Spain’s El Clásico remains the biggest and best rivalry in all of soccer. Especially during the last decade, when matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid practically always meant matches between two historically great teams who desired nothing more than to stick a shiv into their most hated foes’ guts—only partially metaphorically, at least back in the Pepe days—and twist it around in there to demonstrate their superiority in the most painful way possible. You can generally count on the two La Liga Clásicos to be amongst biggest games of the entire European season. This weekend’s edition lived up to the billing, if not in terms of brilliant play between two supremely talented and well-coached teams, then at least in terms of hot-blooded aggression that made for a wildly entertaining and super dumb spectacle.
We can thank the players for making this Clásico as fun as it was, since you could’ve maybe forgiven them if neither team seemed all that interested in putting on a good show. On paper, this was a fairly meaningless match. With Barcelona’s win over Deportivo La Coruña last weekend, the Blaugrana had already officially locked up what was a surprisingly dominating league title. Barcelona had already won their La Liga and Copa del Rey double, and so there was nothing concrete at stake for them in the match against Madrid. While Real’s league campaign had long been rendered irrelevant thanks to an awful first half or so of the season, they had turned things around superbly in European play and had just last week sealed their spot in a third consecutive Champions League final. Neither team, then, could really say that the outcome of this Barça-Real match would matter much in the grand scheme of things—not on paper, at least.
Ah, but this is still El fucking Clásico. Even entirely irrelevant ones carry the weight of the storied rivalry’s history and can result in iconic moments. And while Real Madrid didn’t really have anything tangible to lose or gain in the match, they did have the chance to do the next best thing: hurt their hated rivals by ruining Barcelona’s shot at an undefeated season.
Barcelona may have already won the league trophy, but that doesn’t mean their league season is over. In reality, every single remaining match on Barcelona’s schedule is critically important in their effort to become the first La Liga team ever (since the league expanded to its current size of 20 clubs) to go the entire season undefeated. This is an incredibly important feat to pull off for a few reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that going an entire 38 games without losing a single time is a hell of an impressive achievement, and to be the first and only ones to have ever done so would permanently etch this Barça team’s name in history. The related but subtler and less direct reason is that, by claiming the mantle of Spain’s Invincibles, Barcelona will have accomplished something that could compete in prestige with what Real Madrid are on the brink of doing in the Champions League.
The annual fortunes of Barcelona and Real Madrid are and have always been inextricably tied. At times this results in some intellectually bizarre but emotionally comprehensible scenarios. Right now is a great example. Barcelona have had a very good season (by certain measures you could argue the best in all of Europe), have already won two major trophies, and are only playing for bragging rights and a potential shot at record-book immortality during these last few weeks of the season. None of that can change. At the same time, if Real Madrid go on to beat Liverpool in the Champions League final, many Barcelona fans will consider this season a disaster, an embarrassment of the highest order. All because of the result of some match Barça aren’t playing in, against teams they never faced in that competition, and have zero control over.
That’s because everything one half of the Clásico rivalry achieves is only understood in context of what the other half does. Success or failure to either club exists in a state of quantum entanglement with the fate of the other. And so, while Barcelona fans cans see the silverware the team already won this year, they can’t ultimately decide on whether said trophies are precious crown jewels signifying another spectacular year or if they’re gimcrack baubles memorializing mediocrity until Real Madrid’s season is finalized, too. It’s sort of odd, but such is the way of sporting rivalry; the only feeling as good as winning is the knowledge that the rival lost.
Hence why, coming into this weekend’s match, Real had such a golden opportunity to bring misery to Barcelona. Everyone at Madrid must know that should they win the Champions League for the third time in a row, that success would completely drown out Barcelona’s league and domestic cup double in the minds of much of the public and even Barcelona’s fans and players. Not only that, but if Real could lift the European Cup while also killing Barça’s undefeated bid on the side, they could comprehensively rob the Catalan club and everyone who loves it of nearly all the joy that would otherwise accompany the titles Barça have already won. Real entered the Clásico with a devilishly delectable chance to really fuck Barça’s shit up, and both sides must have recognized this. Which, predictably, made for quite the heated affair.
The game itself had many of the things you’d want from a Clásico: tons of passion, intensity, goals, goals by both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, aggression, and late drama. It also featured some less-than-great aspects common to Clásicos: shocking referee errors, featureless play on both sides, a stupid red card. The game most closely resembled the second Clásico of last season, the famous Messi-taunts-the-Bernabéu-with-the-back-of-his-jersey one. That one too was mostly “irrelevant” and managed to be crazy fun more because of how both teams ran around like headless chickens than because of how well either team played.
In this match, Barcelona started well and took the lead, then Real Madrid came right back to equalize and control the bulk of the first half, then Sergi Roberto walked into a dumb red card by sort of weakly slapping at Marcelo right before halftime during the tetchiest part of the game, but not before Gareth Bale probably got away with a red cardable calf-kick on Samuel Umtiti that went uncalled. Then Ronaldo got subbed off at the break as a precaution after he’d turned his ankle when scoring Real’s equalizer early in the first half, and then Barça stormed out of the intermission to somehow boss the Champions League title favorites with only 10 men, and Messi reestablished Barça’s lead with a gorgeous tap dancing goal that only happened because of a glaringly obvious Luis Suárez foul in the build up that the ref somehow missed. Then the line judge called what seemed to be an erroneous offside to kill a play that resulted in a third Barça goal. Then Bale made up for his largely anonymous performance with a scorcher of a goal to tie the game at two apiece. Then the referee capped off his terrible day by missing a clear foul by Jordi Alba on Marcelo in the penalty area, and Barcelona held off Real’s late surges for a winner to earn a very creditable draw. The action was hectic in a brainless sort of way from the first whistle to the last, and had more than its share of controversy, and was all the more fun because of it.
Like always, there are of course the larger narratives that the match contributed to. While Ronaldo doesn’t touch the ball as often as he did at his peak, his absolutely crucial role in Madrid’s attacking set-up was evident in how strong Real looked when he was on the field compared to how aimless they were with him on the sidelines; Bale offered almost nothing outside of his admittedly beaut of a goal, and really needs to get out of Dodge if he wants to make it onto the pitch regularly in hopes of recapturing some of his former glory; the breadth and depth of the talent in Real Madrid’s squad completely dwarfs that of Barcelona’s, and the fact that Barça still walked the league and outplayed Real in the second half with just 10 players is all the testament you need of Messi’s unparalleled greatness; though both teams have very good players, they both play like something less than the sum of their parts; refereeing in Spain is pitiful; Liverpool have no reason to fear Real in the Champions League final, but at the same time Real will know full well that there doesn’t exist a set of players or a game circumstance that could shake the Madridistas’ confidence in themselves.
Outside of the match itself’s grander Meaning, there was the simple, immediate pleasure of watching two teams full of great players giving everything they had to beat their sworn (on-pitch) enemies. You could tell by how hard each team pushed for a winner that both teams desperately wanted to claim a victory, but neither should feel anything other than generally pleased at how the game turned out. The game didn’t have to Mean anything other than that, and it probably couldn’t have anyway—not until Barcelona find out if they have gone undefeated or not and Real either win or lose in the Champions League final. After all, until these two cosmically entwined clubs’ seasons are completely over, nobody will be able to tell who has won and who has lost.