Joan Gaspart: “Barcelona is the defense of a country, a language, a culture.”
Okay, I’ll buy that. But you know what? I’m not Catalan, and I HATE Real Madrid. At my first Camp Nou Classic, I almost fell over the rail in a froth-mouthed rage. A complete stranger supported me at the waistband as I leaned over to spit invective.
After finishing Guardian journalist and Spanish football authority Sid Lowe’s “Fear and Loathing in La Liga,” I don’t hate them any less, even as I understand them a lot more, because Lowe makes it all make sense.
Jorge Valdano describes the Classic as “a club versus more than a club.” But, it should be added, not in the “mes que un” slogan sense. Barça means more than a successful team to culers and Catalans.
And if familiarity can breed contempt, so too can similarity. Because in so many ways, Barça and RM have parallels galore, as well as differences that are in fact similarities. That this is to be an unusual book is apparent early on, when Lowe takes on the myth of “Franco’s team,” and continues with a messy historical merging.
— The Catalans supply more Spain NT players.
— Barça was founded by a Swiss businessman.
— RM was founded by two Catalan brothers.
True parallels also abound, right down to the histories of the rival club’s first team being elevated by the infusion of a pile of home-grown talent. These similarities and differences seem rather an odd way to begin a piece about a rather vexing tome, more than 300 impossible to stop turning pages that do so much, from debunking what so many culers thought about the rivalry that has come to dominate world football, to something much more useful:
Lowe makes every kick, every Mouriho sneer, every potential Pepe evisceration, make sense. It’s history, but it’s more than that. It’s identity, and that makes it something that will always be. They will always be Franco’s Team, even if they really aren’t. We will always be the victims, even as we win Ligas with record points totals, and lay on symbolic manitas.
To set the hook for the present-day fan while laying the groundwork for a dazzling historical volume, Lowe begins in the recent past, the 2-2 Classic, roping you in before setting off on a journey that circles back to the present. The logic is irrefutable because even as there are many supporters of either club who care not a whit for the history, history is everything when it comes to the match that used to be the derbi, and the backgrounds of the two clubs.
This book pulsates not only with narratives, but with the destruction of them, done with a reporter’s questioning … everything. It’s a point of view more than a bias (despite the fact that culers think Lowe is a Madridista, and Madridistas think he is culer). It’s like a long, lovely editorial that dissects, explains then debunks something long thought to be Truth. But make no mistake, this is a celebration of the decades of enmity between two great franchises.
When a newspaper reporter moves to a coveted place on a journal’s editorial board, many of them do so with the anticipation of a cush existence, cossetted in an ivory tower while hurling thunderbolts of opinionated logic from the heights.
The chagrin that accompanies reality — that an editorial is even more painstakingly reported than a news article, because the editorial must be unassailable — is almost funny as it smacks a reporter upside the head. It is also at that time that bias vs point of view becomes clear.
Sid Lowe has a point of view — that these two colossi are inextricably linked, by history, hate, sporting brilliance and a common identity — but rather than just saying that, he presents a painstakingly researched volume that is that rarity: a historical page turner.
It should come with a warning, however. Because unlike the also excellent Graham Hunter Barça book, which delves into a relatively compressed period and explains it, Lowe does history, broad and sweeping. It’s a giant period, however, that begins with a Swiss businessman who became mes Catalan than thou, and culminates in the two best players in the world at the two best clubs in the world. “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” is an epic, but not in the sweeping, 4373-page heft of one of those giant things that have you struggling to get past page 74.
What makes history compelling is how you write it. History is known, right? So in writing about that which is known, a researcher needs to rely upon two things: exhaustive research and knowing what to leave out. Then the writer takes that information, and applies the magic of knowing what to say. When researcher and writer are one, the result is often a bloated mess, the residue of a man who has fallen in love so deeply with his words that he is afraid to eat his young.
Lowe uses a journalist’s economy, the knowledge of what to say that can only be honed by having a half-hour to write a match report, using words to beat a deadline while perfectly capturing an event. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a journalist, was “first word, best word.” The other piece I got, from the same editor, is that an essential part of writing is knowing what NOT to write. Lowe understands this, and it’s evident in the economy of verbiage, the clarity and most importantly, the quality of the storytelling. Because when you have a good story, it tells itself, from the assassination of Sunyol, right through controversial bits of club lore that have become, over the years, misremembered.
A good surprise or two also helps. The 11-1 set the stage for the wars, the hate … maybe. Francoist repression or Catalan victimization? Lowe presents the facts so that you can draw your own conclusions. But after a first leg that was won 3-0 by Barça, it was clear that there was something at the root of the famously lopsided scoreline.
Through the haze of legend, reality enters in the form of the Barça reserve keeper. This is the kind of reporting that makes this book so irresistible. The facile thing would be for the writer to draw his own conclusion, instead of tracking down a person who was there. Editorializing is often juicier than the truth, even if in this case, it isn’t.
Somewhere, in some bar tucked away in a Barcelona or Madrid neighborhood, there is probably a wizened sage who knows all of this stuff that Lowe brings us. There has to be. Or maybe not. If there was, after reading this book it’s clear that Lowe would have found him, and talked to him. For the rest of us there will be something, more than a single something, that will make your eyebrows shoot up in surprise as you say to yourself, “I didn’t know that.”
As a culer or Madridista, again, you won’t come out of this book with any diminution of the hate that you feel for that eternal rival. But you will comprehend that hate, you will know the history of those two clubs and how fate conspired to make them more alike than even the most knowledgeable supporter will admit. And at the next stupid transfer decision, or botched player purchase … well, that’s history.
If during the Spanish Civil War, somebody told a culer that only one club was flitting about Europe and Mexico, making money, frolicking with damsels on boats and building a massive war chest that made it the richest club in Spain, while the other club flirted with extinction amid the rubble of a war being fought right on its doorstep, that culer would say “Typical. Just like Perez today. Bastards.”
Only that club was Barcelona, with a president who was executed more for being in the wrong place, on the wrong side at the wrong time, than because of any club affiliation. Both clubs seized themselves to prevent them from falling into the hands of revolutionary zealots, both clubs saw the war first hand, even if one saw it much more up close and personal than the other.
A player came out of a club’s academy, about to give it all up because he was too small and delicate, but he persevered to become part of one of his club’s legendary teams, that boasted a significant chunk of its gala XI from the academy.
No, not Xavi. Emilio Butragueno, who was part of an RM side that boasted a batch of sterling cantera players.
“Fear and Loathing in La Liga” isn’t a breathless telling of the clubs of modern times, Messi and Ronaldo, Masia graduates vs paid mercenaries, Mourinho vs Guardiola. This is a history of the two clubs an intertwined, ongoing continuum.
Yes, there is a nasty rivalry. Yes, there is a perception that Madrid is Franco’s club. And perception is 99% of reality, right? Even if that reality isn’t true. RM was winning championships not because an oppressor’s boot was on the throat of Barça. We just had crappy teams. Both teams being excellent would have been better than one, as Franco cared more about presenting Spain in the best possible light to the world at large, than cherry-picking a favorite.
Myth and legend conspire to create something nasty, this thing to hate. Many a wizened culer will point to the Alfredo Di Stefano signing as the turning point for the two clubs, the player that elevated them and doomed us to years of insufferable mediocrity. He was stolen from us. Only it didn’t happen that way, as Lowe lays so elegantly and with the authority of impeccable research. Barça shot itself in the foot, in a moment of self-perpetuating victimization.
If contemporary culers think that the current club is stupid for the players it didn’t sign, they should have been around when Barça stomped off in a righteous huff, refusing to share Alfredo di Stefano after screwing up the transfer proceedings. The government stepped in with a compromise that then as now, can only be seen as silly. But then as now, RM was willing to do anything to win, even sharing such as extraordinary player. For us, then as now, it was style, panache, that seeming desire to lose pretty or with dignity, than wallow in the mud and get stuff done.
When there was the choice of Archibald or Hugo Sanchez, Barça chose Sanchez. Then as now, past as present, even as each team shifts position through the sweep of the footballing history that Lowe covers in “Fear and Loathing.”
We were direct and physical, they technical and beautiful. Then it reversed, then flipped again. The narrative, the history that makes Barça a club of the people, while RM only cares about trophies didn’t happen organically. Rather it was claimed by Barça, perfected and found its apogee in the now iconic phrase mes que un club.
You might not know what that phrase means now, but you will understand it and its origins after finishing “Fear and Loathing,” which Lowe presents as a back-and-forth game of historical tennis. First Puskas, then Di Stefano, La Quinta del Buitre, then the Dream Team.
Signs and portents, as again and again reading this book, the phrase “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.” It is impossible not to see present-day reality in boardroom fights, eye-gouged coaches and caterwauls of someone, thing or another being insufficiently Catalan. The Dream Team fell apart because of reliance on its aging parts, as there was too much love lavished on iconic players. Sound familiar?
But even with all of this, there is an always dispassionate delivery. You never get the feeling that Lowe is grabbing any culer, any Madridista who will listen by the lapels and saying “Can’t you SEE what is happening? It’s happened before, you know.” But it’s there, in black and white.
The best reporting arouses passion in its storytelling, and Lowe does this. Even the most die-hard culer, who the very utterance of the name of our eternal rivals fills with rage and nausea, will read the chapters devoted to them. It can’t be helped as you flow from page to page of a chronicle that inextricably links the two teams.
Sunyol, Bernabeu, Kubala, DiStefano, Herrera. More than a chronicle of dominance, “Fear and Loathing” is a chronicle of history repeating itself, Kubala as Ronaldinho, signings botched and teams not fulfilling their destiny because of hanging on too long before making changes.
There will be sets of culers to come. They will have their own Dream Team, their own glorious stories to tell. They will snark and quibble over transfers, be appalled as Barça or RM buy or not buy a player “who would have made all the difference.”
And those future culers or Madridistas, because history is most reliable for the retrospective lessons that it tries to teach even as its pupils never learn, will find just as much in this volume, just as many parallels, just as many “It has been ever thus” moments of revelation.
That makes this book for me, timeless. And at the end of it all, what writer doesn’t want to produce a bit of eternity?