Book Review: Real Madrid & Barcelona: The Making of a Rivalry
Real Madrid & Barcelona: The Making of a Rivalry by Elliott Turner
Published by Round Ball Media LLC
May 2013, $6 (kindle)
Rivalry is that most beloved topic of the footballing internet with keyboard warriors across the globe queuing up to proclaim their particular enmity as the fiercest.
I’ll admit to a degree of ennui when followers of giants clubs indulge in such debates given the increasing propensity of Arsenal v Tottenham or Liverpool v Manchester United to resemble the contest between multinational firms to increase market share. No, I don’t especially care whether Apple or Google win out, so why should I be bothered to check in on events at St. James’ Park or the Stadium of Light?
But certain animosities transcend that and although matters Glasgow are likely to end up near the top of any survey of the phenomena, the three hour journey between Madrid and Barcelona spans a divide that is rooted in the political fabric of a country.
Elliott Turner, purveyor of pioneering football blog Futfanatico and whose previous book, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer and Spanish was reviewed in these pages in 2011, has attempted to get to the nub of the rivalry between the two cities’ foremost clubs – devoting a hundred or so pages to the history of the interaction between the two organisations over the course of the twentieth century.
As with the previous volume, it’s a lavishly mounted affair with Erik Ebeling’s wonderfully evocative illustrations of the men who made each club punctuating the carefully worded prose and the author showing a real sensitivity to the issues underlying the history of Spanish football, as well as the impact of economic and social factors. In that, it resembles in many ways an extended version of the kind of piece you would find in a typical issue of periodical The Blizzard.
Indeed, as an outwardly neutral presence in World War II, Spain was ineligible to benefit from the Marshall Plan aid that kick started the Italian economy while its status as a latecomer to the European Union also led to patchy progress on the football front – the Italians of Internazionale using their greater purchasing power to prise away legendary coach Helenio Herrera and midfield general Luis Suárez (no, not that n’er do well) from Barcelona for instance.
Before that, however, there had been Real Madrid’s jawdropping domination of the early years of the European Cup (please can we get back to calling it that) and, of course, the little matter of the Civil War.
Turner is masterly on the topic and remarkably even handed. Although a self-confessed Real fan, he is quick to present evidence to rebut the most kneejerk of partisans. In truth, neither club benefitted much from that vicious conflict and the political beliefs of the clubs’ players were extremely heterogeneous.
It’s true that Barcelona’s label as a sporting and cultural association springs from that period, under pressure as they were from the more radical Catalonian nationalists among their support while the meringues certainly benefitted from the patronage of the Franco regime once it had ‘settled down’ into the 1950s – indeed, a unlikely 11-1 win for Real in a 1943 cup clash seemed to emanate more from fear on the part of their opponents than any other reason.
But the first President of Real, Juan Padrós Rubío was actually born in Catalonia while arch Republican Rafael Sánchez Guerra was also elected President of the capital-based whites in 1935 and Real actually ceased to exist for a time during the affair.
Still, the shocking murder of Barca President Josep Sunyol en route to Madrid in 1936 looms large and the crass banning of Catalonian flags and symbols emphasized the way football became a battle ground for wider societal enmity.
The book is full of anecdotes – I myself was pleased to be reminded of formative memories such as Barca’s Hans Krankl-inspired Cup Winners Cup win over Fortuna Düsseldorf in 1979, the steadying hand of Real player and manager, Miguel Muñoz, later to lead the national team to quarter final defeat in Mexico 86, and It’s a Knockout official Arthur Ellis who refereed when Barcelona became the first club to beat Real in the European Cup.
While there were also plenty of things I didn’t know – that Joan Gamper started life as Hans Kamper, that interclub pioneer Gabriel Hanot wanted the fledgling European Cup to involve first round group stages, that Terry Venables – El Tel – deployed 4-4-2 when he brought title glory to Catalonia after a long absence and that Barca’s Julio César Benítez died of gastroenteritis in the run in to the 1967-8 season – a poignant fact given the untimely death of another player of that name last week.
So it’s a feast indeed and there is little to quibble with. Perhaps the on-field violence that punctuated European ties involving the duo in the early 1980s could have been mentioned while the end point of the book is the turn of the millennium – leaving one tantalised at what Turner may have to say about the last decade – another book is in the works hopefully?
The economic, political and social grounding is well exhibited, however and the importance of the members – the socios to the growth of Barcelona in particular (Real, by contrast, built their position of strength thanks to speculation and credit) is well explained – indeed, Turner posits the importance of penyas – localised social networks such as clubs and societies as ways of countermanding authoritarianism – an intriguing advocacy of the importance of social capital which recent evidence perhaps calls into question.
Equally, Turner is excellent on the power of money and propaganda – the importance of television to the financial health of any football club is naturally best exhibited by a duo whose highly advantageous TV deal seems set to allow them to dominate for a good while yet, abetted by an internet culture that fosters international fandom of which Turner is a part. If you want an understanding of one of world football’s most serious rivalries, look no further.