Tomorrow is El Clásico, a matchup between two of the biggest, most storied clubs in the world: Real Madrid and Barcelona. It's the best rivalry in sports because it's the best kind of rivalry in sports. For 90 minutes, decades of shared history, clashing politics and nationalism will intersect with soccer to create an explosive atmosphere. Then there's the importance of the La Liga fixture itself.
Unlike a deeper league like the Premier League, where there's more parity and the top teams are far from unbeatable, La Liga is top heavy. There just aren't enough teams other than Atlético Madrid that can hope to match Barcelona or Real Madrid for the length of a match, let alone a season. Real Madrid currently sit in third, three points behind first-place Barcelona and two behind Atlético. If Real Madrid beat Barcelona, they'll be level on points. If they lose, Barça will be six points clear in a league in which it's extremely difficult to gain ground.
We know the stakes. By now, we know all the players, stars who are or will be legends on their own: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergios Ramos and Busquets, Gerard Pique, Karim Benzema. We saw Barcelona win just once last season, and for most of us, the biggest question is whether Real Madrid can finally gain the upper hand in Spain, or if Barcelona have what it takes to beat their foes back once more.
But most of us are removed from the history, the politics, and the nationalism by virtue of our birth. All that remains is the game itself. That's not to say the rivalry is necessarily diminished, that it has grown repetitive or boring. It's familiar. For those who won't be at Camp Nou tomorrow, drinking in the atmosphere, it'd be nice to have something fresh. A new storyline. A new fold in the age-old rivalry.
Enter Neymar and Gareth Bale, Barcelona and Real Madrid's newest, most exciting signings. Neymar, a 21-year-old brought in from his native Brazil, is already his country's best player, and some say already the third-best player in the world after Messi and Ronaldo. Bale, a 24-year-old Welshman, was the best player in the Premier League last year at Tottenham, and commanded nearly £80 million from Madrid for his services. He also occupies the tier just below Messi and Ronaldo. These two are, in theory, the future of the sport.
This, however, is not Ronaldo v. Messi II. Though Neymar's started for Barcelona 10 out of 14 matches so far, he hasn't been very prolific in front of goal, though he's tallied six assists. On a surface level, his performance has fit in with players like Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas, who were world superstars until their move to Barça to fill more conservative roles as ridiculously skilled cogs in a larger, more elegant machine. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Henry and Fabregas won a lot with Barcelona. Though Neymar is undoubtedly the truth, he hasn't transcended the team the way that Messi has. Not yet, anyway. Tomorrow will likely be the biggest match of his life.
The same goes for Bale, albeit for slightly different reasons. We've heard whisperings about Neymar for years now. But the Brit's rise was much more sudden. Though he was always a top prospect, he went absolutely nuts last year for Spurs. But a great season is not the same as a great player. Spurs were able to exchange him for an entire new team, and seem better off for it. And so far with Real Madrid, Bale's been unable to get fit enough to play. He scored on his debut, but appeared in just four other matches this season. It hasn't been the most confident of starts for the winger, especially since to their fans' despair, Madrid sold crowd favorite Mesut Özil to raise the funds for Bale. Because of his transfer fee and wages alone, he'll likely start for Madrid no matter what, even if it means the side have to sit Ángel di María, the right winger who has been killing for the club in Bale's absence.
These two stars-in-waiting will be compared to each other throughout their careers in Spain, and one day, they may be the headlining acts in El Clásico. But there's one huge difference between the two. We'll see Neymar next June when his country hosts the World Cup, just as we saw him tear apart Spain during last summer at the Confederations Cup. By virtue of his birth, his legacy will be twofold: his impact on Barcelona, and his impact on Brazil.
Bale doesn't have that luxury. He's the best British player in the world, but by virtue of his birth, most will never see him play an international match. His country hasn't qualified for a World Cup in 55 years, and has never qualified for the Euros. Despite him, they suck. When he retires, the clashes with Barcelona are the ones we'll remember.
And so in tomorrow's match, we'll not only see the next chapter of the greatest rivalry in sports, but the beginnings of two completely separate, yet intertwined legacies. We'll see new faces, new plot lines. And for the first time of many, we'll have a very literal look at where soccer is and where it's headed, on the same pitch at the same time.
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