In Westword's August 7 cover story, Adam Cayton-Holland explores the conflict between (sort of) raucous Colorado Rapid fans and the team's front office. Here, though, a tale of real soccer fanaticism.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are like the Red Sox and the Yankees on steroids. Then again, the Red Sox and the Yankees are like the Red Sox and the Yankees on steroids, but regardless of what Roger Clemens has to say (or not say) on the issue, the rivalry between these two Spanish soccer teams is as immense and fierce as any sports rivalry in the world -- maybe fiercer.
The two teams, typically the best in Spain, hail from Castile and Catalonia, regions with long-standing rivalries made all the more intense by former Spanish dictator Franco’s obsessive allegiance to central Spain and oppression of almost everything else. Many are the rumors of Franco strolling into the locker rooms of teams that happened to be playing his beloved Real Madrid and quietly informing them it would be a wise move for them not to win that day.
In 2000, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain and quickly picked up Real as my squad.
Yeah, they were the richest team in the country, the fat, bloated, money-wasting team formerly endorsed by the fascist. But so what? They were fun to watch, I lived close to the stadium, and with very little effort I was able to go to games.
Real at the time was mired in an experiment, eventually dubbed "galacticismo," where every season they simply went out and purchased the best player in the world and squeezed him into the squad like those last few crab of the season on Deadliest Catch. The experiment eventually proved disastrous – duh – but when I was there, it was still chugging along. Luís Figo was the latest acquisition, purchased from arch rival Barcelona for $65 million Euros, and over night he went from being the most cherished player in all of Catalonia to the most reviled. He had gone to the enemy, and he did it just for more money. Real Madrid played Barcelona away that season – meaning traitor Figo had to play in his old digs. I remember sitting in an old-man bar after that game, reading an issue of the Spanish soccer magazine Marca, where a detailed chart explained how much louder the sound levels reached every time Figo touched the ball. It was staggering. A TV station did a study and concluded that decibel levels of whistles against Figo during that game were higher than that of an airplane taking off. Barcelona was truly enraged, and they let Figo know it.
And when Real Madrid won both the Spanish League and the Champions League that season, making them not only the best in Spain, but the best in Europe as well, that Catalonian hatred of Figo fermented like a fine Rioja wine.
Figo was injured the next season for the match-ups between the two squads, but the following year, when it came time for El Clásico, as it's known in Spain, I again found myself living on the Iberian peninsula, this time in a sleepy, medieval college town above Portugal called Santiago de Compostela.
The night of El Clásico, my roommates and I packed into a bar whose patrons were clearly divided by the game -- but good-natured in their rivalry -- to watch the chaos ensue.
From the start, every time Figo took a corner kick, he was pelted by fans launching objects onto the field: streamers, batteries, flares, bottles, and perhaps most offensively, money. Cries of "pesetero" were later reported: "money-whore." Figo tried to keep his cool, but the situation became too intense, and the referee eventually called the players off the field for their safety. Before retreating into the locker room, Barcelona defender Carlos Puyol, a mop-topped rock in the back who currently captains the Spanish National Team, was running around screaming at his own home fans to cut it out. They paid him no mind, and the detritus continued to rain down from the stands, more now as the fans could see their actions were having the desired effect.
Meanwhile, in the bar, everyone turned away from the screen to order more beers and tapas, waiting for the game to resume. But a sudden, jarring close-up brought everyone’s attention back to the television mounted in the corner: a pig’s head, lying in the middle of the field. So great was some Barca fan’s hatred of Luis Figo that he had sneaked an entire pig’s head into the stadium – probably having to tape it to his body – only to hurl it onto the field for all to see. It was on the cover of nearly every paper the next day, be it a soccer rag or no.
That 2002 season, Real Madrid and Barcelona played each other twice, and each game ended in a tie. But what I’ll remember more than anything is that pig’s head sitting cold and dead on the middle of the pitch at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. And I bet wherever he is in the world, Figo does too. -- Adam Cayton-Holland