In the lead up to the heated 1974 World Cup Final between the Netherlands and West Germany, renowned Dutch manager Rinus Michels is reported to have said “football is war.” Though Michels later claimed that his words were misinterpreted, his quote has come to represent the inevitable intersection between sport and politics. For Dutch fans, many of whom still shared the collective memory of the brutal German occupation, the meetings between the two national sides acquired a greater significance as a symbolic continuation of the Dutch resistance to the occupiers. That is not to say that the events on a football pitch are actually comparable to the horrors of a battlefield, but during peacetime sporting events can become a manifestation of the political tensions of a society, a simulation of war without the bloodshed. In Spain, the most prominent example of the “football is war” idea is without a doubt the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. El Clásico, as it is most commonly known, epitomizes the antagonistic relationship between Catalonia and the central government in Madrid. Even when Spain is at peace, the football pitch provides a simulacrum of the latent civil war which is, to this day, a reality in Spanish society.
To understand the significance of the rivalry between the most successful and powerful teams in Spain, we must go back and explore their origins. FC Barcelona was not originally envisioned as the flagship of Catalan nationalism, nor was Real Madrid associated with the right wing, centralized state. But over the first several decades of their respective existences, both clubs became inextricably linked to their modern identities. Barça were actually founded by a Swiss businessman in 1899 and many of the original members of the club were English expatriates. But it did not take long for FC Barcelona to embrace the Catalanist ideal. By 1911 the club’s badge included the cross of St. Jordi as well as the red and yellow stripes of the Senyera, in stark contrast to the monarchist symbology adopted by their crosstown rivals, Real Club Deportivo Español. Real Madrid were founded three years after their hated rivals, but in a twist of history often overlooked by supporters of both sides the founders of Los Blancos had Catalan origins. They were founded as Madrid FC, and were only renamed Real Madrid in 1920, after receiving royal patronage from King Alfonso XIII. It was in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War that the club acquired the reputation, whether deservedly or not, of being on the receiving end of numerous favors from the Franco regime and therefore symbolizing the centralized, repressive state run by the Falangists in Madrid.
As the clubs consolidated their respective identities, the football pitch became the scene of the latent civil war. The first major incident occurred in 1924, when Barça star striker Pepe Samitier was sent off during the Barcelona derby, provoking a minor riot from the fans. In response, the military authorities ordered the match replayed behind closed doors, a decision that only led to more violence outside the stadium. Perhaps the most seminal moment in the early history of FC Barcelona came the following year. As Primo de Rivera had already began to clamp down on Catalan autonomy and the use of the local language, Barça were scheduled to play a benefit match in aid of the local choral society. A band of the Royal Marines from a British Royal Navy vessel who were stationed in Barcelona at the time were invited to perform at half time. When they began to play the Spanish national anthem, they were bombarded with a cascade of derisory whistles from the overwhelmingly anti-Spanish crowd. The band instead began a rendition of God Save the Queen, which was roundly applauded by the audience. In response to this affront to the unity of the Spanish state, the government of Primo de Rivera imposed a heavy fine on the club and ordered its operations shut down for six months. Though this incident did not directly feature Barça’s direct rival, it was an early indication of the way in which the Spanish civil war would be played out on the football pitch in a stylized fashion. Even under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera Barça had already established themselves as the team of Catalan nationalism, in direct opposition to the Madrid authorities.
As the Nationalist troops occupied Madrid in March of 1939 and the Francoist regime was recognized internationally as the legitimate government of Spain, the long and bloody Civil War finally dragged to a halt. But while the guns may have fallen silent, the tensions of prewar society were by no means eradicated. The assault on Catalan autonomy and identity was manifested through football as well as through other means. Just four years after the end of the war Real Madrid and Barcelona met each other in the semifinals of the Copa del Generalísimo, the national cup competition of Spain which in that very same year was renamed from the Copa del Rey, a reflection of the changing political climate. In the first leg of that tie, Barça ran out 3-0 winners, putting them in pole position to advance to the final. But in the return leg in Madrid, the Catalan side suffered an unprecedented 11-1 defeat, to this day the widest margin of victory in El Clásico. During halftime of that match, the director of state security allegedly entered the Barça dressing room and told the players that many of them were still playing football because of the generosity of the regime in letting them remain in the country. It is impossible at this point to say what exactly happened. Barça fans will contend that Real Madrid, with the support of the Franco regime, brazenly stole the match and title away, while Madridistas will respond that their side was simply far superior on the night. The truth is unknowable, but it is not our purpose to investigate the events from a strictly sporting point of view. What we can say, however, is that the end of the Spanish Civil War as a military conflict did not signal the end of the latent civil war. It was manifested on the football pitch, where two distinct political ideologies – centralization versus regionalism, dictatorship versus republicanism – clashed on the pitch through the medium of El Clásico. The 11-1 result remains a reminder that football in Spain can be viewed through the lens of a simulacrum of the civil war.
The end of the Franco regime did not bring an end to the latent civil war fought on the football pitch. If anything, the process of democratization only brought about a more explicit expression of the political tensions of Spanish society. As soon as the Franco regime fell, the Senyera, banned for so long, made its first reappearance on the terraces of the Camp Nou. The latent civil war did not disappear as Catalans were granted increasing rights to display national symbols, use their national language, and assert their national identity. In the wake of the pro-independence demonstrations of 11 September 2012, the Camp Nou became the site of another large-scale expression of Catalan identity. The traditional pre-match choreography featured 98,000 fans holding up yellow and red placards, forming a senyera of massive proportions. Some fans, including former FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta, brought along the explicitly pro-independence estelada flag. Seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds into the match, the entire stadium began a chant of “Independencia” in homage to the 1714 defeat of Catalan forces during the war of Spanish Succession. The culture of civil war is still evident, and is manifested through football to this day.
Rinus Michels’ words still ring true. Football is not war in the strictest definition of the word, but it certainly serves as a simulacrum. The history of the rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is analogous to the relationship between the two cities and the different aspects of Spanish political discourse which they represent, i.e. centralization versus autonomy. The actual historical realities of the role of politics in Spanish football are murky and ambiguous, and the various interpretations are incredibly politicized. How, for example, can the Barça fan claiming that his side were brutally oppressed by Franco explain that one of the club’s most successful periods came under his regime? But the historical realities are irrelevant; the nature of football results do not lend themselves to objective historical analysis. But it remains evident that in Spain, even in times of relative peace, the latent civil wars are fought not with bayonets and artillery on the Aragonese front, but with slide tackles and free kicks on the pitches of the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabéu.