When Real Madrid and Barcelona play against each other, the match, known as the El Clásico, generates more interest around the world than any other match in club football. It may come as a surprise to some that the origin of this rivalry has little to do with sports, and is rooted in the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936 and lasted three years. The Spanish region of Catalonia had a strong regional identity, and a vibrant movement for its independence had existed even before the Civil War started.
During the Civil War, Catalonia resisted the rise of General Franco and several Barcelona players even enlisted and fought against Franco’s army. The then Barcelona President, Josep Sunyol, was murdered by pro Franco forces in response. Sunyol was hailed in Catalonia as a martyr, and FC Barcelona became an integral symbol of Catalan identity.
Ultimately it was General Franco who emerged victorious in the Civil War, and established a totalitarian regime in Spain. Franco was a nationalist who wanted to create a unified Spain completely free of any regional divide and identity. Catalonia’s independence movement was still ongoing, and Franco resolved to crush it. He was aware of Barcelona’s status as a symbol of the Catalonian unity and freedom movement, and started to use Real Madrid, the football team of his Capital as means to counter Barcelona.
He believed that if the football team of the capital, Real Madrid, could dominate the Catalan team, it would help lower the morale of the people of Catalonia, which would help his idea of a united Spain. General Franco took a series of steps that were designed to hamper the smooth functioning of FC Barcelona, and adopted a more direct approach during the semi-final of the 1943 Spanish King’s Cup (Copa Del Rey).
Barcelona and Real Madrid were drawn against each other in the semi-final, and the first leg was played in Barcelona, which the hosts won 3-0. This left Real Madrid needing to win the return leg by a four goal margin to qualify to the finals, an unenviable task to say the least. Real Madrid’s loss, which he had been trying to build as a team of the centralists, at the hands of the club that was the flag bearer of Catalonian identity, Barcelona, was unacceptable to Franco. It is a bit of an open secret that before the 2nd leg of the semi-final in Madrid, the Police entered the Barcelona players’ dressing room at the stadium, and threatened them with dire consequences if they won. Barcelona lost the match 11-1, which is still the record for the biggest defeat in El Clásico history.
Franco and the police denied anything like this ever happened, and both UEFA and FIFA still recognise the result as perfectly valid. Post this game, Real Madrid got labelled as the team of the regime and Barcelona came to symbolize those oppressed by the establishment, and it was this game that started a full blown rivalry between the two teams.
If you were unaware of the story of the origins of the rivalry, now you know.