Book Review: El Clasico

[Image from A.M. Heath]
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 .

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in Germany with his wife and daughter.


  1. Xingxian
    April 4, 2013

    I own this book. Felt like it was money well-spent.

  2. KEVINO17
    April 5, 2013

    Must say, my philosophy is to never read the forward or preface of any book. Last time I did that, twenty years ago, there was just a lot of thank yous, qualifications and excuses. I doubt much has changed. Good writes just get going.

  3. April 5, 2013

    Didn’t know anything about this book, but the cover looks already super amazing. Thanks for the review! I’m going to order this right now ; )

  4. ibbe
    April 5, 2013

    Out of curiosity, how many shots on goal has alba taken this season? He’s been quite efficient I think but I don’t have any stats to be sure. Maybe we should consider playing him as a LW in the future..

    • April 5, 2013

      Mmmm I think there is a good reason he didn’t make it to the top until they converted him from LW to LB

      • mom4
        April 5, 2013

        Hmmmm, Sanchez as a fullback? Just throwin’ it out there.

      • ibbe
        April 5, 2013

        Yes that’s true but I meant as an alternative in case we are short of players up front, it did happen last season. He has proven to be good in beating his marker and his crosses are awesome. His finishing is good as well although he doesn’t get in so many scoring opportunities, he usually puts the ball into the net.

        @mom4, Alexis is too good to leave his current position IMO, but the thought of the 2 switching positions did cross my mind lol.

  5. April 5, 2013

    Nice review, Isaiah. Sounds like it’s definitely worth a read. I look forward to the Q&A follow-up with the author.

  6. April 5, 2013

    I always understood that regardless of whether or not Real M*drid was his favorite team, Franco did love football. Then again, it’s not like I knew the man.

    More than (directly) influencing the referee, for a long time Barça’s board of directors had to be “approved” by the State in order to avoid “subversive elements”. I don’t think the “Spanish” clubs had those kind of problems.

    Also Di Stefano would most likely have been a Barcelona player had the State not intervened and proposed a ridiculous solution in which M*drid and Barça would “share” the player. Barça denied, though, leaving the path free for our rivals to become the most successful team ever in Europe.

    • mei
      April 5, 2013

      “Franco loved football” . He was a dictator. He has an immediate interest in the things that make the masses happy and occuppied..

      • April 5, 2013

        Yes, but also no, I think. It’s more complicated than that. This book is at pains to point out that he kind of didn’t care, though as you suggest, it’s because it was doing what it was supposed to: provide distraction. My own opinion: you could speak Catalan at the Camp Nou not because it was unstoppable, but because it was in Franco’s best interest to allow a small outlet.

        • mei
          April 5, 2013

          You could speak catalan at the stadium because it’s a little bit unfeasible to arrest 100000 people all at once.

          • April 5, 2013

            As someone who lived under a military dictatorship (not Franco–I was born after that ended), I disagree with that completely. It’s not that you arrest 100,000 at once. It’s that you arrest 1,000 one week. Or even 100. Then the next week you do it again. And very soon, after 1,000 or 2,000 arrests, the other 98,000 cease doing what’s getting people arrested. Or they have to do it even more clandestinely.

            Whether that was worth Franco’s time is a different question, but is it feasible? Completely.

          • April 5, 2013

            And I hope that didn’t come out as an attack. I don’t know where you’re from or what you’ve lived through. I don’t know what you ARE living through. But I know what I lived through and the fear of God in a dictatorship is actually the fear of the state police (or, in my case, the military and the intentional instability it wrought); this is what I mean, not that you don’t know what you’re talking about. There are many possibilities within this and I’m by no means a Franco scholar like Sid Lowe.

          • April 5, 2013

            Yes, Isaiah is right. Franco could have stopped Catalan from being spoken in the stadiums. He definitely prevented Barcelona from being “too Catalan”, but he stopped short of eradicating the Catalan identity altogether.

            The Brits cut off tongues of any Irishman that spoke Gaelic. Hence, only 4% of Ireland speak their own language nowadays.

            That doesn’t necessarily make Franco a benign dictator, and the argument can be made that our club would have been more successful under a different regime. But what I think Franco instinctively understood is that M*drid needed a competitive Barça in order to shine.

      • April 5, 2013

        Yes, there is no denying he used the game for political purposes.

        Possibly one of the reasons that he was perceived as a M*drid fan because of association with their international success he could cast his country (and thus regime) in a more favorable light.

  7. April 5, 2013

    Nice Review Isiah

    Regarding these questions here ~> “Was [Real Madrid] really General Franco’s team?” to “What effect does the rivalry have on the cultural life of Spain?”

    let me tell you somthing RM was established in 1902 & General Franco came in 1936. From 1902 -1936 RM have won 18 titles including ( 2 Liga & 7 CDR titles).

    Franco’s era was From 1936-1975 years. In this period ( the 1st 17 years) :

    1. Barca Won ( 5 Liga, 4 CDR Total of 9 titles)
    2.Valencia ( 3 Liga, 3 CDR Total of 6 titles)
    3. Athletic Bilbao ( 1 Liga, 4 CDR Total of 5 titles)
    4. Athletico Madrid ( Had different name then) ( 4 Liga, 0 CDR Total of 4 titles)
    5. RM ( 1 Liga, 2 CDR Total of 3 titles)

    The rest of his ruling time ( 21 years almost ) Madrid have won 13 liga titles and the rest years were won by ( Barca, Valencia, Atl. Madrid)

    So in conclusion:

    during Franco era
    1. Madrid won 14 Liga 5 CDR = 19 Titles in total
    2. Barca won 8 Liga 9 CDR = 17 Titles in total
    3. Bilbao won 3 Liga 10 CDR = 13 Titles in total
    4. Atl.Madrid won 14 Liga 5 CDR = 19 Titles in total
    5. Valencia won 7 Liga 5 CDR = 12 Titles in total
    6. Sevilla won 1 Liga 2 CDR = 3 Titles in total

    Looking at the number, there isn’t a huge gab between EE & Barca & the rest of the teams especial Bilboa since we share the political status of seeking independcey … The #’s seem pretty fair regardless of the other issues on Di Stefano, bombing the Camp Nou, or even executing our club official. One can argue that the feud was merely political nonetheless .. I don’t, but know Madridista have a pretty solid argument there!

    • April 5, 2013

      during Franco’s era :

      4. Atl.Madrid won 7 Liga 5 CDR = 12 Titles in total
      5. Valencia won 4 Liga 4 CDR = 8 Titles in total

      • barca96
        April 5, 2013

        Excellent points! Thanks for doing a research on the trophy count.

        But there is one trophy missing from your list, the most important one, you know, the one with the big ears.

        • April 5, 2013

          Good question!

          The years they won the CL titles is consistent with the La Liga winning spell

          CL was first held in 1955- & EE won the 1st five consecutive editions of 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960. Then there was 6 Year gab before they won 1966 edition. The very next one was in almost 30 years on 98′ & so on.

          Anyways looking at La Liga titles then: 1954,1955,1957,1958,1961.

          So they qualified for every year they won the Liga, & the missing years (59′ & 56′) they qualified as returning champs

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