One of the most troubling aspects of professional football is how certain teams become symbolic totems of ideological causes, triggering a passion or antipathy that lingers long after the actual cause has atrophied.
The most striking example of this tendency is exemplified by the bi-annually renewed tensions between Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain. El Clasico is infamous for allegedly encouraging the sort of bitterness that could allow a severed pig’s head to be hurled at one player who had the audacity to move between the two teams. This excellent and judiciously balanced text follows the rise of both teams through the dark prism of the Spanish Civil War and into the present.
Sid Lowe explores and explodes the myths of Real Madrid as General Franco’s creation and Barcelona as flag-bearers of the Republican cause. The text steps through the Civil War and traces the battles and losses associated with each faction. Lowe is careful to underline the human losses and their political motivation with gravity and is sensitive to the potentially belittling association of weekly football matches. Lowe uses the two teams as a framing technique to interpret and interrogate Spanish history.
It traces the many horrific losses and often contradictory loyalties of key players and staff belonging to both clubs and helps explain why these two are the biggest and most furiously followed teams in Europe. The passages that deal with the more recent psychological attrition between then-opposing managers Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola recall the prison sequences of the Silence Of the Lambs, more than two well-paid managers at a press conference.
Lowe uses his passion for history and football to describe how these two teams have produced some of the greatest players that an hour and a half’s pursuit of an aerated pig’s bladder can inspire. Certain passages hint at the quasi-religious ecstasy felt by fans. In Lowe’s words, Real Madrid’s Di Stefano has messianic abilities: ‘There is a smoothness and grace to his game; he almost seems to be floating. He is also everywhere.’
At times, the 448 pages give too much information, too many names and games for us to mentally juggle. Perhaps, this is the cost of a judicious assessment of the issues and teams. However, cosmopolitan football fans and subculture students might revel in the detail. For those who, like me, spent hours never-mastering the Cruyff turn in Clarks’ shoes in their back-garden, the book recalls the glorious masterworks of working-class ballet that illuminated our youth.
Ultimately, though, the text reminds us that popular myths are often a partisan reading of history that ignores split loyalties and local immoralities. Its saints lauded in poetry and art very likely wore boots of clay.