More than a game in Spain

Every football fan should try to attend one of the world's most celebrated sporting clashes.

Every football fan should try to attend one of the world’s most celebrated sporting clashes.

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It’s almost impossible to articulate the significance of El Clasico. One of football’s greatest names, Bill Shankly, famously quipped: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” When it comes to El Clasico, I doubt there are many Barcelona or Real Madrid fans who would disagree with this statement.

The teams face each other at least twice in La Liga every season, but domestic and continental cup draws often see the two sides battle it out on numerous occasions (in 2011, they met four times in 18 days). Although hundreds of millions usually tune in to the epic battles on TV screens around the world, the chances of actually getting tickets to an El Clásico bout are slim to say the least. Simply put, it’s football’s holy grail.

Once in a Lifetime

While in Europe for a month last year, I’d arranged to meet up with my Catalonian friend Xavi in Barcelona. Although I’d spent a fleeting couple of days darting through in the city some years ago, I was especially looking forward to soaking up the sights, gorging on inexpensive tapas and undoubtedly indulging in a few sunset sangrias along Platja de la Barceloneta.

It had been a few years since our last meeting, but I immediately picked out Xavi from the lingering throng at the arrivals gate. His stubbled complexion beamed back at me from behind a pair of black wayfarers. “Have I got a surprise for you,” he exclaimed as we exited the airport.

We clambered in to the back of a cab and directed the driver towards the beachfront villa in which we’d be staying for the weekend. A few minutes passed. Eventually, from his wallet Xavi casually pulled out a pair of tickets and handed them over. It took some time before I realised what I was holding, but finally the penny dropped. I’d found the holy grail in the back of a taxi on the outskirts of Barcelona.

Historical Conflict

It was late afternoon by the time we pulled up outside the villa I’d rented and we had just enough time to dump our bags and knock back a bottle of Estrella Damm before heading out towards the Camp Nou. As we approached the hallowed arena, I found myself engulfed in the voltaic atmosphere. Scarlet and blue swarms spilled out from the surrounding bars and passionate Catalonian chants came from all directions.

Certain historians have compared El Clasico to a reenactment of the Spanish Civil War, and it was clear to see how this analogy could be made. During the Franco regime, Catalonia, and even the Barcelona football club itself, was persecuted for its regional and socialist tendencies, while Madrid was perceived to represent the nationalist movement. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that Franco influenced the outcome of a number of Madrid’s matches.

It’s true what they say, Barcelona vs Real Madrid is far more than a game.

Arena of Dreams

After meeting up with a few of Xavi’s friends and finishing off a round of beers at a bar close to the Maria Cristina Metro station, we started for the stadium, wading through the crowds and making it to our seats just in time for kick-off.

Real Madrid got the game underway, complete with world-record signing Gareth Bale, while Barcelona also fielded their latest super signing: Brazilian wonder Neymar. For once, it seemed, all eyes wouldn’t exclusively be on Messi and Ronaldo.

Eighteen minutes and two yellow cards into the game, Barça stalwart Andres Iniesta deftly laid the ball on for newbie Neymar who, on his El Clasico debut, drove the ball into the back of the net. The stand trembled as thousands of Catalonians, en masse, exploded. I’d never heard or felt anything like it.

Half-time came and went, and even a couple of near misses from Madrid couldn’t sully the home crowd’s enthusiasm. With only 10 minutes of the game remaining and Real still defiantly knocking at Barcelona’s door, Neymar again found himself in a prime position on the edge of the area. He picked out substitute Alexis Sanchez on the edge of the area who, without hesitation, chipped the ball over the head of Madrid’s goalkeeper to score what some have since claimed to be one of the finest goals in this historic fixture.

Pinch-worthy Experience

It was simply overwhelming. In a matter of hours, I’d gone from stepping off a flight, expecting a quiet evening of cocktails and banter, to witnessing one of the greatest goals ever scored in one of the world’s most celebrated sporting events.

Madrid did pull one back with merely seconds to go, but the consolation goal did nothing to dampen the spirits of the home crowd. As anticipated, the party went on long into the night. We finally pulled ourselves away from the city’s renowned La Rambla district in the small hours – by which point I’d learnt at least three Barca chants – and hazily headed back to the villa.

We awoke about noon the next day and hastily agreed to spend the day doing as little as possible. The Sagrada Familia could wait. Besides, I thought, I’d already spent the night in the city’s true place of worship.

Sadly not every visitor to Barcelona will be able to witness the spectacle of El Clasico, but the Spanish city offers plenty of compensatory pleasures to keep you cheering for Catalonia. Here are a few essentials:

  • Even if you can’t get a ticket for El Clásico, you can still time your trip to enjoy one of the city’s many other festive gatherings. September is a particularly good time to visit, during Festes de la Merce, a weeklong festival celebrating the best of Catalan music, art and spirit.
  • Culture vultures can explore the sights our blogger failed to reach. The unrivalled beauty of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture is definitely worth absorbing and some of his most famous structures include the controversial Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, and Palau Guell.
  • As a city by the sea, Barcelona is rightly famed for its seafood. Local specialities like rifasico – fried whitebait, shrimps and squid rings – offer an exquisite taste of the rich daily catch.
  • Urbanites will love a wander through the historical neighbourhood known as The Raval, which has become a hub for creative enterprise, good food, contemporary art and modern culture.
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