What is war? War literally means a clash of two different personas, two different mentalities and two different ideologies. Throughout history war has been fought on barren lands, over the waters, across boundaries and interestingly on a 100 yard long field. One such war is fought even today, a war so unique and fascinating, a war between two very opposite ends of a culture, a war which has been termed as ‘El Clasico’ and which appears to the normal human eye as just a football match. With a global viewership of more than 400 million, this football match is more than just a game. It is a cold war and a silent plea of Catalonya for its freedom.
The seeds of this war extend over 300 hundred years of Spanish History. Brace yourselves to enlighten yourself with the true history of the planet’s biggest sports rivalry, the El Clasico.
It all began in the year 1714 until which Catalonya existed as a separate sovereign state having its own culture, language and identity. King Phillip captured this state followed by his annexure of the surrounding Peninsulan Iberian states. Over the next 200 years Spanish culture found itself being imposed upon the Catalonian culture.
Regional rivalries have always existed in Spain since the Spain’s Falangist era. Due to the centralization policies of Spanish Government and the consideration of Madrid as Spain’s direct centre, regional rivalries have always existed in Spain.
In a mini-tournament in 1902, held to commemorate the crowning of Alfonso XIII, the tensions between regions of Spain were clearly visible. This tournament featured two clubs each from Barcelona and Madrid and a Basque club Vizcaya. Barcelona beat Madrid FC (now Real Madrid) in the opening match 3-1, and then lost to Vizcaya in the final 2-1. The political significance of the entire tournament was found in the third place match which was hastily arranged by some tournament organizers who were upset with the dominance of Basque and Catalan clubs in the tournament for a new Castillian Monarch. The third place match was widely publicized and even a trophy was arranged for it.
This cold war and hostility remained in Spain and 1905 onwards, the battles between the teams was more of a mirror depicting the contests between these regions in the 20th century Spanish History. The sole reason of the tension being the difference in cultures and the centralization of Madrid.
GENERAL FRANCO’S INTERVENTION:
If there was someone responsible for sprouting the seeds of communal hatred which started from 1905, it was the political mayhem caused by General Franco’s reign.
It was 1939, and the end of Spanish civil war saw the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco take control of the country. After he captured Madrid on the 28th of March, he strived to unify the newly formed Spanish state. His vision was to merge the neighbouring states like Catalonya into the entire of Spain with Madrid as the capital. The official language of Catalonya was to be pre-empted and Spanish would become the first language of the entire of modern-day Spain. The newspapers, schools and people would have to follow Spanish as the first language and also Spanish culture would be given priority over the local Catalan one. Catalonya was clearly against such centralization policies. Franco used policies of torture, murder and political pressure to suppress any revolt or anti-nationalist activity against him. The previous autonomous regions had several Separatist causes, and these were the most troublesome to him. One of the most staunch and bitter rivals of his intentions was the state of Catalonya. Catalonya had bravely fought many of his centrist policies and thus Franco always had ire and vengeance towards this state.
At that time however, football had become an essential means of cultural expression. Franco realizing the importance of the game in Spain started to exploit the game as a means of propaganda of his new regime. He did so by extending his support towards Real Madrid and wished to use it as a vehicle of the Falangist state. He desired to disrupt the operations of Barcelona, by supporting their arch rival Real Madrid. Barcelona at that time was a symbol of Catalonian pride. Franco had no real passion for the game and he only wanted to use Madrid as means of professing his ideology by demeaning Barcelona that is Catalonya on the popular platform of football.
He intervened in football by stating a law that disallowed any football club to have a regional name. He demanded that the name of ‘Catalan FC Barcelona’ be changed to its non-regional equivalent ‘Barcelona CF’. It was a cultural indication that stated that the Catalan society was not going to be tolerated by the new Spanish state. Barcelona’s football club had become a regional pride and a symbol of revolt against Franco’s policies and it earned the title ‘Mes Que En Club’ meaning ‘more than a club’ in this period.
Franco’s support to Madrid became somewhat obvious in the semi-final of the Generalisimo Cup (formerly King’s cup) in 1943. Barcelona beat Madrid 3-0 comfortably at home. On their visit to Madrid in the second leg, they were paid a surprise visit by the Director of State Security. It is said that he made the players realize that all of them were fortunate enough to be allowed to remain alive in the Spanish Capital. They were supposed to owe something to the State’s fortunate generosity. Te players seemed to have read the message between the lines and they lost the second leg 11-1. Though Franco’s support for Madrid was often kept behind the curtains there is no doubt that the Castillan club has benefitted a lot from the general’s support.
THE DI STEFANO SIGNING:
The race between Barcelona and Madrid in the signing of this footballing great is a great example of how the backroom politics of Franco favored Madrid. Di Stefano impressed entire Spain during his performance for Millonarios during a friendly tournament in Madrid. This led to both the clubs in a fierce pursuit of signing him.
Barcelona was the quickest to respond by reaching a transfer agreement with River Plate (which was still Stefano’s employer according to FIFA) through a Catalan lawyer Ramon Trias. But Franco played a very shrewd game of politics involving a bribe to Barcelona’s chief scout Josep Samitier. Samitier along with the co-operation of Joan Busquets (director of Millonarios rival Santa Fe) managed to disrupt Barcelona’s process of signing De Stefano.
But since Franco did not control FIFA, his influence on the transfer matters proved short off preventing Barcelona signing Di Stefano. Di Stefano even played two friendlies for Barcelona. However, as Franco was the ruler of the state, he imposed a new law that prohibited the purchase of any foreign player. But considering the farcical nature of the law, the state brokered the deal itself, which stated that Di Stefano would alternate yearly between the two clubs.
Barcelona’s President Marti Carreto agreed to the deal at first, but an eventual disapproval from the entire of Catalonya towards striking any sort of deal that linked their cultural prestige Barcelona to the Capital club or to the nationalist ideologies of Franco, he surrendered Di Stefano to Real Madrid. “The Blond Arrow” then went on to score 216 goals for Madrid, winning 8 league titles and 5 consecutive European titles. Carreto has often been criticized as ‘Government stooge’ as he failed to make the most of his authoritative powers and rights in order to avoid or counter Franco’s politics.
The signing of Di Stefano was a perfect example of how influential Franco’s backroom politics were. He bribed influential people and built a vast network of allies for his State’s benefit. Also governing stringent control and authority over influential people like Marti Carreto, he could suppress the ideologies that stood against him, like the Catalan Nationalists. Franco also practiced control over the Spanish affairs by having a direct control over the Spanish Legislative body, Cortes. Franco had built a vast empire with strong external links and a dominating internal command. The fact that the Spanish State’s dominance collapsed as soon as Franco expired proves a lot.
DI STEFANO THE SPANISH ICON:
Franco tried to project a glorious image of Spain to his citizens through the National team. Franco nationalized the World’s greatest players during his regime in order to ensure Spain success at the national level. The Czech Kubala, Hungarian superstar Ferenc Puskas were examples. Di Stefano was nationalized in 1956 despite of his having played earlier for both Columbia and Argentina.
Di Stefano had performed quite impressively for Spain earning himself 31 caps along with 23 goals fo Spain. He made the Spaniards believe that Spain could’ve won much more in the World and Di Stefano would’ve become Spain’s all time greatest player had he started playing for Spain a little earlier. Di Stefano however never shined at the World stage as Argentina didn’t enter the World cup in 1950 or 1954 and Spain didn’t qualify for 1958 and Di Stefano was out of the 1962 World cup with injury.
As a matter of fact, none of the players nationalized by Franco ever got a chance to play at the World cup. The only positive Franco could achieve was to win the Euro of 1962 with a Spanish-born side which was hosted in Spain itself. The media considered Franco’s policies as correct as Spain won an international repute. He used football to showcase a positive image of Spain to his people and as a result his methods and Nationalist policies were started to be considered fairer as compared to the ideologies of the communists. He successfully managed to uphold this positive image of Spain until his death in 1975.
Di Stefano, meanwhile, who originally was an Argentine native was later considered a Spanish and he was named Spain’s ‘Golden Player’ of the last 50 years of UEFA jubilee.