My advisor in college gave me a dose of academic know-how when I took a class of his my freshman year: when reading a history book, always read the foreword. Any historian worth his salt will have questions he or she is trying to answer and they’ll be succinctly contained in that part. When I picked up Richard Fitzpatrick’s El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid: Football’s Greatest Rivalry, besides being stumped by the double colon, I was happy to find that his Introduction was full of questions ranging from “Was [Real Madrid] really General Franco’s team?” to “What effect does the rivalry have on the cultural life of Spain?”
These are heady times in the Barcelona-Real Madrid saga. Since 1902 the teams have coexisted on the same planet; since 2005 they’ve arguably considered themselves the only 2 clubs in existence, a planet unto themselves. The globe’s technological upswing over this same period is unlikely to be a mere coincidence in the rise of both clubs as the preeminent teams, though it is certainly not the only factor in their worldwide growth. The book tries to take on these behemoths, to push them, their history, their culture, and their values into 224 pages; the wonderful part is that it largely succeeds.
I will admit this here: I went into this skeptical. I don’t know Mr. Fitzpatrick’s work particularly well (though since reading the book I’ve realized I’ve read several of his pieces in The New York Times), so I wasn’t skeptical of his abilities; instead, I was skeptical of the ability to put enough information in front of me as to make such a undertaking worthwhile. I’ve said it before about a couple of books and no doubt I’ll say it again, but there are books for experts and there are books for novices. This, while tending towards the latter, had enough access to the hallowed halls of both clubs to make it worthwhile for the former as well.
By far the most interesting parts of the book were the interviews with a whole host of characters, from former players like Pichi Alonso, Xabi Alonso’s father, a man understandably torn between to the club he played for and the club his son plays for (he goes with the latter, which is also understandable) to dozens of down-in-the-trenches fans and even Joan Laporta. There are countless journalists quoted–the biased (Tomas Roncero and Martí Perarnau) as well as the laudable (Sid Lowe and Santi Segurola)–which is to be expected from a man who writes for El Pais and their perspectives are intertwined with lengthy quotes and discussions of various actors.
The history itself that is imparted is at times something I caught myself saying I already knew, but it is well-presented. It certainly comes of as level-headed and well-reasoned, though because of its length, it can at times shy away from getting into the details. This doesn’t mean it’s cosmetic, but it may leave a sense of want to those who are used to David Golblatt length histories of the game. There are competing theories, it would appear, about Di Stéfano’s transfer from Barcelona to Madrid, but they are not fully laid out. The mists of time may very well have swallowed the damning evidence one way or the other, but that particular episode jumped out as being a little bit fluffed over. It is, however, impressed upon the reader that it’s not the hand of Franco specifically descending on the history of the Spanish game.
Instead, the book is at pains to point out that Francisco Franco was a dictator. That doesn’t mean he cared specifically about who won or lost the league title, but he was, indeed, in charge of everything. It’s not that he pushed for referees to make decisions in favor of one team or another, but he did declare Real Madrid the sporting ambassador of the nation; referees may have felt subconsciously in favor of the team in white. Yet Barcelona won a spate of Copas during Franco’s reign, especially during the 1950s when they achieved a number of dobletes. This fact cannot be ignored when feting the Catalan club’s roots: Franco was, after all, a dictator. His word was law, but he wasn’t a big fan of the beautiful game: chillingly, Fitzpatrick quotes El Pais journalist Guillem Martinez as saying Franco preferred to sign death sentences.
The book paints surprising pictures of former players, coaches, and presidents, preferring to paint everyone in a more well-rounded light than media perception typically allows. Even Figo comes off as far more sympathetic, though unashamed of his move. Bernabeu may have served the Falangist movement, but he was also politically expedient and well-connected. These nuances bring a real humanity to the actors in the great drama of el clasico, but as with all things, some of those nuances, like Jose Mourinho’s insistence that even he sometimes hates his concocted media personality, just make you dislike the person even more.
The failures of this book are, as mentioned before, in its brevity. It is, in its way, dense, as it imparts the full history of the clubs in such a short space, but it also bounces from topic to topic enough to occasionally be distracting. It’s an understandable problem to have, given the sheer volume of history, but there were moments when I had to return to other sections to regain my footing as to what was happening. It is also perhaps no coincidence that the book focuses mainly on the modern series of games since Mourinho took over. The Four Clasicos of the Apocalypse that we endured a couple of years ago is described in great detail–enough to bring heart-pounding flashbacks while I sat on the subway–but given the overall length of the book, it’s surprising that so much time is spent on these few matches. Certainly they are the culmination, up to now, of all that has come before them, but there are moments when it’s hard to understand why they are more important than a match in 1984 or 1924.
Given all that, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn a bit more about the rivalry. It’s not a riveting read, per se, as the cover quotes suggest, but it’s a well-rounded, even-keeled discussion of what has become a sporting behemoth. I look forward to the next edition, with interviews from the current crop of players, coaches, and sporting directors, once everyone has retired and is happy to relate old war stories. And assuming, of course, that Richard Fitzpatrick hasn’t gotten sick of focusing solely on the Big Two.
You can purchase the book here (same link as above–BFB does not make any affiliate money off of this) and you can follow Richard Fitzpatrick on .