MatchDay Memory–The Big Two Part 1 (History)

In my ongoing quest to learn more about La Liga, I spent some time before and after the last Clasico researching the two biggest teams in Spain.  This is not going to be a post on the battles between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid through the years or a dissection of the political and social ramifications of the matches, rather a summation of their accomplishments and trends and story lines and how I have interacted with these clashes.

Of the two clubs, I follow FC Barcelona (watch games, try to stay on top of transfer rumors, keep track of player news, follow club politics to a certain extent, etc.), but I don’t live and die with every result. Over time my fandom of all sports and teams has been tempered by a realization that these are just games and should have no influence on how I feel about myself, how I treat others or how it impacts my day.

So FCB’s eternal rivals are Real Madrid and logically I should hate Los Merengues, but I don’t.  What? I respect the club but don’t hate the club. I respect their heritage and talent and I’m not going to spit on them.  I really enjoyed Phil Ball’s book White Storm, which summarized the history of the club quite well.  Had I started following Real Madrid during the first Galactico era (Figo, Zidane, Becks, El Fenómeno, etc), the Evil Empire (a loving tribute) may have been my preferred Spanish team. Instead I started watching the Blaugrana during the days of Rivaldo, Figo, Luis Enrique, and the Dutch contingent, and loved to watch their brand of football.  I say all this to explain why I have the 2003/04 Real Madrid Home and Away kits in addition to all of the FCB jerseys in my collection.

I’m not a Spanish football historian, but in my reading and research—which is merely a hobby that takes time from other things I could and should be doing—it is clear that cycles exist between the two clubs, with one typically in the ascendency pushing the other to the fringes.  However, recently both teams are leading the way at home and on the continent as the two clubs push each other for honors and their place in sporting history. Always has been, always will be.

After World War II, Barca’s Golden Age from 1947/48 to 1959/60 was overshadowed by Real Madrid’s rise to domestic and European dominance.  The Blaugrana won six titles, had three second place finishes and won five Spanish Cups, but Los Blancos reigned supreme starting with the 1953/54 season.  During an amazing 16 year period, Real won twelve league titles, never finishing lower than third, and added six European Cups.

While the team from the capital ruled at home and abroad, FCB never fell out of the top six from 1960 until 1973 but failed to win the league, finishing second six times.  They did add three Spanish Cups to the trophy cabinet, yet the league title eluded them until the arrival of Johan Cruyff in the 73/74 season.  Another barren period in the league commenced, and the club only won the Primera once until 1990.  This was in 84/85 season, which came after an interval of Basque dominance.  There was success in the Spanish Cup (four titles), leading to three Cup Winners Cup wins.  Real Madrid started another cycle in the 1971/72 season, which saw them claim six titles in nine years, while adding three Spanish Cups, but success did not come on the European Stage this time.

Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 90’s was preceded by Madrid’s La Quinta del Buitre, a squad that won five league titles in a row.  In addition Los Blancos won the 1985/86 UEFA Cup and one Copa del Rey and made the semi-finals of the European Cup three years running.  But it was the Blaugrana who would return Europe’s biggest prize to Spain, with a historic win at Wembley in 1992 before the cycle ended at the hands of Milan in the 1994 European Cup Final.

The rest of the 90’s saw Real take over briefly before a Barca team led by van Gaal reclaimed the throne, with Atleti’s double in 1996 breaking up the dominance.  The first decade of the new century saw the emergence of other clubs in the Primera—Depor and Valencia in particular—who temporarily broke up the stranglehold of the Big Two.  Barca faded in all competitions, not winning a trophy for five years. A transfer of presidency, lack of stability in the manager position, and the transition in the squad were contributing factors.  On the other hand, Real finally got their hands on the trophy with the big ears, winning it in 1998, 2000 and 2002, adding two league titles in the years they did not win in Europe.

Frank Rijkaard came on to the scene for FC Barcelona in 2003 and set the stage for Barca’s Second Golden Age.  (Tangent: I am working on an argument that FCB are currently in epoch that began in 1990.  Starting with Cruyff’s hire and first title, the club has been a dominant force but home and abroad, similar to the winning cycle of AC Milan from 1986 (purchase by Berlusconi) to the 2007 Champions League win.  I hope to put something together in the near future.) A league title win in 04/05 sent the Blaugrana on their way, winning the European Double the following season.  Capello was able to stop the run as the Barca players, led by an irresistible Ronaldinho on the field and a disco loving Ronny off it, lost the plot, eventually losing their grip on their titles and sending the Dutch coach packing.

Enter Pep Guardiola.  The former Dream Teamer oversaw a run of dominance that challenged the great teams of of FCB, Real Madrid and European football.  The Treble of 08/09, which led to the calendar year sextuple of 2009, two more league titles, and another European Final win in 2011. During his tenure, the Blaugrana participated in 19 competitions and won 14 of them, probably the closest to all conquering as we may ever see. Manchester United, Shaktar Donetsk, Estudiantes, Porto and Santos were just some of the clubs who fell to Pep’s juggernaut.  Their rivals responded by bringing in the Special One, who started slowly (reference the manita of November 2010) but eventually formed a team able to stand up to Pep’s team, winning the 2011 Copa del Rey and wresting the title away from Barca with a stunning win at the Nou Camp in the spring of 2012.

Tomorrow’s comments will look at my memories of recent El Clasicos and tactical innovations presented by the last couple of managers.

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