The world’s two richest teams, two of the greatest players of all time, a level of passion you won’t see anywhere else and over 98,000 rabid supporters – this El Clasico was always going to be one moment we’d never forget.
The El Clasico Experience
2018 is FC Barcelona’s year. Having won finished the season as La Liga champions the previous weekend you can forgive them for wanting to rest their star players. Same with Real Madrid. One week out from the game, the ticket resale market had the highly sought after passes fluctuating from $250 to $700 just for nosebleed seats at the top of Camp Nou, Barcelona home stadium’s grand stands. But El Clasico was never going to be just a dead rubber – there’s too much bad blood and history between these two teams as we were soon to see.
Park Nou is not Camp Nou
Navigating Barcelona’s public transport is relatively easy with the subway app in hand – assuming you know that Camp Nou (pronounced Camp No) and Park Nou are neither the same place and are many miles apart. One major course correction and forty minutes later we emerge from the subway into a sea of red, yellow and blue.
Over 98,000 fans are descending on the epic stadium, the city’s sports Mecca. Every bar and cafe is jam-packed with boisterous Barca fans. The beers are flowing freely as they thirstily drink down their last real beers before they enter the booze free stands. You can’t walk ten meters without passing a bar or merchant stand and both are packed with dedications to Argentinian football god and star player, Lionel Messi and to a lesser extent, Iniesta who is playing his last game for the home team before heading off on a long retirement via another few clubs in other countries.
For the size of the stadium and crowd, security isn’t anywhere near as tight as you’d think (and hope). There’s only a perfunctory bag inspection and you’re in. We’ve somehow nabbed some rather excellent seats about 12 rows back behind the goal. Every chair has a Barca flag on it and a bright color card with instructions to hold it up every game – combined these cards reveal a message that can be seen across the stadium and beamed across the world – CAMPIONS!
Seated in time for warmups, we’re treated to Real Madrid at close quarters for the second time in 24 hours. Earlier, we happened to be leaving the airport at the same time and witnessed the whole team just meters away, protected by an armed escort and welcomed by cheers and jeers of waiting fans and antagonistic locals. They get the same welcome here as they run out with coaches and trainers and set up for their last warm up drills before the start of the match.
Real Madrid star, Portuguese legend Ronaldo leads his forward and midfield group as they pepper the goals from all angles and execute practice penalty kicks. It’s surreal to be this close to a superstar. Barca set up at the opposite end. The crowd is warming up too, taunting the visitors to try and throw them off their game.
French legend and Real Madrid Manager, Zidane prowls the sideline with a menacing scowl.
It’s almost kick off. After a short break where both teams return to their respective locker rooms, the under 18 premiers are given a brief salute and then with crowd in full voice, the teams are greeted, and the anthem sung. The 98,000 wave their flags enthusiastically and the stadium is alive with a palpable buzz that almost feels dangerous – no wonder the only beer sold is a non-alcoholic version of Estrella.
Catalunya pride is on full display as the two teams attack the ball and the man. It’s aggressive and spiteful and not long until the first yellow card is given. Every stumble, every body check and hit is welcomed with roars of approval, derision or anger depending on the assailant and the victim. There’s a territorial battle that is symbolic on a level that goes off the field and between Spain’s two biggest cities. It’s not football – it’s a sporting civil war.
Ten minutes in and FC Barcelona hits the scoreboard first from a timely hit off Luis Suarez’s boot. The goal sparks things up and two minutes later, Real Madrid defender, Nacho sees a yellow card for a late hit.
All the action happens in front of us as Ronaldo scores off a corner, being brought down roughly in the net, causing him to seek treatment and eventually to sub out at half time.
Over the next thirty, the tackles are nastier, and the referees are working full time to keep the peace. The crowd does not let up. Led by a team of enthusiastic lads on a megaphone, conducting the faithful, we’re taken through the full repertoire of cheers, all sung in Catalan. Most are instantly familiar from other teams, so we can hum along, but have no idea what they’re singing. As if egged on by the crowd, Messi also cuts down his opponent and is shown the yellow. By half time, there’s been five yellow cards and the one red. By the end of the game, that count will go up to eight yellows and one red.
Returning from half time, the energy is no less subdued. It’s only five or so minutes before Messi scores, sending the volume of the scales. We’ve been treated to a clinic of football genius, between the best of the best.
The game is leveled by Real Madrid’s Bale in the 72nd minute and rather than let things lie, the spite continues, adding three more yellows to the mix before the final whistle. This is why the tickets are sold at such a premium. This is the beautiful game in all its glory, albeit with plenty of ugly moments but to see it at Camp Nou and to witness players like Suarez, Coutinho, Bale, Ramos, Casemiro, Ronaldo and Messi at their peak, it’s been worth every cent.
El Clasico is the name for any game between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
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