Every year around this time, the Spanish press start trumpeting headlines on the ‘Partido del Siglo’ or ‘Game of the Century’. They’re referring, of course, to Barcelona playing Real Madrid, and their claim, which can’t be true of a game that’s played at least twice a year, starts sounding believable in that typically exaggerated Spanish way once the referee blows the whistle and the match starts.
Practically nothing can compare to the tension of a Real Madrid – Barcelona, specially in a laid-back country such as this one. But all the strain between Spain’s capital and its proudest city is set loose in the 90 minutes the game lasts.
So what’s different this year?
First of all, the game won’t only be played the set two times that La Liga mandates, one in Madrid and another in Barcelona. This season, both teams are also matching up in the King’s Cup final (an equivalent to the FA Cup) and in the Champions League semifinal.
Real Madrid, traditionally the stronger team, hasn’t won a single title in the past two seasons, a situation made specially painful in the 2008/09 season, when Barcelona carried every single tournament they participated in, a feat never equaled by any other Spanish team. Madrid has tried to match Barcelona’s powers with the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and coach, José Mourinho. Both come from impressive wins in the British and Italian leagues, but it could be that not even they are a match for what some say could be football history’s greatest team. Their loss to Barcelona in the first half of the league, 5-0, is one of the most bitter the team can remember.
It has been many years since Real Madrid’s game has matched their name. But despite disappointing performances, the team has managed to scrape two of the last five league titles, and last year won more points than any team in Spanish history… except for Barcelona that same year. Cristiano Ronaldo, the team star, has scored 40 goals this season, enough to have won him goalscoring records. Except that Leo Messi, Barcelona’s star, has scored 48. Real Madrid hasn’t beaten their arch-rival in the past five games, with an unprecedented 16 – 2 aggregate score.
Despite all this, Madrid players and fans seem confident. Until now, Real Madrid has been able to beat every squad except for Barcelona. But the capital’s team has something that Barcelona has always been lacking: self-confidence. No matter how amazing Barcelona’s feats have seemed, Real Madrid has always followed close behind. Out of four games, fans reason, Madrid can surely take one or two. This first one, part two of the league match-ups, is the least important: the title will probably go to Barcelona, which is 8 points ahead with only 6 games to go. The King’s cup is decided in a single game, and that could be one of Madrid’s aims. Snatching a title away from Barcelona, a traditionally Republican team that paradoxically has more King’s titles than their Monarchist competitors (the ‘Real’ in the teams name is a seal given by the King of Spain), could be the first step for a team that looks to finally shake Barcelona’s confidence, an exploit that may be easier than it seems.
Then comes the Champions League match-up. Real Madrid fans consider this ‘their’ title. The team has won it more than any other in Europe, a grand total of nine times against Barcelona’s three. No matter how bad things look for Real Madrid in these two games, the force of history and Juanito’s Spirit (named after a particularly feisty Real Madrid player) will make things very uncomfortable for Barcelona until the last minute. However, the team has won twice in the past five years, and Real Madrid has come up against disappointment after disappointment for nine seasons in a row. Last year, the title was snatched up by Italy’s Internazionale, who upset Barcelona in semifinals with a clearly inferior team. Their coach? José Mourinho.
Nicknamed ‘the Special One’, Mourinho has a knack for winning practically everything, be it a Champions League with an obscure team (Porto) or every title in one year with a team where most players were way past their prime (Internazionale). Hated by almost everyone else for his arrogance, his players invariably hail him as the best coach they’ve ever had. In only eight full seasons as a professional coach, he has won 18 titles. An amazing accomplishment only equaled by… you guessed it, FC Barcelona’s coach José Guardiola, with 9 titles in only two years as a professional.
Their styles are completely opposite. Mourinho’s teams are direct, energetic and get the job done brilliantly even against better opponents. Guardiola’s Barcelona is effortless, constantly passing the ball until they find a space to score. Sometimes, they seem almost apathetic, and the doubt still remains after two glorious seasons: what would happen if a team were able to corner them? Only Mourinho’s Internazionale has been able to do it. Now, his Real Madrid has four games against Barcelona. Everybody knows the strengths of both teams, and the recurrence and importance of the matches will mean that both coaches will have to show all their cards very soon. It’s all about being good enough to win despite everyone knowing how you’re going to do it.