Catalan Smile in the Battle of Bernabéu

Swaroop Paul M

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Well if you ask me to describe the greatest football match I saw live to date, my choice would undoubtedly be the El Clásico of 24th April, 2017 when FC Barcelona visited Santiago Bernabeu to take on their historical rivals Real Madrid CF.

Before expressing my feelings of watching the live match, I would like to put a disclaimer that I am a hardcore culé by heart and an ardent fan of Lionel Messi. Therefore, any inclination or possible bias reflected in my account is purely unintentional even though I have tried my best to explain it from an objective point of view.

Every El Clásico (The Classic) induces colossal amount of excitement in the minds of fans on both sides and is regarded as one of the fiercest footballing rivalries that continued to exist over the decades. Political history and contrasting footballing philosophy of both the teams compounded the depth of this rivalry. If Real Madrid is the symbol of Spanish nationalism and state royal patronage once it enjoyed, Barcelona represents the aspiration of Catalonia; a resource rich province in Spain fighting for nationhood.

Besides all this, the competition took a new turn when Real Madrid landed Cristiano Ronaldo, who did wonders at Manchester United, in the summer of 2009. From then the El Clásico was celebrated as an occasion of face-to-face encounter between two of the greatest players of all time; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, unmatched by their contemporaries and predecessors. All these factors just like any other fan of football always had a persistent effect on me throughout the days leading to El Clasico.

Coming to the match on 24th April, it was a long awaited occasion for Barcelona to seek revenge as they had failed to emerge victorious in the last two meetings between these behemoths. This match emerged to be cream of the crop because of the outstanding display of football exhibited by both the teams. Both of them deployed all of their exceptionally talented players on the field, barring the absence of Madrid’s star defender Raphael Varane in the squad. Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane and Barcelona under Luis Enrique were at their peak in terms of performance, as total shorts taken, ball recoveries, defensive clearances and goalkeeper saves provide the statistical testimony to it. In addition, it unveiled the beauty and charm of high-intensity attacking football of Real Madrid and Cruyffian Tiki Taka of Barcelona.

I was in my third year of graduation and it was the first time we screened the match on a large-screen with a projector in our university premise. An hour-half prior to the match, many football enthusiasts in our campus began thronging to the venue on Tuesday midnight. The atmosphere was filled with exhilaration, anxiousness and curiosity as fans of both the teams engaged in issuing proclamations, betting and exchanging banters. Even the supporters of various other football clubs took positions, primarily inspired by Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. Soon clusters and groups of both the teams were formed at the venue. The 90 minutes that ensued the kick-off was spine chilling with the momentum of the game frequently shifting between both the sides. Casemiro’s strike at the 28th minute gave Real Madrid a lead and Barcelona managed to level it through Messi before the half-time whistle.

The second half saw Barcelona scoring again through Rakitic instilling a sense of possible humiliation to the Madrid camp until Messi was dangerously fouled by Ramos only to secure a red card and exit the game. Even though it provided a sigh of relief to me, immediately it was overturned by the feeling that a ten-man Real Madrid is likely to be more aggressive thereby increasing the probability of Barcelona conceding a goal. My fear was justified when their substitute James Rodriguez scored a brilliant one at the 85th minute of the game equalizing the score at 2-2.

Absolute silence pervaded the atmosphere after toots and cheering from the Madrid camp. Each one present there including me began to be apprehensive about the climax of the game as it progressed towards the last 10 minutes. Real Madrid was on complete offensive and my heart was throbbing at an immeasurable rate. My hands appeared cold and legs were standstill after witnessing Barcelona defense somehow managing to undo Madrid’s determined counter attacks despite Catalans often invading the latter’s half. Nothing much happened then and most of them expected a draw as the game moved towards injury time. However, what happened was unforeseen proving once again that football is all about breaking our expectations, beliefs and conclusions.

Sergi Roberto darted with the ball from own half, adeptly passed onto Jordi Alba on the left flank, placed the ball perfectly for Messi who in turn converted it comfortably into the Madrid’s net at the 92nd minute of the game. All the cameras suddenly focused onto Messi who ran towards the edge of the field, took off his shirt and flaunted it to the Madrid supporters. That was neoteric and became an addition to his signature celebrations only to be emulated by many others subsequently. The Barcelona camp burst out with joy and ecstasy with gibes thrown at Madrid fans with least composure as the final whistle was blown. Personally, for me it was a moment of pride and pleasure primarily because of three reasons; first, Barcelona deservedly claimed the victory, second, the victory was in Madrid’s home ground and third, Messi was on a blitzkrieg with two goals.

Even after I reached my room, I flooded my WhatsApp and Facebook status with posters of Barcelona squad, images of Messi, highlights of the game, troll memes on Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo. Unable to satisfy myself, I called upon my friends who are staunch Madridistas and personally messaged them with sarcastic greetings. It is true that their helpless silence provided personal contentment.  Nevertheless, Real Madrid eventually won their 33rd La Liga title with a difference of 3 points and crowned UEFA Champions League for the 12th time. Barcelona was merely left with a Copa Del Rey (domestic cup) trophy and this El- Classico victory was a matter of prestige and dignity for all the culés around the world just like me. Now looking back, it was all just ephemeral but is definitely one among the best moments of life. Indeed, it is a blessing to be passionate about football. What say?

 

The writer is a Masters student at Azim Premji University, Bangaluru, India. This article is the second in the series “most memorable football match of my life” by our readers. If you want to write about your experience of a favourite match, you can contact us via footytimes.com@gmail.com. Lets’s use of this quarantine time to reminisce our football memories.

Swaroop Paul

 

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