There are numerous rivalries in the soccer world but only one El Clásico. Today people pay big bucks to watch successful Spanish soccer giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, two of the biggest (and richest) teams in soccer history, battle it out on the pitch. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between the fans but beneath the surface, there’s a fierce rivalry between the two teams that dates back hundreds of years. Here’s how it started…

The first ever encounter

El Clásico soccer history rivalry — © Ungry Young Man / Flickr.
El Clásico soccer history rivalry — © Ungry Young Man / Flickr.

On May 13, 1902 the two teams played for the very first time in the semi-final of the Copa Coronación (known as Copa del Rey today) that marked the first ever football competition between Spain’s different teams. FC Barcelona already had two years of competitive soccer experience behind them and their team that included Swiss players Hans Gamper and George Meyer, German player Udo Steinberg and three Englishmen Arthur Witty, John Parsons and Henry Morris was the favorite to win. The newly formed Madrid FC (the Real prefix wasn’t added until 1920) had only ever played a handful of friendlies against another Spanish team New FC.

The result? Barcelona triumphed 3–1, thus kicking off the biggest rivalry in soccer history.

The politics of two provinces

This deep-seated division between the two cities dates back even further, way before there was any mention of soccer. Some 300 years ago, Barcelona was the capital of Catalonia, an independent state in the northeast of Spain with its own language and culture. Following a 15-year war between the Bourbon and Habsburg dynasties, the Catalans lost their sovereignty in 1714 and became part of Spain. However Barcelona and its liberal Catalan residents never lost their independent spirit, continually fighting Madrid’s nationalistic orders.

The Spanish Civil War

Real Madrid soccer team General Franco — © jorono / Pixabay.
Real Madrid soccer team General Franco — © jorono / Pixabay.

During the Spanish Civil War that took place from 1936 to 1939, Spain came across as a very divided nation to the rest of the world so when General Francisco Franco captured Madrid in 1939, he was desperate to promote Spain as a united nation, with Madrid at its center. He became very hostile towards any region that resisted his centrist policies, namely Catalonia. He subsequently banned the use of Catalan in government, schools and media and made Castellano Spanish the only official legal language in Spain.

During this time, football was growing as means of cultural expressionism and the people of Catalonia started supporting FC Barcelona to show that they were united in their hatred of General Franco and their fight for independence. Meanwhile Real Madrid became Franco’s favorite team and a metaphor for his government.

The Di Stéfano signing

Soccer stadium Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid — © Juan Maalmazan / Pixabay.
Soccer stadium Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid — © Juan Maalmazan / Pixabay.

The controversial story of soccer player Alfredo Di Stéfano’s arrival at Real Madrid further added fire to the flames. In 1953, Argentine-born Di Stéfano was playing for Colombia’s Millionarios (on loan from Argentine club River Plate, due to a strike in Argentina). He caught the attention of both Spanish clubs at the same time. After long negotiations, FIFA ruled that FC Barcelona would sign Di Stéfano. The Spanish government under the guise of the Spanish Football Federation intervened and objected to the transfer claiming that Millonarios had not agreed to it (even though River Plate was the legal owner of Di Stéfano) giving Real Madrid the opportunity to go behind FC Barcelona’s back and score a deal with Di Stéfano. This led to a deadlock, which was finally resolved when the Spanish Federation ruled that Di Stéfano would be allowed to play four years in Spain, two for FC Barcelona and two for Real Madrid.

FC Barcelona backed out of this deal (reportedly on the strict orders of their Franco-backed president), which allowed Real Madrid to become the sole owner of Di Stéfano, arguably one of the greatest players in Real Madrid’s history. This remains a huge point of contention with FC Barcelona fans to this day.

Luís Figo transfer saga

Years later FC Barcelona lost out on another player to Real Madrid in the form of Portuguese player Luís Figo, who made the highly controversial switch to Real Madrid in 2000. The Barcelona fans were so outraged that they threw the head of a pig on the pitch during one of his first matches for Real Madrid.

And if that’s not enough… what about Ronaldo vs. Messi

Cristiano Ronaldo soccer player Real Madrid — © Jan S0L0 / Flickr.
Cristiano Ronaldo soccer player Real Madrid — © Jan S0L0 / Flickr.

Today, the fans of the two sides have another reason to hate each other in the debate over who is the best soccer player in the world. Is it Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid or Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona? The fact that the two best players in the world play for these two teams means that this historical rivalry isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.

Got any other comments to add on the rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona? Share your thoughts with our readers below.

Originally published on Ailola by Sophie Lloyd on April 15, 2019.