Barcelona, Real Madrid: Two of the world's most beautiful teams play a fascinating, infuriating series.

The stadium scene.
May 3 2011 6:58 AM

Not So Clásico

The fascinating, infuriating series between Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona.

(Continued from Page 1)

Mourinho spent most of April casually needling Barcelona in the press and accusing referees of favoring Real's rival. Barcelona's Pep Guardiola is such a whiner, Mourinho vamped, that he's invented a whole new category of manager—one who complains not just about the referee's bad calls but about his good calls, too. Finally, Guardiola—usually a pretty chill dudeerupted during one of his own press conferences when the topic of Mourinho came up. "In this room"—i.e., when holding court in front of the media—"he's the fucking boss, the fucking man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don't want to compete with him at all. Off the pitch, he has already won. … On the pitch, we'll see what happens." The outburst was studied like Zapruder footage and widely declared a mind-games victory for Mourinho. He'd gotten under Pep's skin! The Barcelona players, however, gave their coach a standing ovation.

On the pitch, Barcelona won the next game 2-0; this was the Champions League semifinal, the one where Pepe was red-carded for aiming a high tackle at Dani Alves. After the sending-off, Mourinho promptly earned a red card himself for berating a sideline official. After the match, he unleashed a historically weird and paranoid rant for the media. Alluding to a secret plot to put Barcelona in the Champions League final, he declared that "it's disgusting to live in this world." When asked why such a conspiracy would favor Barcelona—after all, Madrid is just as rich and powerful—he murmured something about his rival club's sponsor. The shadowy force that advertises on Barcelona's shirts, by the way, is UNICEF.

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Barcelona filed charges against Mourinho with UEFA, citing unsportsmanlike behavior. Madrid counterfiled countercharges against Barcelona, citing, presumably, the Bavarian Illuminati. UEFA sniffed and opened its own cases against the two clubs. The next day, Real Madrid's official website released a video "proving" that Pepe's red card had been unwarranted. RealMadrid.com extended the point by quoting various sporting luminaries who were disgusted by the call. It's not clear whether this marked the first time that Chad Ochocinco's Twitter feed had been entered as forensic evidence.

All this extra stuff, this cobweb of grudges and media ploys, has overshadowed the flesh-and-blood games to a degree that's hard to overstate. (The conspiracy-bewailing and countersuit-filing, remember, came shortly after Messi's great, instantly half-forgotten goal.) These Clásicos, in other words, have been emblematic of the increasingly ambient, fragmentary way in which the world consumes its favorite rivalry. The feud is waged half in headlines, so the games—endlessly recorded, endlessly talked about, endlessly replicated—never really have to end. The best players in the world are involved, but they don't usually get in the way.

That's not to say that these three games deserve to be remembered. At their best, Madrid and Barcelona are among soccer's most exciting clubs; Barcelona's passing could get a camel into heaven and Madrid's raw, careening power can be amazing to behold. It's just that everything else surrounding their rivalry has gotten blown out of all proportion to the soccer and turned it into a realm like politics, where there's always another story, no one can be trusted, and everyone is angry all the time. Of course the play suffers in that environment. The cliché about the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry is that it's about more than soccer. In the last few weeks, it's somehow managed to seem like it's about less.

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.