The Classic is huge, far bigger in reputation than it can ever be in actual import, a kick in the face of logic.
It’s just three points in the standings. The Classic has the same aggregate effect as a match against Rayo Vallecano or Getafe. This is a match that Barca can easily afford to lose, a team that is still in “hold on until January” mode. It’s a match that Real Madrid need to win, to keep from going six points down in the standings, and having the murmurs stalking the halls become something louder.
Why does it seem like so much more? Why do we sit in our chairs, sweating, wringing our hands in anguish, quivering with dread when Ronaldo makes one of his runs, even as we already know it will be ineffective because we have chuckled at just how ineffective he is these days.
It’s the Classic. It’s more. Phil Ball speaks of the remarkable thing called morbo, the extra something that makes the Classic seem larger than life, makes it seem like winning or losing it is the end of the world. It’s history, two great clubs locked in mutual dislike, enmity that spans decades, that permeates everything. Mes que un match, dammit.
What gives this match even more resonance is that in this day and age, football is under attack. From the planned attack at Stade de France to the thwarted attempt in the city of Hanover that canceled the Germany/Netherlands friendly, to the canceled Belgium/Spain friendly, there are people who want to hit the game where it lives: in the vibrant, beating heart.
Football is, as one very smart person called it, the most important unimportant thing in our lives. Groups of ultras battle, conspiracy theories abound, teams kick, scratch and claw in derbies everywhere. Football is war.
And yet, every now and again, even as we fear and detest such reminders, we understand what real life is like and how it can intrude into the things that we love. A sound that might be a large fireworks goes off, Patrice Evra pauses as he is playing the ball, and players hesitate. “Huh?” “What?” And at the end of 90 minutes, everything that has transpired on the pitch becomes meaningless as the Stade de France becomes a sanctuary for terrified, confused people who went to a football match, a friendly, and had a war break out. Even the most eloquent, elegant wordsmiths quail in the face of any attempt to describe what that feeling must have been like.
Football, then, isn’t war. War is war, blood running down a cobbled street as people scream, gunshots punctuating innocents begging for their lives, warplanes raining retaliatory destruction upon a place as the cycle continues.
There was never any talk of any of this forcing the Classic to be called off. What possible security threat could be brought to light that would be capable of derailing this biggest of the derbies, Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona, the club from the capital city vs the club from the autonomous region. Contrasts abound, from the stark white of their home kit to the blaugrana slashes of ours. The coaches are contrasts, one portly bookworm vs the cycling, running, fireball. Even the superstars of each club are diametric opposites, one tall, neatly coiffed and theatrical, the other short, economy shorn and all business.
What the two clubs have in common is the same aspiration. What the two superstars have in common in the same brutal effectiveness. What the teams have in common is the same craving, for the championship. What the fanbases have in common is their undying, fervent support for their warriors, even as we wonder about the propriety of such a word in this day and age. Those who would attack the game view themselves as warriors, fighting for a cause that they believe in. In that context, the athletes who do things of such beauty, who bring us joy and sorrow, would have to be something different, some sort of being that requires a different word.
This is true even at the core of it all, the players who will be facing off on Saturday are dudes at work. Their supporters are accountants, butchers, janitors, wage slaves of various kinds. The players are doing their job. We wonder how they can try to destroy each other for 90 minutes, then Messi and Pepe can swap shirts and quips after the final whistle. But it’s the same reason we can buy a drink for a buddy at a competing firm. They’re doing their job, even as that task is, was and has become such an outsized beast.
Sport is the higher thing in all of us. We hold our breath as a player stands over a free kick, explode in joy as it nestles into the back of the net. It gives humdrum lives meaning, makes a rich man hug and kiss the guy who flips his burgers. The competition is, for the time in which it holds us in thrall, everything. That is, in many ways, the genuine beauty of sport.
On that horrible Friday the 13th, there were other matches being played after France/Germany, matches that we watched to distract ourselves from the horror that was unspooling in real time, affront after affront to our humanity. Involvement in a match meant giving life to that effort to think about something else, to do anything possible just to stop crying at the unspeakable horror of it all, the anonymity of the attacks that united everyone in that awful capriciousness. And football became something else entirely, salve for our wounded souls. The beautiful game could also, for a time, mask pain. Then it can show defiance as “La Marseillaise” rang out, howled in unison as England met France in a meaningless match so stuffed with meaning.
It is this feeling that puts the Classic in perspective. It is a match that is bigger than life even in ordinary circumstances, this colossus that has Import. But on this Saturday, it’s also a well-timed symbol. People want to attack the game that we all love, uniting fans in a way that transcends club ties and regional affiliations. So it is fitting that the grandest match of them all happen, right on the heels of horror. There is no better way to spit in the face of so much ugly than with a grand spectacle, glitz, glamour and fury as the two best football teams in the world square off.
To the winner goes three points, bragging rights and something to talk about for a time. To the loser goes second guessing and loss of a psychological edge. But both teams, the supporters, the actual world that gathers to watch, win something else, something substantially more significant. We all get to affirm that there is beauty in triumph over destruction and malice, beauty in life going on, sublime delight in saying to those who want to attack that which we love, here is the biggest, grandest thing that we have. You fight with bombs and bullets, we fight with love and beauty. And for a day, after all the previous times in which the Classic has only seemed larger than life and bursting with symbolism … on Saturday, this will all be true.