Sunday 20 October 2013

London Sports Writing Festival considers how El Clásico gained its bite

A heated panel discussion on the highest profile match in world football - Barcelona v Real Madrid - was a highlight of the London Sports Writing Festival at Lords this week. The four-day event featured a plethora of interesting speakers from British rower Katherine Grainger to BBC Sports website supremo Ben Dirs. As a fan of excellent sports writing, collecting the great and good in one event at the home of cricket was mouthwatering. 

Guardian Spanish football correspondent Sid Lowe and Sky Sports' man in Spain, Graham Hunter, squared up on each side of the debate over El Classico, chaired by The Times writer Matt Dickinson. A packed audience listened attentively as the two took apart the rivalry in what has realistically become a two-team league.

Hunter claimed Johan Cruyff shaped the modern rivalry. He argued the Dutchman, who demolished Real in a 5-0 for the Catalans in February 1974, paved the way for future matches to be considered the peak of Spanish football. He believes that Cryuff's desire as both player and coach to overcome Barca's greatest rivals added spice to their encounters.

Lowe, who has just published Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an excellent look at the fixture, argued that Real legend Alfredo Di Stefano played a bigger part in shaping the modern dynamic. While he agreed that the 5-0 game was a crucial point, Lowe articulately outlined the circumstances around Di Stefano's complex transfer, in which both teams laid claim to the talented Argentine and even briefly countenanced sharing him in alternate seasons.

While Real Madrid's nine European Cup and Champions League victories have long been held as the most significant element in arguing which is the more successful team, it is the club's relationship with Spanish dictator Franco which gets more air time even than to the merits of Barca and Spain's Tiki-taka re-invention of the game. The perception of Real Madrid as Franco's club is one which Lowe points out the club have done little to dispel, and the image of Los Blancos as the monied class is only further exemplified by the Galactico era and Gareth Bale's humungous transfer fee.

An intellectual debate is only undermined by several self-serving questions from the audience. Hunter's repeated attempts to second guess why the audience have attended rather than simply debate the subject is a little tiresome. But largely, this was an interesting and informed discussion on the merits of each club and their relationship.

In reality, both teams need each other and while Barca are streaking away at the top of the league this season, both are incredibly successful. A key question asked is whether the seeming lack of competition in the league may have damaged their performance in Europe - after being hammered by Germans in last season's Champions League semi-finals. 

Moreover, the number of Classicos, perpetuated by showpiece friendlies and domestic cup success, may also have diminished its standing. But El Classico looks set to remain the most intense fixture in world football for some time as the two giants fight over the world's pre-eminent players.