Not a classic “Clasico” but a fascinating experience

April 12, 2010

SOCCER-SPAIN/Saturday’s game between Real Madrid and Barcelona had been dubbed “the match of the millennium” by sports daily Marca and for anyone living in Spain it was impossible to ignore “El Clasico” in the days leading up to the clash at Real’s Bernabeu stadium.

There was certainly plenty at stake for the protagonists, not least the chance to take a big step toward winning La Liga, but the country seemed in the grip of a fever at least as intense as anything I have seen during a major international tournament.

After exiting the Champions League and the King’s Cup, Real needed a first victory in four matches against Barca to keep their hopes of silverware alive and the match would probably go a long way to deciding whether coach Manuel Pellegrini stayed on next season.

It was also another test for Real president Florentino Perez’s strategy of investing close to a quarter of a billion euros in players pre-season in a bid to end Barca’s hegemony and boost revenue.

The spectacularly successful Pep Guardiola, meanwhile, had a chance to become the first Barca coach to win four “Clasicos” in a row and edge his side closer to retaining their title, one of an unprecedented six won in 2009.

Discussion of the match dominated the newspapers and television bulletins and it was a primary topic of conversation wherever you went.

In a country recovering from its worst recession in at least 50 years and with unemployment heading toward 20 percent, the prime minister, the interior minister and the leader of the opposition all took time out to give interviews about the match published in Saturday’s Marca.

So the stage was set for a humdinger, and after attending a family 90th birthday party, during which there was much good-natured banter between the Madridistas and the Catalans, I jumped on the number 14 bus and headed up Paseo de la Castellana to the stadium.

A quick flash of my press card at a stern-looking policeman and I was through the cordon holding back the fans and into the giant arena with more than an hour still to go before kickoff.

I was joined by a colleague and we tried to make sense of Guardiola’s unusual-looking starting 11, including five defenders and with Lionel Messi and Pedro as the only forwards.

Did this mean Barca, who only needed a draw to go top thanks to a superior head-to-head record, would be reining in their attacking instincts?

The stadium began to fill up and the appearance of the Real players for the warmup drew ecstatic cheers from the home fans.

When the Barca side ran on to the pitch the cheers became whistles, rising to a deafening crescendo as the players went into their customary huddle before heading briefly back to the dressing room.

The stadium was shaken by the usual ear-splitting renditions of “Nessun Dorma” and “Hala Madrid!” and the players walked out and gathered around the centre circle for a minute’s silence for the victims of the plane crash that killed the Polish president, who according to Spanish media had planned to attend the match but changed his schedule 48 hours before.

Most people will know more or less what happened next – goals from Messi and Pedro putting Barca three points clear at the top with seven matches left – but it was the performance of the peerless Xavi that really caught our attention up in the press gallery.

The midfielder’s two assists drew gasps of admiration, especially the second for Pedro, which left Xavi’s Spain team mate Alvaro Arbeloa looking rather foolish.

“Did you see who made the assist for the second goal?” a colleague asked me. “Xavi,” I told him. “Who else?”

The 30-year-old ran the show and Real’s players spent long periods of the game chasing shadows as Barca stroked the ball around the central areas.

After looking dangerous at times in the first half, record Real signing Cristiano Ronaldo was relatively anonymous in the second and some home fans headed for the exits well before the finish.

I filed four paragraphs on the final whistle and a quick update and then it was down to the press conference room to listen to a beaming Guardiola and a glum Pellegrini. Around 1 a.m. local time we headed out for a well-earned beer, with several hundred fans still waiting outside for a glimpse of their heroes.

The match of the millennium? Not by a long chalk. But it was a privilege to have been there.

PHOTO: Barcelona players celebrate their victory over Real Madrid in their match at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid April 10, 2010. REUTERS/Felix Ordonez.

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