictionary definition. Yes, “el clásico is Barcelona vs Real Madrid” but it is also so much more than that.
The film interviews a variety of figures, mostly professors and sociologically knowledgeable people for the first half, and then a combination of sporting directors (Zubi and Butragueño) alongside journalists (Phil Ball, Santi Segurola, and Sid Lowe to name just 3) to try and get at the essence of what this thing means. It’s a rampaging bull in a china shop, it’s a delicate orchid in a flower show, it’s a nationalist vs separatist showpiece for the world community, etc, etc until we all faint.
Part of me looks at this documentary and says “yawn” because, well, you live it or you don’t and it’s impossible to boil what I feel about this down to an hour’s worth of footage. Right? Or, well, not quite. The first half is a history lesson about how Catalunya came to be what it is and how Madrid ended up in its position as FIFA’s “best club of the 20th century.” While it isn’t totally correct in some of its assertions, in the sense that there is more nuance to it than what is stated, it’s not wrong and, for god’s sake, it’s just an hour and if you didn’t know any of this stuff you’d probably be blown away.
It’s a well-made movie. There’s no doubt that the group that made this (and it seems extensive from the credits and the fact that there were 4 (!) directions) knew what it was doing. It was making a movie with the brightest minds (minus Guardiola and Cruyff) in the game, had access to press conferences and footage, and kind of likes Barça more than Madrid. Perhaps I say that as someone who is biased toward FCB, but I did think it was a bit uneven in its handling of Madrid’s illustrious history. It makes the very valid point that the club wasn’t Franco’s team (at least not from the beginning–and probably not in the end either), but it focuses more on the idea of Barça being a fancy and fun team to watch than on Madrid being, well, a goddamned good team.
The movie was released in 2011 (on a memorable date known internationally Isaiah’s Wonderful Birthday) and has footage of the manita and the 2-0 at the Bernabeu from the previous season. There’s Ramos shoving Puyol in the face, etc and a lot of talk about Madrid being afraid that Barça is eclipsing them.
Where the movie gets truly interesting is in its assertions that Madrid is the team that embodies what it means to be Spain in the moment. It has no real identity in that it has an ever-shifting identity, whereas Barça have a Catalan identity that also plays out as a universal concept of solidarity, community, and independence from a centralized power.
All-in-all, I’m really glad I watched it and it made me shake my fist in happiness when Barça scored and frown with indignation when Madrid put one in the net as well as think about, really, what the hell am I doing sitting up late thinking about these things as an American whose ancestral lands are nowhere near the Iberian peninsula. Then again, isn’t that the whole point?
Buy a copy here: www.elclasico.org. Do it for the love of documentaries that are about football. The movie was made by California State University, Chico students over about 2 weeks. I wish I could have met the jerks they met. I would have high-fived Sid Lowe, hugged Phil Ball, and I don’t know to Santi Segurola.