Pep Talk 19: Insights from Sid Lowe’s ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga – El Clasico diaries

Insights, highlights and little-known nuggets from the book ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’ – El Clasico diaries by Sid Lowe. While the book covers the entire history of Barcelona vs Real Madrid rivalry, I have only chosen the post-2000s period since it was since 1998 from when I was waking up late nights to watch the biggest encounter, rivalry and spectacle in the history of sports!

*19 Nov 2005, 58th min Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho have put Barcelona 2-0 up. Real Madrid are yet to have a shot on goal; at home. Twenty minutes later Ronaldinho sends Ramos to the floor, Ivan Helguera to one and Iker Casillas to another direction. After scoring, Ronnie runs to the corner flag, does a little dance, waggles his fingers and points to the sky. Madrid fans have jaws on the floor as they begin to applaud – more as to mock the $440 million Galactico squad. Michel Salgado told later “Applauding Ronaldinho was a way of punishing us .. the club has lost its soul”. That day the cameras zoomed in on Juan Sanchez Gomez, with a thick moustache and cigarette loosely hanging. He had started the applause. Since then, he has shaved off his moustache, first time in thirty years, and now barely recognisable, as the man who had little idea his photograph would be splashed across papers leading an ovation for Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu. An ovation that happened first time since 1983 – when Diego Maradona scored a goal so audacious, that his teammate Lobo Carrasco, burst out laughing.

* Ten days later Ronaldinho picked up the Ballon d’Or award to go with his FIFA World player award. “Ronaldinho changed our history” said Xavi. A player who Real Madrid thought was too ‘ugly’ and would sink their brand. A player who joined Barcelona after Juan Laporta hoodwinked everyone to believe that he would be signing David Beckham once he became president. Laporta won the elections, Sandro Rosell became his Vice President and David Beckham joined Real Madrid, as he had always said he would. Laporta signed Ronaldinho, who followed Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo as a Brazilian crowned best player in the world while in Catalonia.

* The following summer Barcelona pulled a masterstroke signing Samuel Eto’o – one who reversed the ‘Figo act’! Eto’o was thirteen and penniless when he arrived at Barajas airport. Soon Madrid scouted him, developed him in their youth system but limited his first-team appearances in the superstar-laden Galactico era. That was a time when Madrid coach Mariano Garcia Ramón lost his job after he had benched Ronaldo (Brazilian) for a game. Big branded players who endorsed multiple products took on the field more often than not. Eto’o lived with a burning sense of injustice and after he joined Mallorca he scored goal after goal – especially against Madrid. Especially at the Bernabeu. After one such strike, he pointed to a spot and kept yelling ‘I was here, I was here’. Later Samuel explained how his rage was a statement on behalf of the youth system – so that they get the necessary opportunities. Kids who played better than ‘advertisers delight’ names, get more chances. Eto himself forced the €24 million move to Barcelona and he only wanted to go Barcelona. He refused to listen to empty Madrid promises at the time of signing. “If the bench isn’t good enough for the Galacticos, it isn’t good enough for me”. He scored 25 league goals during the season 2004-05, chanting loudly during the title-winning parade “Madrid you bastards, salute the champions”.

* Pep Guardiola’s arrival underlined and extended Barcelona’s style of play. In world football today, a particular style associated with any team is down to just one. Real Madrid struggled to impose an identity, a style; while the Barcelona style has now become a platinum milestone if there was ever one. Barcelona’s model was imposed by Johan Cruyff, borrowed from 1970s Ajax. Their training sessions too were unique to other clubs – all about rondos and piggy-in-the-middle-games. Charly Rexach claimed he could spot how good a player is by the sound the ball makes when they hit a pass. Very soon the Spanish National team starting eleven had the Barcelona style of play ingrained in it. Pep Guardiola become the big guru of this product. When Spain won the World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, Barcelona President Juan Laporta smiled more than anyone else with that excess sense of pride. A pride that swelled all through La Masia training grounds, where that style had become bread and butter. Former Liverpool star Michael Robinson insists “Show me twenty kids in a park and I can pick out the two who are from Barca”. In 2010, the Ballon d’Or top three were Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

* By April 2010 Madrid were searching for solutions on multiple fronts – for a start, begin to compete with Barcelona. Desperation drove them to one José Mourinho. The one man who hated Barcelona just as much. The only man whose Inter Milan had been able to stop Barcelona between 2008-2010 – the game which came to be his audition for the Real Madrid job. The deal was finalised after seeing Jose’s passionate celebration on the Nou Camp grass. The Inter players returned Italy to celebrate, José went to Madrid. His office there, later, would have a gigantic poster of that night, and him running with the finger pointed skywards. A picture which every day reminded Real Madrid the common enemy and obsession they share – Barcelona.

* Barcelona has long been defined by their coaches but until now Madrid had not. Mourinho’s arrival was a revolution. Finally, a Madrid coach was given full authority, control and weapons to fight Barcelona. Power was ceded on one condition, that he won. The press and fans backed him and the ugliness – till Mourinho decided he would take it a level further. Despite snatching Copa Del Ray and La Liga (both in 2011) from the Barcelona hegemony, reducing El Clasicos from goal fests to ugly, nasty encounters; his confrontations with Ramos and dropping of Casillas initiated his doom. The players started disliking his constant blaming of referees, confronting opponents on most trivial issues and randomly complaining about everything. The last straw was when Jose told Spanish players not to build relationships with their Barcelona national teammates. Mourinho got furious after Casillas made a peacekeeping call to his Barcelona teammates. Mourinho had come to destroy Barcelona and win Europe but with time they became mutually exclusive. The Portuguese focus remained in his war with the Catalan Club. The club he had left in 2004 saying “Together and forever Barca in my heart.. I will only ever coach Real Madrid to destroy them. I would never stop being a Cule”. By the time Mourinho left Real Madrid, his final season trophyless, Barcelona had lost grip on Europe, but neither did Madrid conquer. In 2012 Champions League semifinals, both Messi and Ronaldo missed penalties and didn’t make to the finals. In 2013, both clubs reached Germany, conceded four goals each and couldn’t make to the finals.

After José Mourinho left Real Madrid, the El Clasico encounters were back as enthralling, end to end, memorable thrillers. The sort of matches which makes it the best brand ambassador for the best sport on earth.

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