The Old Firm, the Derby della Madonnina, the Argentine Superclásico. Some of us footie fanatics just can’t get enough of the biggest of the big rivalries. We drool so sloppily for the heavyweight clashes, it seems like every week is just another week between them.
But this week is special. It really is the week between two of the biggest.
Last weekend, Chivas de Guadalajara edged archrival Club América 1-0 in the Mexican Clásico, a grudge match of epic proportions that always has all of Mexico—and much of the U.S.—riveted.
On Saturday, it gets even bigger: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in Spain’s Clásico (4 p.m. ET, GolTV). Ronaldo vs. Messi. El Capital vs. Catalunya. Los Blancos vs. la Blaugrana. It barely needs an introduction.
Offer some praise to the sporting gods for the divine week. It’s a perfect confluence of competitions, an aligning of the planets that doesn’t happen all that often: arguably the highest-stakes rivalry in the Western Hemisphere as the opening act for its counterpart in the Old World.
These are gems of rivalries that aren’t just about amazing soccer and millions upon millions of dollars, euros, pesos, whatever, spent on some of the best talent in the world. Both mega-matchups take on serious significance of historical, socioeconomic and political proportions.
So let’s ask the big question no one wants to ask:
¿Cuál Clásico es más macho?
Is one bigger than the other? Of course, you’re screaming. How on earth can you top Real-Barça? Ask anyone associated with the game at any level, and if there’s a TV nearby on Saturday, they’ll be riveted. Especially MLS players.
“Oh yeah,” Toronto FC star Julian de Guzman tells MLSsoccer.com. “I can’t miss it.”
“It’s the best game in the world,” echoes Chivas USA’s Jesús Padilla.
“It captures a lot of attention from a lot of people,” says new Colorado Rapid Claudio López, plainly stating the obvious.
These guys have some first-hand knowledge. Padilla is a Chivas de Guadalajara product, but realized his dream in facing Barcelona in a friendly last summer in San Francisco.
De Guzman and López, meanwhile, both spent several seasons in Spain’s La Liga (with Deportivo La Coruña and Valencia, respectively), and have seen first-hand how El Clásico sweeps people off their feet.
“For Deportivo and most of the league’s smaller teams, our games were earlier in the day,” de Guzman recalls. “The big clubs were always later at night. On the way home from Deportivo games, you could see all the fans at bars, restaurants, cafés, everywhere, watching when [Barça and Real] played.”
Saturday’s showdown is really for all the marbles. Both clubs nearly always fight for the Spanish title—they’ve won a combined 50 of 78 championships since the founding of La Liga. And one or the other is almost always at the summit of the table. But rarely are they even heading into the Clásico. And rarely have they been on such brilliant form.
Barcelona, is of course, a joy to watch. The defending European champions are the odds-on favorite to win the Champions League again, and we all know how devastating Lionel Messi has been in the tournament.
And despite Madrid’s early exit from the Champions League (yet again at the round-of-16 phase), the Galácticos II project has yielded some stunning football. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká & Co. have won 12 straight in league play and have the edge in the standings over Barça on goal differential.
That juicy rivalry? Go dig out your copy of Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World and immediately read chapter eight (and if you haven’t read it, shame on you). You’ll learn how Madrid was the plaything of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, which fed into Catalonia’s hatred of El Generalissimo.
On the flip side, you’ll also learn how many Spaniards still consider Real to be Spain’s team, while Barça is supposedly the club of the iconoclastically pretentious.
What’s funny is that you can swap in the rivals’ Mexican counterparts and get similar stories. Chivas and América have won a combined 22 Mexican championships in the modern era. The clubs have the bulk of the riches in the wealthy Primera División, and the clubs’ respective Zeitgeists are similar.
Guadalajara makes a point of recruiting only Mexicans (and players of Mexican heritage, as the club was clear to point out after it turned out Padilla was from Northern California and not Jalisco). Chivas is a source of national pride for all Mexico, and many fans of smaller clubs consider Guadalajara their other team.
América is, of course, the biggest club in Mexico City, the sporting jewel of the cosmopolitan heart of the country. Backed by the deep pockets of the Televisa media corporation, las Águilas have lured scads of foreign standouts from all over North and South America. Oye, even Landon Donovan nearly signed for the Azulcrema.
And when they clash, the reverberations are felt throughout Latin America. López himself knows this. After wrapping up eight seasons in Europe, the Argentine striker spent two years with América and saw his fair share of Clásico action. He still counts that match among his fondest memories.
“Everyone wants to play in that game,” says Padilla, who got his one shot in an exhibition Clásico in Chicago in 2008. “Even the media wants to jump in. Those games are special. They have a lot of tradition. Playing in one is the best thing that can happen to you.”
History, politics, patriotism. They’re the things that make the most gripping rivalries great. In the end, though, it’s all about the football. Plenty of Spaniards saw Chivas beat América last weekend, thanks to broadcasting rights across the Atlantic. And you can bet Mexico will be riveted to Real-Barça.
So the question remains: Is one really better than the other?
“Different players, different clubs,” explains López. “But I think in Mexico, like in Spain, they have an incredible absorption of the fans. Each one has its importance, each one has its special flavor.”
Buen provecho, mis amigos.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. His “Throw-Ins” column appears every Thursday. (Additional reporting by Jeffrey King.)