By Graham Ruthven
Luis Figo is taking a corner kick. He stands in front of the Barcelona supporters, the fans he once called his own. Now he plays for their fiercest rivals, Real Madrid, after a world record transfer just weeks before. Banners are hung round the stadium; Judas, scum, traitor. Debris rains down on the Portuguese player -- bottles, coins, cigarette lighters. And a pig's head.
Vito Corleone used a horse's head to terrorize his enemies. The Camp Nou used that of a suckling swine. It is just one of many tales that demonstrates the intensity of 'El Clasico.'
Figo has since retired from the sport, but the biggest rivalry in soccer is set to resume, with Real Madrid travelling east to face Barcelona for the first time this season on Saturday.
The rivalry is rooted deeply in the fabric of Spanish culture. Politics, fervent regionalism and fundamentally opposing identities ensures the animosity goes beyond soccer. As Michel Salgado, a Real Madrid player for over a decade, told David Beckham upon joining the club, "You've never seen anything like it. It's hostile and bitter, political, territorial." Barcelona's club motto reads 'Mes Que Un Club,' (more than a club), and this is more than a soccer game.
It is a competition forged in the Spanish civil war. General Franco, who came to power in 1939 after the bloody conflict, used the two clubs as propaganda tools for his new regime. Viewing the club as a symbol of Catalonian pride, he sought to disrupt the operations of FC Barcelona, while offering resources and support to their biggest rivals, Real Madrid.
Politics continues to guide the narrative of the rivalry. Real Madrid is the team of the Spanish monarchy (Real translates to 'royal'), while Barca remains true to its regional roots. Barcelona even has an away jersey in the style of the Catalan flag this season. As a club it still stands for independence from Castilian nationalism, with demonstrations commonplace before games at the Camp Nou.
Defining each club in the context of the rivalry used to be easy. Barcelona were the good guys, setting a precedent for the soccer world by professing free-flowing, attractive soccer through products of their own youth academy. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were the bad guys, using their vast wealth to attract the best and most glamorous players on the planet with reckless abandon. However, such contrast between the two clubs has faded. There has been a shift in the dynamic of the rivalry in recent seasons.
Barcelona, for so long the poster boys for youth development and self-sufficiency, has been drawn into the pissing contest with Real Madrid, culminating in the €57 million purchase of Neymar in June.
Real Madrid tried to torpedo the deal, but was snubbed by the Brazilian star, who is carrying the hopes of a nation heading into next summer's World Cup. How did Perez and the Galacticos -- as Real have been dubbed -- respond? By signing Gareth Bale for €101 million, smashing the world transfer fee record.
Did Real need Bale? About as much as Barca needed Neymar. Both teams needed defenders, but instead recruited in areas where they were already strong. But it wasn't about buying a soccer player for either team. Transfer policy at both clubs is now dictated by political posturing, with little regard given to the professional needs of the team. Instead, 'marketability' and 'brand value' form the criterion in identifying transfer targets.
When Real Madrid spent over $250 million for Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, Barcelona parted with a club record fee of $95 million for Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Cesc Fabregas was signed from Arsenal for $56 million in 2011, only for Real Madrid to pay a similar price for Luka Modric the season after. When it comes to out-doing each other, money -- and logic -- are no object.
But rather unusually for a rivalry of such magnitude, 'El Clasico' has provided the platform for some compelling personal battles.
The contest between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho brought the rivalry to a head. For two seasons Spain's two biggest clubs engaged in warfare, perhaps something Mourinho took a little too literally after deliberately poking then Barca-assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye during a game in 2011. Never before had the 'Clasico' been so intense.
The battle fought on the touchline coincided with an equally dramatic clash on the pitch. Barca v Real has become Messi v Ronaldo in recent years. When the two sides met for the first time last season, Messi and Ronaldo continued their barely believable goalscoring duel (having scored 138 times between them the season before), netting all four goals in a 2-2 draw. The two best players in the world have come to dominate the world's biggest soccer rivalry.
But with both Guardiola and Mourinho now gone, and the Messi or Ronaldo debate verging on tedium, the competition is in need of a new storyline. What next for soccer's biggest game?
That could be a question answered by Bale and Neymar. Their arrival has added an extra dimension to the rivalry. It could be the 'Clasico's' next great personal tussle,' starting with Saturday's game at the Camp Nou.
The media provides its own narrative for the game, with the sparring between the Castilian and Catalan press already under way. Sport has labeled Bale the "100 million Euro diver" while Marca has reminded Barca fans that Neymar "isn't Pele."
The pig's head is now preserved in a museum exhibition. The rivalry, however, is very much still alive.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.