Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Too Big to Fall

It does not require a great leap of the imagination to envision the final few weeks of the season playing out like this:

Atlético Madrid, shredded by nerves and running on fumes, surrenders its place at the summit of La Liga. Barcelona, restored and unbeaten since the turn of the year, supplants Diego Simeone’s team, reclaiming its crown.

At the same time, Real Madrid, the familiar scent of European glory in its nostrils, breezes past Liverpool and edges Chelsea to win a place in the Champions League final. Real Madrid would, by most measures, be the underdog in Istanbul. Manchester City and Bayern Munich, certainly, are more coherent, more complete teams. Even Paris St.-Germain, its mission for revenge fueled by the brilliance of Kylian Mbappé, has more star power, more forward momentum, as it proved so thrillingly on Wednesday night in Munich.

But it is Real Madrid, and it is the Champions League, and these things do not necessarily conform to logic. It and Barcelona, the twin, repelling poles of the Clásico, each may be no more than seven weeks from glory. Both have spent much of this campaign in what looked like free fall. It is hardly inconceivable that, in a few weeks, they will have come to rest, still at the pinnacle.

That does not mean that the perception was an illusion. Barcelona’s financial strife is alarmingly real, even after the election of a new president. Its salary commitments are still greater than those of any other team. Its squad is still aging. It has still frittered away hundreds of millions of dollars in the transfer market. It has still squandered its legacy, still alienated the greatest star in its history, still lost sight of itself.

Real Madrid’s situation is not quite as perilous, but here, too, are the telltale signs of institutional complacency and endemic drift. Its team is starting to creak with age. Its policy of paying premium fees for prodigious young talents — often with only a smattering of senior games under their belts — has not yet yielded the fruit the club imagined.

Its payroll, too, is littered with unwanted high-earners; Real Madrid’s finances have been stretched by the revamp of the Santiago Bernabéu that has forced it to play home games at its training facility for a year; its belief that it can sign both Erling Haaland and Mbappé over the next two summers seems fanciful at best and faintly hubristic at worst. Lulled by glamour and success, Real Madrid has allowed itself to be transformed into the personal fief of its president, Florentino Pérez.

All of those issues were not imagined by a muckraking, scurrilous news media; they are not proof of some sweeping anti-Barcelona and yet somehow also anti-Madrid conspiracy. They are real, and they all manifest on Saturday, when the clubs will meet on the outskirts of the Spanish capital for the second Clásico of the season.

When, 50 years from now, sports historians come to look back on European soccer’s imperial phase, examining how it became what David Goldblatt has described as the single greatest cultural phenomenon of the modern era, they could do worse than to start with those 18 days in 2011 when Real and Barcelona played one another four times.

Even from the relatively shallow vantage point of 2021, those two and a half weeks have the air of a seed and a flower, a dawn and a dusk and the midday sun. It was, in the first decade of the 21st century, what soccer had been building toward. It would be what soccer, in the second decade of the 21st century, would measure everything against.

The Clásico was not only the meeting of soccer’s two great powers or the world’s two best teams. It was also the clash of its two brightest stars, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the supernova game. It was a battle of wills and a battle of minds: José Mourinho against Pep Guardiola, defense against attack, destruction against creation, darkness against light.

These were days when soccer held its breath.

It is somehow fitting, then, a decade later, that the most materially impactful Clásico of the last few years will take place on Saturday night in the Éstadio Alfredo Di Stéfano, rather than the Bernabéu. It is a reduced circumstance for a diminished game.

The stakes are high. The winner will take prime position to dislodge Atlético Madrid from the summit of La Liga. The loser, as is the case whenever these two meet, will suddenly be flirting with crisis. It is, without question, the biggest game of the weekend. It is not, though, the centerpiece of the European season as once it was, the fixture that makes the world stand still.

In part, that is because of the decline of the teams themselves. Barcelona and Real Madrid are no longer the two best teams on the planet. That honor, currently, falls somewhere between Manchester and Munich. It would be possible to build an argument that neither Spanish giant is, at this moment, in the top five.

There is still Messi, of course, but there is no Ronaldo, no Xavi, no Andrés Iniesta, no Xabi Alonso. Both teams are in the throes of (reluctant) generational change, works in various stages of progress. The quality — aesthetic and technical — will not be as high as it was on Wednesday night, when P.S.G. stormed the Allianz Arena.

But that is also because of the broader decline of La Liga. Spain has long since vacated its position of primacy. France is the world champion, and the world’s most prodigious producer of players. Germany — and, to some extent, the city of Leeds — is the wellspring of soccer’s ideas. England is home to its finest league. Spain, as a whole, has lost its place at the vanguard.

And yet, for all that, it is not difficult to envision the season ending with celebrations on Las Ramblas and at the Plaza de Cibeles, with Barcelona anointed kings of Spain and Real Madrid restored to its traditional status as Rey de Copas.

That such a denouement is possible is testament, first, to our tendency to assume that decline — soccer as a whole, in fact — runs in straight lines, to reverse-engineer an explanation for every event. If Barcelona wins a championship, rumors of its demise must have been greatly exaggerated. If Real Madrid wins the Champions League, its methods must work.

It does not always, if ever, work like that. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes stars align. Not everything has a deeper meaning, and not every success illustrates some broader truth. Sometimes Liverpool wins the Champions League with Djimi Traoré at left back. Sometimes Croatia gets a golden generation. Had Real Madrid been paired with Manchester City, rather than Liverpool, in the Champions League quarterfinals this week, its almost mystical relationship with the European Cup would not seem quite so potent.

But that Barcelona and Real Madrid can be so close to the summit after a season spent at the depths is also a reminder that how far, and how fast, you fall is only one part of the equation. The other is where you are coming from.

Between them, Barcelona and Madrid account for seven of the last 14 Champions League titles. They were soccer’s animating force for more than a decade. Each, at different times in that period, reached heights that few teams have reached. Both remain fabulously wealthy, in terms of talent and in terms of revenue. Both retain many of the players who helped them to touch the sky. Their talent may have waned, but it has not evaporated.

Eras do not end overnight. History does not run in a straight line. The Clásico of 2021 will be a shadow of the Clásicos of 2011. That Real Madrid and Barcelona have fallen is not in question. But it should be no surprise that there might yet be glory awaiting one, or both of them. They did, after all, have quite a long way to fall.

It is hard to identify the most dispiriting part of the episode last weekend in which Valencia’s Mouctar Diakhaby reported that he was racially abused by the Cádiz defender Juan Cala. Ordinarily, there would be a clear answer: that it happened at all. This time, though, there is another option: that it is hard to identify whether that was, in fact, the most dispiriting part.

First of all, there is the fact that it was not the only episode of racist abuse of a soccer player that weekend: several more players, as always happens, were racially abused online. Then there is the fact that, even if Cala is telling the truth in his stringent denials of the accusation, if there has just been some sort of misunderstanding, we are still in a position in which it is easy to believe a soccer player might have been racially abused by an opponent, on the field, in 2021.

And finally, there was the sight of Valencia — having initially walked off the field in solidarity with Diakhaby — returning to play out the game, without the victim, but against the accused perpetrator. Cala had asked to play on, and did so. Diakhaby, on the other hand, was understandably not in the right mind to continue.

His club played on, it revealed later, because it had been warned — by some unidentified third party — that it would be risking a points deduction if it did not return to the field. If this is true, it does not reflect especially well on Valencia: How many points, exactly, is your player’s dignity worth?

More important, the decision to continue (and to threaten to punish a team that will not) reflects appallingly on soccer’s antiracism posturing. All the slogans and all the campaigns in the world are worth nothing if, when presented with an accusation of racist abuse on the field, the immediate reaction is to try to stifle protest, to protect the product at all costs.

As usual, this is an area in which soccer’s authorities — more than the players, certainly, and to an extent the clubs — are complicit. These decisions should not be ad hoc, rested on the shoulders of the individual who has endured abuse. If a player believes he has been racially abused, the referee should be under instructions to call off the game. There should be no threat of punishment, no gray area. It is for the sport as a whole to make a stand, on behalf of those who play it.

In hindsight, maybe it was the context, not the act itself, that caused such consternation. The officials in Manchester City’s 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday did not, it is fair to say, have a great evening: The decision to rule out Jude Bellingham’s goal — and, more to the point, to do so before the video assistant referee was able to contribute — did not exactly scream competence, after all.

Still, the outrage that followed those fleeting glimpses of the assistant referee, Octavian Sobre, asking Erling Haaland to autograph his red and yellow cards felt a little overblown. The point of autographs has always eluded me — look at this scrap of paper that a person I have seen on television unthinkingly and resentfully scrawled on! — but it is hard to read the incident as anything other than entirely harmless and even, deep down, quite sweet.

Why should an official not want a souvenir of what is likely to be one of the biggest occasions of his career? Who, exactly, is suffering here? Why would we automatically assume that Sobre, who has devoted decades to his job, would sacrifice the integrity of his decisions just because he happened to be a big fan of everyone’s favorite goal cyborg? (Sitting at the Etihad as the controversy unspooled, it was hard not to notice quite how much emphasis seemed to be placed on Sobre’s nationality, too.)

As it turned out, of course, there was a wholly different rationale for it. Haaland was not particularly special. Sobre had also hoped to get an autograph from Pep Guardiola. He has been collecting them for years, then auctioning them on behalf of an autism charity he supports in his native Romania. At that point, the shouting was quieted, just a little.

It would be nice to think that a lesson might be learned here: to gather all of the available facts before rushing to judgment; to avoid leaping to the most aggravating conclusion possible; to resist the temptation to meet the slightest perceived transgression with fury. You probably wouldn’t hold your breath, though.

An open goal presented by Alexander Da Silva, who is (admirably) starting a “book club themed around soccer history, politics and tactics,” and wants advice on possible reading material. Well, Alexander, this one was critically acclaimed. It didn’t sell especially well, but if anything that just makes it more exclusive.

As for other — some might say lesser, not me, but some — works, there is an abundance. So many, in fact, that I wonder if I should put some sort of list together: It’s a question we get reasonably frequently.

In short: Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” remains the compulsory work on tactical history. Depending on which sort of politics you’re interested in, there’s “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” (Sid Lowe), “Angels With Dirty Faces” (Wilson again, you can’t escape him), “Brilliant Orange” (David Winner) or Simon Kuper’s “Football Against the Enemy,” which is more than 25 years old now, but remains genre-forming. For more modern material, “The Club,” by Josh Robinson and Jon Clegg, encapsulates the Premier League era.

I’d also recommend the James Montague canon: “When Friday Comes,” “Thirty-One Nil” and particularly his most recent, “1312: Among the Ultras,” all of which are fantastic. My favorite soccer book of all, though, remains “This Love Is Not for Cowards,” by Robert Andrew Powell.

Mark Gromko, meanwhile, takes me to task for my “evident disregard for Manchester City. You are tired of the money, the organization, the style of play. Some of us, however, find watching the skill of the players, the coordination and precision of the teamwork, the depth of the squad, and the brilliance of the coach wonderful to watch.”

There is no argument from me on any of that — though I’d contest that I’m tired of any of it; not emotionally stimulated is probably a better description — but I would hold off on any particularly ardent criticism. City will, of course, come much more into focus as they pursue all four major trophies — starting in a couple of weeks, in the Carabao Cup final — and we will be covering them in the detail they deserve.