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Real Madrid Vs. Barcelona, 2012 Copa Del Rey: El Clasico For Dummies

This image of camaraderie is one of the defining aspects of Real Madrid's reinvention.
This image of camaraderie is one of the defining aspects of Real Madrid's reinvention.

Because I'm out of writing tropes--and I think a Q and A format might be helpful in this instance--this article will be in the form of an interview of me, conducted by me. If you're unfamiliar with El Clásico, read on.

Welcome, Gabe. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me. And I must say, you look stunning today.

Well thank you! You're not looking so bad yourself. What is that, cologne?

No, I just naturally smell awesome. True story. So tell me about El Clásico. Why is it called that?

Well, it's the classic rivalry in Spain. Hence, el clásico, or the classic.

Why is this a big deal?

Well, Gabe, it's a big deal for a variety of reasons. The most obvious factor is that it's one of Spain's oldest soccer rivalries. Think Yankees-Red Sox or Celtics-Lakers, but bigger because this is the only sport the country really cares about.

In an interview last year with CNN, you said that Madrid fans "view these games as a playful argument about the way to see and understand the country as a whole." Did you intentionally phrase that obnoxiously so they'd use that quote? And why on earth would a soccer game have so much power?

First off, yes, I did. And it totally worked. Secondly, this question actually is a perfect segue into the underlying reasons that these matches have such cultural importance in Spain. At a basic level, Madrid and Barcelona are rival cities, much like New York and Boston (for example). So there's that angle. In this case, though, the rivalry cuts a lot deeper than that.

How so?

It all goes back to Spain's time under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco: after the generalísimo outlawed Catalan (and Basque, and most other regional languages in Spain), Barcelona games became one of the few places that people could speak Catalan. It's also generally agreed that Franco had a soft spot for Real Madrid.

So Real Madrid are the brutal oppressors, the dictator's team, and an enemy of freedom?

Yes and no. Yes, you will find some people who think that (go to our friends at Barca Blaugranes and Barcelona Football Blog for more on this), but no, that's not an appropriate way to address this complicated issue. The truth is much more complex, as it always is, and I don't have enough time to explain all of it here (for more information, check out this podcast that I did back in August). What I will do is promise that, when we have time, we'll run a series on Real Madrid's early years.

Has one side historically had the edge in the rivalry? Who's on top right now?

Historically, Real Madrid has had the better of the rivalry, purely on the basis of trophies and world-wide acclaim; right now, however, Barcelona has the upper hand.

Why is that?

A number of reasons. First, Barcelona has spent the last ten years creating and refining a style of play, and implemented that strategy at all levels of their system. This means that players from the youth academy are already familiar with their roles when they arrive at the top level. Plus, they've only changed managers twice over that span. Madrid has done no such thing, and even has a reputation for sacking managers on a whim.

Secondly, Barcelona was lucky enough to find--and develop--three of the best players in the entire world in their own system. Argentine Lionel Messi is arguably the best in the world, while Spaniards Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernández are right there with him. Real Madrid has seen too much fluctuation in coaches, presidents, and systems (and has brought in too much outside talent) to be able to focus enough on player development.

Do you see this balance of power shifting any time soon?

Again, yes and no. Duopolies like the one in Spain (Real Madrid and Barcelona fight over every single trophy, with every other side fighting for third) tend to be cyclical, with one side gaining the edge, then relinquishing it to their rivals. What I think we've seen in the past year is a slow regression towards parity between the two sides, after an extended period of dominance from Barcelona.

Does that mean that the rivalry will swing towards Real Madrid soon?

No. Just because Real Madrid is on the upswing doesn't mean that Barcelona will lose their edge. What I do think is that we will see Real Madrid get more favorable results in some of the next Clásicos, but it might not be enough to "swing" the rivalry. For example, Madrid could win on Wednesday, then lose the week after and Barcelona could go through to the next round. That's the nature of Cup competitions.

That being said, Real Madrid have come around in the last two years, and have focused on developing young talent, including youngsters Mesut Özil, Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, Jose María Callejón, and Raphaël Varane. They're building towards the future, which is exciting to see.

Who are the players to watch in the upcoming Clásico?

For Barcelona, the three I just mentioned, along with Cesc Fabregas, a recent big-money signing. For Real Madrid, keep an eye on superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who has yet to demonstrate the extent of his ability against Barcelona, along with attacking midfielders Mesut Özil, Angel Di María, and defender Pepe (who will probably have the unenviable task of guarding the world's best player).

Alright, let's back up. What Clásico in the last few years do you think all Real Madrid fans should know about?

Well, the Clásico in 2008 was great for Madrid, mainly because it was brutally humiliating for Barcelona. First, as per the Spanish tradition, Barcelona was obligated to stand in a line and applaud as Real Madrid (who had already won the League competition) walked onto the field. This is called a "pasillo." Madrid then went on to destroy Barcelona 4-1. Good times.

And which one would you like to scrub from your memory?

Man, I knew this question was coming. In the last couple years there have been a few, but, for me it's definitely last year's "manita" ("hand," referencing the five fingers) Clásico when Barcelona scored five goals against Madrid at the Camp Nou ("New Camp" in English). It came at a rough time, because we all expected better things from the side.

So, who ya got?

I hate predictions.

Why'd you get into this business in the first place, then?

Screw you, man.

Hey, I'm just asking the questions. So?

I'll take Madrid by a hair. 2-1.

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