Following the first leg of their Champions League semifinal, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are on the verge of open war. (UEFA has fined both of them, and the clubs are filing complaints against each other.) Bitter intense hatred between Barcelona and Madrid is not a new thing; they are archrivals. Their rivalry is among the most (if not the most) storied in world football–club or country. For years each has tried to outdo the other. They are the yang to each other’s yin. Eternal enemies locked in combat. One ebbs when the other flows. Additionally, they embody two completely different ideals about Spain as a nation: centrality vs. regionalism. They hate each other but cannot survive without the other. It has always been like this.
Yet in the past few years something has been different. The matches have been even more tense, if that were possible. The hatred all the more palpable both on and off the field. Whatever good feelings were created by Spain’s World Cup victory, they have been completely eviscerated.
Past of that is because of Barca’s, beginning with the annus mirabilis during Pep Guardiola’s first year as manager (coupled with successive humiliations that Real Madrid suffered at Barca’s hands.) This led to Real Madrid’s futile attempt to recreate the Galacticos. When that failed, Mourinho was brought in, and he escalated the growing arms race by injecting psychological warfare and his own pathological hatred (and fear and jealousy) of Barcelona. Meanwhile, Madrid, desperate for a 10th Champions League title, has watched Barcelona win two titles since Madrid last won in 2002.
These are merely symptoms though. The root problem of all the increased and frenzied tension is the money. Madrid and Barcelona are the two leading superpowers of world football–like the United States and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. No one else mattered, only each other. But this is more than ideological warfare; it is financial. Both clubs spend exorbitant amounts of money–the kind that in the football world is justified by only instant success. The pressure that this puts on coaches, players, and even the management (who, along with the fans, creates this pressure) is absolutely overwhelming. With this pressure comes even more worldwide media attention which ratchets up the pressure even more. Therefore, it is absolutely no surprise whenever Barca and Madrid meet, someone cracks. The pressure quintupled this year because of the five meetings, four of which coming in close succession. Rangers and Celtic have nothing on Barcelona and Madrid this year.
The irony is that whoever wins the Champions League semifinal could still lose the final–there are other rich and competitive superclubs, Manchester United at the top of the list. But neither side can afford to think about Manchester United now, at least not until after next week. After all, whoever faces United will meet them in a football match. There is only time for football when the war is over.