Carles Rexach and Jorge Valdano discuss the changing nature of the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry
Player, coach, sporting director, member of the board, presidential adviser... few men have played such big parts at Real Madrid and FC Barcelona as Jorge Valdano and Carles Rexach. They can even lay claim to have delivered the greatest of the clubs’ modern greats: Rexach signed Leo Messi on a napkin; Valdano gave a 17 year old by the name of Raúl his debut. And yet, neither their positions nor their statuses have gone unchallenged, they have played a part in the divisions that the clubs have suffered too: Johan Cruyff, the closest Barcelona have to a deity, broke off relations with Rexach, while Valdano was forced out of the Bernabéu by José Mourinho.
Over the course of the two years of research, my book on Real Madrid and Barcelona evolved into a kind of oral history, built upon not only audio-visual and written material but also on the experiences and memories of those who constructed the club’s histories and identities. There are few people better placed to explain the identity of Madrid and Barcelona, their meaning, than Rexach and Valdano. Telling the clubs’ stories meant listening to the stories, with all their contradiction and nuance, from both sides of Spanish football’s great divide. The clásico is, like any story, a human story.
Barcelona famously defines itself as “more than a club”, but what does that actually mean? What is Barcelona? And can it be understood without that socio-political component?
Barcelona is a feeling. Years ago, the political element was central and it’s still there: Catalanism, separatism, nationalism. Even people who didn’t like football took an interest in football through Barcelona, because it meant something, hence more than a club. It’s politics and football wrapped up together.
Does Barcelona’s identity hang on what it is not as well as what it is? On Real Madrid and their success, in other words?
Totally, totally. It was always: “Madrid this, Madrid that...” Their identity is totally different. For years we couldn’t win the league... I don’t mean to say that Madrid didn’t deserve to win the league, because they did, but we lost three or four leagues in the last game, in the last minute: that’s a fact. There was something there. There would be 100 games and 35 penalties, 30 for Madrid and 5 for Barcelona. It would always happen. And not just in the head-to-head matches, because we would often beat Madrid and that was enough for people to be satisfied, but in other games. It was always the same. Barcelona were at a disadvantage. And that disadvantage meant that Barcelona didn’t even get the chance to play in the European Cup.
If Madrid’s identity is totally different, what is that identity? Franco’s team?
Without doubt, hombre. Madrid is in a way the badge of the whole of Spain. When I was a kid, I watched Barcelona on television maybe once a season while there would be 20 Madrid games. So everyone was a Madrid fan, all the kids supported them. Barcelona fans were just three or four of us here. Across Spain, everyone supported their local team and then Madrid. They might have outnumbered everyone else by seven to one. Now there are lots of Barcelona fans too. Why? Because now they see them on television...
And you think that’s because of the arrival of democracy?
Exactly. Now you can choose which team you support. Barcelona have clawed back that territory. It’s not 7 to 1 any more. And that makes a difference. That conditions the games, the fans, the referees. Things do not happen in a vacuum.
For those people who did support Barcelona, was that a political decision?
But is it still? Can you still construct that argument in a democracy and with Catalonia enjoying significant autonomy?
Yes. There’s been no loss of identity, because that sentiment, that identification, gets passed on from fathers to sons and the political issue remains. We still feel that there’s a battle; some want independence or greater powers — to raise taxes, to build airports, to control our budget. Catalonia is a motor: people are hard-working here. We feel like Germany must with Spain. We pay. We pay a lot but we get little say. They build new roads in Andalusia for four cars a month. Here in Catalonia we have always been pioneers: industry, technology, the first cars, food, ideas... bit by bit, that reaches Madrid and they take it from you. Take flights to New York for example: you can’t get a direct flight there from Barcelona any more; you have to go via Madrid. That kind of thing pisses people off. There’s a Catalan national team but the Federación bans it, makes it a pirate game, not officially recognised. Barcelona signed Kubala, so Madrid signed Di Stéfano. “Hey, you can’t have two of them... to Madrid!” It’s not me saying this: this is real.
Does that tap into Barcelona’s historic fatalism? Barcelona created a victim complex. Does all that political context really justify it, all the talk of referees? Madrid’s dominance can’t all be explained away by politics or perceived injustices...
People were always saying, “There’s nothing we can do.” Was that an excuse? Yes. “Something always happens, something always goes wrong.” I’ve always challenged that fatalistic attitude. Look at the Basques: they were different. Even if they didn’t entirely agree with each other they would come together against Spain. Here, there was often some internal battle. Political parties couldn’t bring people together. Barcelona was the one thing that united everyone. Left, right, centre, all colours: everyone could support Barcelona. But even within Barcelona, we looked for excuses for our own failure, someone else to blame. People said, “Coño, it’s just that Madrid...” and I’d say, “No, a lot of the time, we’re the problem.”
Where does that fatalism come from? Much is made of a Cup game versus Madrid in 1943 which Barcelona lost 11-1 after a Franco régime official supposedly came into the dressing-room and threatened the team...
I hadn’t been born but people tell you Barcelona ended up effectively saying, “If you want to win, here: win.” But that’s a bit too far back for me to judge and there’s not much information about it. Then there’s the final against Benfica in 1961, when Barcelona had knocked Madrid out of the European Cup but hit the post I don’t know how many times in the final. That became a huge millstone round Barcelona’s necks. Then there was Seville in 1986 [when they lost the European Cup final to Steaua]. Two finals and you lose them both: they were so desperate to win that they had a kind of block.
You broke that in 1992 when you finally won the European Cup against Sampdoria at Wembley. You were assistant coach to Johan Cruyff...
That was a liberation. People were waiting for us to blow it again. We felt like, “Wow, we’ve done it.” It might only be one, but we’ve done it. Another life starts. We had won the Fairs Cup, the Uefa Cup, the Cup-Winners’ Cup, but we needed that. That was the only thing missing. Now, Barcelona have won three finals in a row. Why? Because that day we were set free. If we lose, it doesn’t matter; we’ve got one now.
Only one, though...
If you look at Barcelona and Madrid they’re practically the same. Leagues: Madrid have 25 and Barcelona 17, 18 [actually 32-26]. In Cups we’ve got 15 or 16 and they have 10 [actually Barcelona have won 22 and Real Madrid 18]. They have nine European Cups to our four, sure, but Barcelona have three Cup Winners’ Cups and three Uefa Cups. Why did they win more European Cups? Because they were in it; we couldn’t win the league so didn’t go. You can’t win a competition you don’t play in and Barcelona had a kind of veto. But what we won in Europe was extremely difficult. Barcelona would play in a competition with three clubs from the strong countries. The supposed ‘failures’ but look how good they were. Real Madrid? There might be four good teams, plus the champions of Switzerland or Hungary. From Italy, we’d have Juve, Milan, Roma; from Germany, Hamburg, Cologne, Leverkusen. It might be a bigger achievement to win that than win four European Cups.
But the European Cup has far greater symbolism and remains the pinnacle...
The symbolism of the European Cup is brutal, brutal. Now. But we weren’t that bothered: our focus was national. Since the early 1980s people were thinking about Europe but we didn’t look outside enough. We navel-gazed too much. Our aim was to win the league and screw Madrid...
You only won the league once in that spell, when Cruyff arrived in the 1973-74 season. Where you did win was the cup, the Copa del Generalísimo. If Barcelona is about opposition, is there a contradiction there?
Not playing was unthinkable. If someone had said “we’re not playing” back then, he’d have had really, really serious problems. So the only thing you could do was to play and to really piss them off by winning it. So just as we didn’t win many leagues, we did win cups. It was their cup; it was his cup; and we went there to joderlos, to screw them over, really piss them off. We won something like five cups in that era [of the dictatorship] and only one league. Why? Because it’s a short competition, there was no time to manipulate it and there were direct clashes. In the league, there were more problems, more ‘opportunities’ for them; in the cup they didn’t have time to react.
So how do you explain the 1973-74 league title?
They didn’t have time to react then either. We were a long way in front before they realised. The change in footballing terms was radical. That was the start of the current Barcelona: there was far less space between players, we played higher up, we moved better. It was a revolution and no one was ready for it. Back then, football was, “Right, let’s go, run, jump, fight...” We said, “No, we have to play better.” Other teams didn’t know how to handle it. It changed our mentality too.
Cruyff only won one league as a player; he then returned and won it all as coach. But the internal battles continued, even though both those eras were heralded as blowing away the fatalism. One of the problems was what he called the “entorno”, the political and social ‘noise’ that surrounded the club. And in a sense, he became the entorno. After him came Bobby Robson, whose problem was that he wasn’t Cruyff...
Exactly. Robson was not treated at all well, not at all. As always happens here, there were people who wanted to support Bobby and people who didn’t. His style was a bit more direct but it’s not just that. There was debate. He won everything except the league but people still weren’t happy. I say, “Coño, weren’t you a Barcelona fan? Don’t you want to win?” Yes, but... there were so many wars.
Why? Why are there so many wars at Barcelona... and so few at Madrid?
Like I said, centralism was not always the problem; the problem was, and is, the Catalans themselves. Real Madrid is not so political; Barcelona is a more democratic club. But that means more voices, more discussion, more arguments.
How would you define Madrid versus Barcelona?
As a club versus more than a club. Real Madrid is a club that has defined its social relevance through its results. Its history and identity has been constructed through what it did on the pitch. Madrid had the enormous fortune to find in Santiago Bernabéu a man who was ahead of his time and took truly historic risks. In a depressed Spain where there was virtually no cement, he built a stadium for 120,000 people and to fill it he seduced the brightest stars in history. That’s where Madrid’s myth and legend begins. Madrid is as great as the number of titles it has won and the number of stars it has been able to make part of its history. Barcelona’s identity is, at least in part, about the size of its rival, a rival that to them represents centralised power. That gives Barcelona a dimension that is not just sport but politics, as well as a tremendous social power.
Does Real Madrid lack that social power?
Madrid starts and ends with football, even if over the years it has cultivated a hatred of its rivals...
But Madrid has shaped society too, hasn’t it? Particularly during the Franco régime.
Definitely. It projected the idea of Spain towards a world that had no consideration for the country and hated Franco unconditionally. A country that was poor and had no real cultural relevance beyond Picasso and Dalí, found a club that had reached a level of excellence so great that it conquered the world. That changed Spain.
But which Spain? Did Real Madrid help make Franco’s Spain accepted?
The notion of Madrid as Franco’s club is entirely unfair. And it only takes two broad brushstrokes to make the point. One: from the moment that Franco arrived in power, it took 14 years for Madrid to win their first title. Those were the harshest years of the dictatorship. And two: Real Madrid forged its legend in Europe where Franco was nobody. It’s an absurd argument but it is true that the régime took advantage of the social power and the reach of Real Madrid to use it as a kind of unofficial embassy.
Is it hard for you, known to be left-wing, to be associated with a club that is constantly identified with Franco and often considered a right-wing club?
I know lots of left-wing people who’d do anything for Real Madrid. There is a label that persists and Real Madrid have never really made any kind of effort to contradict that prejudice. During the centenary I sponsored a book of short stories written by left-wing writers who were all Madrid fans. It was a way of showing that behind Madrid lay a progressive tradition just like at Barcelona.
Why have Madrid not created more of a ‘narrative’ then?
There’s a rule as old as football itself: he who wins, celebrates; he who loses, seeks excuses. For years Madrid were hegemonic and Barcelona created a discourse that rebelled against Madrid’s almost absolute power. For Catalans, Madrid always represented centralism if only because it was in the capital. Madrid was the parasite, the heart of the state, the periphery tends to see it as a place that lived off the richness of others. For Madrid, that doesn’t exist: wherever there is football, there is Madrid. It is more than a club too, but not because it represents something politically tangible. Madrid is synonymous with grandiosity.
Do contrasting identities and that political element ensure that the rivalry remains fierce? Has it got worse?
There is always latent violence that if we are not capable of controlling it will overflow very easily. Sometimes, it’s called Gaspart, Figo or Mourinho but any flammable element sets it off again. Football is an emotional territory and when Real Madrid and Barcelona play it becomes even more agitated. Some people are more comfortable at war than in peace but personally it makes me uneasy because the footballing rivalry is so great that I don’t think it needs other elements. All those elements end up being an attack upon the strictly footballing side of the rivalry. And right now the footballing rivalry is so, so exciting... Now that Barcelona have the best player in the world and Madrid have the best player in the world, I don’t see the need to focus on the rest of it.
But that’s inevitable... this is a rivalry that can’t be understood without it. Besides, people like the conflict; the media in Spain lives off it.
Yes. We have partisan, arbitrary media who have their own interests and it’s always hard to go against those business interests. This is a capitalist society where the market dominates everything, even culture. Football cannot escape that dynamic. Newspapers have to survive and to do that they have to make their clientele happy. But the more emotional the approach, the further away it gets from an objective position. We have entered into a dialogue of the deaf, more and more extreme and it’s hard to come back from those extremes once you have got there. People end up focussing on their obsessions. We’ve reached a ridiculous point; we appear to be in a position, not [just] in which you are obliged to talk highly of Madrid but in which talking highly of Messi appears to be an act of treachery against the fatherland. Yet, not recognising the excellence of your opponent is a way of not believing in your own excellence.
So the two clubs need each other? They drive each other on...
Like cathedrals in the Middle Ages; you compete with the nearest town. The size of their tower makes yours bigger and so on. The fight, the rivalry, has created a footballing supremacy with Madrid and Barcelona that leaves much of Europe behind.
Barcelona have often been accused of being obsessed by Madrid, but Madrid like to claim they do not care about Barcelona. Yet, recently some would argue that they have adopted a victim complex of their own and used similar arguments to those Barcelona traditionally used. Refereeing conspiracies, especially...
In the last few years it is undeniable that Barcelona have become one of the best teams in history. It is stupid to deny that. But by trying to diminish Barcelona’s success by talking about blaming referees or the Federación only makes you look small. Anything that Madrid does that is not based on that conviction of its own greatness fits very uneasily. From a strategic point of view, it’s terrible. When you do that, it makes you similar to Barcelona 20 or 30 years ago; that’s a huge error. Besides which, it’s false.
So, why, then?
The need to win is always there and that makes you lose sight of your values. The need to win has driven some clubs to economic collapse, for example. It’s a reflection of the values that society celebrates now: the winner is all, the loser is nothing. And if it’s Real Madrid you’re talking about, a club whose history obliges it to win everything, anything other than victory destabilises you. The balance at Madrid is precarious because you’re never good enough. Never. It’s very, very easy to not be worthy of Madrid. One bad word, one bad result... But we have lost perspective: Madrid have won 32 league titles, not 100, but they’re still the greatest club in the twentieth century. It’s as if you’re not allowed to fail to win a single cup. But Madrid went 32 years without winning the European Cup and that didn’t stop them being the biggest club in the world. When you are the biggest club in the world, you have to calm down but the sense of immediacy confuses everything.
There’s an assumption that the identities of the two clubs are entrenched, but you played in Real Madrid’s Quinta del Buitre side that not only won five leagues in a row between 1985 and 1990 but represented the post-Franco era and played a technical style that could be considered a forerunner of the current Barcelona philosophy...
Yes, Barcelona’s project is more planned while Madrid’s happened more spontaneously but the similarities are there. That team was a group of well-mannered kids who took football into another dimension. Bit by bit they changed the status of football and footballers. They were local, they came through the youth system, and the identification with them was enormous. They changed the style of the game: until then football had been all about aggression, fight; they were creative, they satisfied your emotions. The [Barcelona] Dream Team was counter-cultural. It was not so much a group of footballers; ‘Dream Team’ defines an idea that generated fascination and created a school, an idea that would last 20 years. But the Quinta had started to change things before and I could see that they could benefit football in general. The moment mattered too: they were the sporting arm of the transición to democracy.
That is one of the emblematic Madrid teams, perhaps only behind the side led by Alfredo Di Stéfano. There was something missing, though: the European Cup, and that defines the club.
Spain ended up being too small for that side so it went into Europe, but there they had the misfortune to come across Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan — a team that seemed unbeatable and revolutionised football. Psychologically, that Milan team hurt the Quinta so much as to make them disappear; Milan killed them. That was one of the great Madrid teams but that generation never set foot on the summit and at Real Madrid the European Cup is the only true summit.
One man who did win it was Raúl; you gave him his debut as manager. He was recently handed a homage at the Bernabéu but when he first left, it was surprisingly low-key: there was no testimonial, no pomp or ceremony.
Raúl is synonymous with Real Madrid. He is the face of Madrid for the last 25 years. It was all about competing: quantity over quality, professionalism, absolute commitment. If you had to write a list of the values of Real Madrid, you’d say: is that list Madrid or Raúl? He’s the Di Stéfano of our time. His departure was not as it should have been. He was there, but the people weren’t. And Raúl is the people; it is the people who consecrate him as the incarnation of the club. He offered mass, but the faithful weren’t there. But in any case, Raúl left a mark so deep that he will always be there. Spiritually, he will always be at the club.
You say Raúl represents Madrid’s values. You were sporting director during the galáctico era, an era that appeared to celebrate something different. Why did it go wrong?
The first six months under Queiroz were superb, some of the best football we had seen, but then we collapsed. We didn’t abide by the traditional rules of football and football cornered us and stabbed us for it.
These are extracts from interviews conducted in the preparation of Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Madrid versus Barcelona (Yellow Jersey).