Amy Eustace examines the latest meeting between Barcelona and Real Madrid
The Catalan Senyera flew high in the Camp Nou on Sunday night, capsule as Real Madrid took to Barcelona’s famed stadium in what was dubbed the most politically charged Clasico since Francisco Franco’s Madrid came to visit a month after the authoritarian Madridista’s death in 1975. Amid increasing support for separatism in Catalonia, advice regional president Artur Mas has promised to call for a referendum on the matter if he is successful in elections in late November. The consequences could be severe, ailment with the state army constitutionally capable of using force to protect state unity.
However, even with separation on the top of the agenda, nothing could sever the two sides on Sunday evening.
Regardless of the increasing relevance of El Clasico’s socio-political backdrop, it’s rare that a face-off between Spain’s sparring titans isn’t reduced to the inevitable Messi versus Ronaldo debate. The pocket-sized Argentinean and his Portuguese rival have long been deemed members of football’s historic top table despite their relative youth and the many years still ahead of them at the pinnacle of the game. In this instance, it was plain to see why discussion centres on those same two superstar names more often than not.
Unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring – adding to an impressive record of scoring in his past six encounters with Barcelona in a row – with a strike that left Victor Valdes’ head spinning at his near post. Messi was on hand with a reply though, a very atypical Barcelona goal, jabbed in past Iker Casillas after a scramble in Madrid’s box. He doubled his tally in the second half with a picture perfect free kick that looped over the Spanish goalkeeper and put the home side in front for the first time. Not to be outdone, Ronaldo got his second of the night courtesy of a delectable pass from Mesut Ozil, slicing open Barcelona’s makeshift defence. The striker made no mistake in putting it away. It ended all square, two goals apiece – a scoresheet that could have belonged to any Clasico of the last few years, and a match that, otherwise, went by largely without incident.
The absence of Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Eric Abidal was duly noted. Barcelona’s defence collapsed upon itself more than once without its talismanic local pair. For a change, the match was not characterised by a sending off or two or ham-acting from usual suspects like the much-maligned Sergio Busquets. It was very much another episode which centered around the man who is widely accepted as modern football’s best, Messi, and Ronaldo, the pretender to the throne.
Having already lost its competitive charm by revolving largely around the Clasico rivalry, Spain’s beloved La Liga is at risk of being simplified further again to this; the never-ending point-scoring that takes place between the two, or indeed the Spanish and global media make it seem as such. No doubt, both players would publicly attest to the idea of it being about the team, and not the individuals. Indeed, most would consider it tragically and criminally ignorant to boil such an intricate, historic and intense rivalry down to such trivialities as this. But the Messi and Ronaldo Show still gets top billing – not the decades of history, the battle of wits and clout, the understated brilliance of Xavi and Iniesta’s double act, the elegance of Alonso or the creativity of Ozil. A Clasico is no longer a Clasico without this battle within a battle, and other factors lose focus while Lionel and Cristiano engage in constant one-upmanship – for the good of their respective teams or their own reputations.
As Catalonia fights on for its independence, its flagship source of pride fights to win back its title as Spain, and the world’s, best. More and more, however, it’s beginning to feel like the biggest war is between their stars instead, while they fight to escape the other’s shadow.