Sports media spends a lot of time searching for narrative. Which is fine – they make it easier to write stories, and they enrich our enjoyment of the game. In the case of Spain’s most famous rivalry, the clichés are so well worn that some of them no longer ring true. So let’s not talk about them.
For neutrals, especially those who support Spanish teams not named Barcelona or Real Madrid, the big two must seem like two sides of the same revenue-hogging, dominating, and just plain annoying coin. And they’re right. It may seem counter-intuitive that we have more common interests in terms of market share, TV deals, and even legal regulation of youth transfers with the old enemy than anyone else, but it’s true. I can’t blame those who have decided to go with “a pox on both your houses” as their default attitude towards both sides of the divide.
There are undoubted similarities between the behaviour of the two clubs as institutions. Therefore, it’s even more curious that there are still substantial differences, largely resulting from the personalities and behaviours of a few men.
All the President’s Men
For example, take Florentino Perez and Sandro Rosell. All presidents of Spanish clubs are some variety of similar in their megalomania, conceit, and manifestation of the intense desire for attention only felt by the most natural of drama queens. But dig a little deeper, and these are two men with very different modus operandi. Mr Perez is an unique figure, one whose actions have shaped the history of European football for the past decade. Even more impressively, he has dominated at an institution where the institution itself is far bigger than any individual could ever hope to be. There will be a Real Madrid after Florentino, just like there was before, and it will continue to mean more than anything he imposes on it. But in the meantime, the only man who could even compete with Perez in the battle to shape Real’s identity is a wolf he invited into his own den. (More on him later.)
Florentino doesn’t have – has not allowed – the development of a nemesis. The rapid downfall of Ramon Calderon served as a testament to that. On the other hand, Sandro Rosell has defined himself as someone else’s nemesis. When that man is Joan Laporta, who is oftentimes his own worst enemy, perhaps it’s no bad thing. However, by defining himself in opposition to the previous president, Rosell has ensured that Laporta’s ghost will continue to hang over his tenure. And for all his PR disasters and ill-advised policies, Laporta’s sporting record – mostly, one could argue, due to a wise policy of non-interference – is quite remarkable. Then there’s the complicating factor of Pep Guardiola, arguably the defining figure of the current era. It’s hard to imagine Perez being rebuked (even gently, as Rosell was) by the manager of his team over stupid, boastful comments made about the old enemy. It’s also hard to imagine the Osasuna travel fiasco unfolding in quite the same way had it been Real instead of Barça. (By which I don’t mean to imply bias, only agreement with the El Pais article arguing that the incident calls into question just who is responsible for what at Barça. But I digress.)
The management of Barcelona and Real have both been called into question by all the major English-speaking journalists covering La Liga at various times this season. It’s fair to say that as a result of different problems, both clubs are not run as well as they could be, a state of affairs which has persisted for longer than the present group of players on both sides has been alive. At times, both clubs have appeared to succeed in spite of institutional chaos. Some would argue that what is needed in these times is the deployment of a strong personality which the entire environment (entorno for the Cruyffistas amongst us) could rally around. Which brings us to our illustrious managers.
The Philosopher and the Magician
It’s fun to accentuate the differences between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. There have been some particularly fine articles written on the topic. I usually prefer to stress the similarities, because I’m just that much of a contrarian, and Guardiola’s bloody-minded side doesn’t get enough of an airing in the English-speaking fanbase. But the fact remains that Manuel Preciado has been widely referred to as Mourinho’s La Liga nemesis, because Guardiola has entirely refused to get involved. He has remained respectful to a fault, occasionally sarcastic and ridiculously self-depreciating. For many La Liga watchers, this last quality is as exaggerated and as open to parody as Mourinho’s wilfulness and egotism. It leaves him open to charges of being disingenuous. Too cute by half.
While it’s hard to credit the impression Guardiola sometimes gives off of marvelling at his incredible fortune in success, given that he’s been groomed for this role since a very young age, that part at least reads as genuine. What seems more studied is his politeness. You get the impression that it would take effort if he weren’t brought up to face the press every week. Mourinho even has a point in his alleged complaints about message discipline, Real’s lack of, and Barça’s mastery of it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our players often sound like they’re talking off the same script. “We don’t like to discuss referees.” “This next game will be very difficult.” “We don’t care what Mourinho says.” When the risk of even innocuous statements being twisted in the never-ending media wars becomes acute, as in the week before a Clasico, Pep simply bars the players from giving interviews. The objective is to offer the opposition no cause for offence.
On the other side, Jose has been the lone man railing against perceived enemies inside and outside the club many times this season. If anything has surprised him about Real, it might be the battle he’s had to fight inside the club. No matter. Even if his is the only voice setting the agenda, it’s a powerful one. We can argue about the actual effect of his complaints of injustice and bias versus the perceived effect, but they are at the very least a boost to the Madridista press. Put it this way: the Barça press have to work at creating their beloved victimisation narratives without much support from the players and the coaching staff. The Madridista press are being spoon-fed. No wonder they like Jose more than Pellegrini.
Style and Substance
But let’s go back a little further. In 2007, Fabio Capello was dismissed, it was said, because the manner in which his side won the league (from under a Barça side who had won the double the previous season, don’t forget) was not up to standard.
Everyone knows that Barça have been committed to a particular style, broadly speaking, since the coming of Cruyff. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. When it doesn’t work, the popular reaction ranges from derision to pity to genuine appreciation for sheer commitment. Most common, though, is that insipid strain of isn’t it a pity, how sad that their obsession with style has blinded them to the guts/nastiness/[insert other quality] necessary to win. If you’ve read even two articles about Arsenal written in the past five years, at least one of them will have been along those lines. I could write one in my sleep, not least because Barcelona have similar silliness fostered upon them when they aren’t successful.
But those arguments are no longer used against Barça, or at least not as often. Guardiola has changed the picture. He insists on not only style but its compatibility with systematic effort and grand achievement, and has to his credit managed to get his team to think of themselves as a machine that produces consistent results by applying their own style. It’s been fascinating to watch the press/fan narrative of this team change from ‘fragile artistes who will never quite make it and are therefore worthy of pity’ to ‘frightening bullies who inflict death by a thousand cuts’. The latter perhaps sits uneasily with Barça fans, who are used to thinking of themselves as underdogs from times past.
Along the same lines, it’s been curious to watch Real develop the identity of the underdog, the permanently victimized, the one in a position of weakness who has to resort to unpalatable tactics against the feared enemy. I would argue that this narrative, promoted heavily by Mourinho with the help of certain sections of the media, is a gross distortion of the relative position of one of the biggest clubs in the world. But don’t listen to me – Real’s perception of itself has long been one of self-conscious power and glamour, a perception generated by the club’s prestige and the victories of its great teams. The Camp Nou is not the only arena in which the attending public expect to be entertained for their troubles.
As Sid Lowe wrote earlier today, there has been a backlash amongst senior Madridistas, including former coaches and players, at Mourinho’s tactics on Saturday. Chief amongst them were the comments made by the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano to the effect that Barça had a style and imposed it while Madrid were stuck fearfully reacting.
“Barcelona were a lion, Madrid a mouse,” he wrote. And by doing so, he unconsciously echoed the comments made by Johan Cruyff in his own column on the game. The point here is two-fold. First, Madrid have an identity. It involves scaring other teams, instead of letting other teams scare them. The grumbles emitted by the greats of the past are perhaps indicative of the status Real held in their own glory days, a status they believe should not be lightly surrendered to the upstart Catalans.
Second, a means to an end is all well and good, but when the result doesn’t go your way you just look silly. I tend to believe that claims of superiority of style are empty without victories to back them up, and this applies even more to ‘negative’ styles than ‘positive’ ones. If winning is your only aim, and you don’t manage it, then what’s left?
(Linda is hoping to make it through the next 3 Clasicos with sanity intact. Madridistas reading, no offence was meant. If you perceive any, please forgive it as an expression of an honestly held opinion. If you follow me on Twitter, I’m sorry about your feed.)