NEW YORK — There was a specific moment when I realized the power of El Clasico’s magnetic reach outside of Spain. The year was 2005. I was already living in New York City after moving there two years prior from London but had returned to the U.K. for a brief spell to spend time with family and friends.
It was a Saturday in November, and there I was, at a pub in Clapham Junction. A packed room filled with Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts crowding the tables. All of them with names on the back: from Ronaldinho at the peak of his powers, to an 18-year-old Lionel Messi and the imperial Samuel Eto’o.
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The Blaugrana faithful stood proud at the Santiago Bernabeu. On the other side, the hosts were as Galactic as you can imagine. It was the epitome of stardom. The football version of classic Hollywood elite (indulge me for a moment). Zinedine Zidane was Real Madrid’s Clark Gable, standing next to him were other astronomical entities such as Paul Newman’s David Beckham, the one everyone loved in Jimmy Stewart’s Raul, and, of course, the phenomenon, the mesmerizing Ronaldo Nazario. The Brazilian Marlon Brando. If I kept naming names, this piece might finish by Thanksgiving. So, let’s move on.
The Bernabeu was packed; you could even sense that vibrance from southwest London. At that time, both teams were just a point apart in the table. Neither, however, was top, but it didn’t matter. This Clasico was not about points or a closer path to reach the peak. This was a chance to make a statement. The crowded pub knew it. I felt even Ronaldinho knew it, as just before kickoff he whispered something to a young Messi, and I want to believe that the conversation went like this:
Ronaldinho: “Are you ready to make some history?”
[Messi smiles, nods and walks away.]
In the same manner of a general, Xavi (now Barcelona’s manager) — still dominating the midfield — walked over to every Barcelona player giving advice. Meanwhile, Beckham’s blond highlights were as bright as the proverbial spotlight on his every move for Real Madrid, while Zidane stood there, quietly pondering his first move — probably the same way Rembrandt stared at a blank canvas. The Bernabeu was the Milky Way, and all the stars had aligned in Madrid. There was not an empty seat in the house.
This piece, however, is not a reflection on that game. I mean, in the end, we all know what happened. Barca won 3-0, and Ronaldinho received a standing ovation from Madrid fans, but most importantly, the game became a significant step towards global recognition because El Clasico had grabbed the world’s attention.
Since that moment — not exclusively but notably — new sets of fans outside of the Spanish capital and Catalonia were born, and LaLiga has encouraged this growth. In a sports landscape where the Premier League dominates and other European competitions continue to fight for financial and marketable success, El Clasico remains of interest around the world.
Sure, things are different now. Many of those stars I mentioned, like Ronaldinho, have retired or went briefly to prison in Paraguay, while two bigger meteors — Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — dominated the headlines before writing new chapters in different places. Economically speaking, it’s also a different world — Barcelona can tell you that better than anyone.
El Clasico, however, remains, and so does its appeal, aura and beauty. Not least because of the clubs’ history, European glory and the fans’ love and loyalty to their respective clubs.
“Ronaldo and Messi’s rivalry definitely cemented El Clasico as one of the most prestigious matches in the sport,” says Lesego Thomas, a lead brand strategist based in Johannesburg who also works with LaLiga to promote the competition’s growth in South Africa and across the continent. “People who really understand and love football [purists] support either Barcelona or Real Madrid, but mostly Madrid. The Champions League, which Madrid have won four times since 2015-16 alone, has also boosted their appeal over the years.”
Thomas believes in order to keep the momentum, El Clasico’s magnetism needs to be a vehicle to show more of what Spanish football can offer. “The league needs to show how the game is played by more than just Real Madrid and Barcelona stars,” he says. “Spain has such a distinct style of football; some would say it’s pure. Others, poetic. We need to hear that a lot more and give insight into why they play that way.”
As Asian and African markets continue to be a focal point, and with El Clasico representing the headline act, it’s also important to remember that other regions have many communities who already have a deep relationship with these teams and with this game. I talked to a few fans around the world to see just how big this support is outside of Spain and how it can maintain worldwide attention to due its history, status and star-studded narratives.
First, I am keeping it with the family. My younger cousin Daniel, a Peruvian who has lived only in the capital Lima, is the biggest Real Madrid fan I know. He’s obsessed with them and whenever there is an opportunity, he goes to visit his beloved Bernabeu for a match.
“My first memories of Real Madrid were during the Galactico years,” says Daniel, who is also a commercial pilot (yes, we’re very proud of him.) “Thanks to their stars such as Zidane, Raul, Figo, etc. and their style of play, it felt very attractive to follow them as a supporter.
“The Clasicos that speak to me the most are from the [Pep] Guardiola and [Jose] Mourinho era. With Messi and CR7. The best two managers during that time with the best two players, with opposing philosophies. Those matches didn’t leave out anything.”
Despite living on another continent, Daniel also stresses the popularity of the rivalry in Peru. “Lima is a city that breathes football,” he says. “It’s inevitable that the biggest game attracts the most attention for all fans who enjoy quality football.”
In the U.S., the support is equally as gargantuan, and what’s more, it is cultivated at a very young age. Originating from a Spanish-speaking market, LaLiga is also able to capitalize on El Clasico’s appeal with immigrant communities, especially the young fans.
“My first memory of El Clasico was when I was 5 years old. My family was watching the game and me and my cousin came to join them, and I randomly chose the white team which was Real Madrid,” says Eddie Vera, a freshman at Iona University.
Vera was born in Mexico but grew up in the Bronx. His love for the game was cultivated thanks to local soccer programs, specifically South Bronx United — a nonprofit organization helping young people in the community with soccer programs as well as academic development. It’s a group very close to my heart. Vera went through the ranks as a player, a coach and happens to also be a gigantic Real Madrid fan.
“At the time I did not know anything about football,” he says. “As I kept watching more games and understood the game I fell in love with Real Madrid because they were a winning team and because it was a joy to watch players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Marcelo and Sergio Ramos.”
Vera first attributes El Clasico’s popularity to the game itself. Soccer’s power as the world’s game instantly puts Barcelona vs. Real Madrid as a must-watch, no matter where you’re from. “It’s a sport loved worldwide, and nobody would want to miss out on a game when Real Madrid and Barcelona go at it,” he adds. “They have the biggest rivalry in football and there’s a lot of history within both clubs which makes the game very entertaining for football fans.”
The rivalry is alive and well with Vera, whether it’s in Spain or New Rochelle, New York. He still remembers last season’s loss and the worst one for him back in 2014. “Barcelona won 4-3 due to penalties, which was not a fair call because it was a dive from Neymar in the second half,” he recalls. “I hated Neymar for about a week!”
America’s interest in Real Madrid and Barcelona is not a surprising revelation. Almost 70,000 fans attended a friendly between the two teams back in 2017, when they faced each other at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, and as Vera said, soccer’s continued popularity is a big factor.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in India — the second most-populous nation in the world — the Spanish league and Clasico rivalry are huge. LaLiga’s New Delhi office was set up in 2017. Partnering with Facebook to stream all matches for free allowed LaLiga to grow its social media community as well as generate new fans.
“In India, most football fans support Barcelona or Real Madrid,” says Rishav Dey, a student from Ranchi, in eastern India, who is lead administrator of Barca Buzz, a group of enthusiastic Barcelona supporters from all over the world.
“There are many fan clubs and penas here, where they screen the matches live. People are very interested in these two clubs and follow them with great passion. El Clasico serves as a great occasion where people, even many friends, face off in an epic rivalry.”
As you enjoy El Clasico this weekend, remember that its enchantment transcends Spain and, sure, this can be said of other events such as the World Cup or a packed Premier League weekend. When the stars align, however, and the quality of football lives up to its reputation, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona — much like in 2005 — can generate an experience that few sporting events can offer.