The Battle for Three Points

How Real Madrid and Barcelona stopped waging a philosophical war for the future of football.
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Photo by Jan S0L0, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, besides being a matchup between two of the best clubs on the planet, is commonly discussed as a philosophical battle, and not just because of their political history. On one side, Real represents the desire to win by whatever means necessary, whether that involves buying dozens of expensive players in the macro or resorting to negative tactics in the micro. The win’s the thing, no matter the means, and morality is for poets and virgins. Barcelona, of course, are those poets and virgins, believing in the power of a free-flowing, proactive attacking style even if it results in a few down seasons or lopsided losses. They possess the faith that their way will eventually win out, because it’s the right way to play a game that professes to be beautiful. By this line of thought, any Clásico is a face-off between not just the clubs, but pragmatism and ideology.

As Saturday’s match showed, the clubs might not conform to that dichotomy quite so easily in their current incarnations. On Friday, my distinguished colleague Fredorrarci argued that, if anything, Mourinho has approached his previous Clásicos with too much of a stereotypically practical approach, parking the bus when his players were more fit for driving (and sometimes crashing) expensive sports cars. The club and its strategy are built on the idea that their players are better than the opposition. To accede to Barcelona’s style, even in a way that plays out the basic terms of the rivalry, is to show a lack of respect for the Real Madrid brand. It’s as if Mourinho had allowed Barcelona’s ideology to triumph before the match had even started.

So it was heartening, and fitting for the rivalry, to see Real come out on Saturday with an attacking strategy, one that yielded them a goal just a few seconds into the match for the fastest tally in the rivalry’s history. While that outcome can be placed largely on Victor Valdes’s bungled clearance, the fact remains that Real’s pressing led to Karim Benzema’s opportunity. Even in their worst moments, Real looked like the side we’ve come to expect in every other La Liga fixture. Cristiano Ronaldo had a terrible match, failing to convert a header he finishes 99 of 100 times, but he still did so with the bravado of Cristiano Ronaldo, not as a lone forward forced to track long balls with unoptimistic hope. If they’d capitalized on that chance, or another of several decent opportunities, it may have been a very different match. Real could at least take solace in the knowledge that they had lost on their terms. That may sound like a moral victory for Barça as well as a La Liga W, but for Real, playing without fear is an important edge in what figures to be a tight title race. Mourinho set his lineup with the confidence expected from a Real Madrid manager; he and his team organized themselves in the image of the club and not their opponent’s reputation. They just happened to be beaten on this particular day.

Because, yes, while Real dictated the early terms of the match, Barcelona was clearly the better team. Crucially, though, it didn’t read as an especially bold statement of style in the face of pragmatic ugliness. In a typical match, Barça’s tiki-taka registers as an elegant siege on a steadfast and backwards-thinking enemy. However, when their opponents attack, as Madrid did on Saturday, Barcelona aren’t moral stalwarts as much as a team trying to score as many goals as possible. Even their three goals—a terrific Alexis Sanchez finish after a sterling Leo Messi run, a deflected shot from Xavi that just skipped past Iker Casillas, and a diving Cesc Fabregas header off a great Dani Alves cross—weren’t particularly emblematic of the team’s strengths. Messi generally looked like the Messi of Argentina (often brilliant, with periods of blah-ness) than the all-match dominator of Barcelona. Similarly, they relied on Alves’s touchline runs and crosses to an extent they haven’t since his first months with the club in the fall of 2008, when Guardiola’s vision was just starting to take shape. Even their elaborate passing combinations in the last 20 minutes looked like the stalling tactics of a team with a two-goal lead. It was a wonderful performance, clearly, but one that didn’t stand out on a stylistic level. It wouldn’t have been terribly surprising to see Real accomplish something similar.

To put it another way, Barcelona looked a lot like a side taking the most pragmatic approach to winning. Yet, in a way, the same could be said of any of their matches. I’ve argued before that the moral valence of Barcelona only exists insofar as their attacking style appears to be a choice. When a team has enough stars to fill up a whole second eleven, the Barcelona way is common sense. It would be impractical for a squad that features so many world-class attackers to play a different style. And while there may be something noble to rising above the muck and discarding the world’s bus-parkers with a string of 3–0 results, asking a midfield of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas to play any other way would be downright foolish, the equivalent of Tony Pulis asking his Stoke City ruffians to play a variation of Total Football. Their greatness simply tends to come across as moral triumph because so many teams deem an all-out defensive approach the best way of grabbing points.

On Saturday, Real Madrid ensured that there would be nothing for Barcelona to transcend. For the first time in several years, the fixture stood out as a great game between two amazingly talented teams rather than a referendum on pragmatism vs. ideology, or the best way to build a club, or the moral value of a stepover. It was a matchup of rough equals, not an allegory of higher concepts. The philosophical question was there, but as a bit of background instead of the thing itself. It was possible to watch in awe of the amazing talent on the pitch without having to collect evidence for a cosmic trial. It was fun.

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Barcelona and Real Madrid have been fighting one another for the past decade or so and according to, I too feel like Real Madrid is the better team. It has fought for the top crown for a whole century now and had much competition while Barcelona is a new contender.

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Damn, I wish Real wouldn't have been steady fuckin' Scott Spiezio and missing opportunities. Would have loved to see this thing have another two movements

I think this post starts to get at what drives me crazy about the symbology in Spanish soccer. At this point, Barcelona is just another European megaclub, but neutrals give them this aura of moral superiority that isn't deserved. Like the other giants of UEFA they:

- whine to the referees as much as any team I've seen in any sport;

- are a corporate marketing behemoth, especially now that they supplemented their charitable UNICEF shirt sponsorship with a paid one;

- are just as liable to make bad transfers (Ibra, Chygrynskiy, Martin Caceres, Hleb...), arguably because fan-elected presidents feel the need to make their mark on the team (the flip side to fan ownership);

- are just as badly mismanged, financially -- they were unable to make payroll in summer 2010 (including player wages) because they couldn't get a line of credit extended, and club president Sandro Rosell said this summer that the team banned making color copies to save money; and

- get all the calls (this, admittedly, may be influenced by my affection for Arsenal and the farce at Camp Nou last spring).

I'm not saying neutrals shouldn't appreciate a positive, attacking team, because they absolutely should. But there's definitely a strain of holier-than-thou coverage (at least in the US) that is unwarranted.