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The La Liga fixture between Real Madrid and Barcelona is known for being one of the most heated and fierce rivalries in world football. Over the years, it has gained a reputation for being the most iconic too with players like Messi and Ronaldo going up against each other. As time has gone by, the 'good old days' of drama filled El Clasicos (literally meaning "The Classic") have slowly disappeared and players left both clubs and retired or moved onto other clubs. As outsiders, not living in Spain, it seems as if El Clasico has taken a back seat to more fierce rivalries in club football like the Manchester derby, Der Klassiker (Dortmund vs Bayern) and any Liverpool vs Man United clash.
However, once we take a look at the history of Spain, it becomes clear that the El Clasico rivalry is still as fierce as before. And that is because Real vs Barça is a rivalry that is not merely rooted in the success of both clubs. It is a deeply political and historical rivalry which is relevant even today in Spain.
Spain is divided into 12 regions (similar to states in India). These regions are technically autonomous and have distinct traditions, languages, even their own flags. Madrid, the capital of the country and home to the club Real Madrid is situated in Castile which is the most dominant culture and even language that is spoken through Spain (aka Castillian or European Spanish). Real Madrid needs no introduction. It is one of the most successful clubs in Spain and in the world. Historically, it was the favourite club of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. This is where the rivalry between the two clubs arises.
FC Barcelona is located in Barcelona which is the capital of the autonomous region called Catalonia or Catalunya. Catalonia is one of the richest regions economically and culturally. The region (which also includes teams like Valencia and Mallorca) has a very different and unique culture, traditions, and even a flag (the Senyera) and a language (catalan) that is different to Castilian Spanish.
When Francisco Franco became the dictator of Spain in 1939, he believed that all of Spain needed to be united under one Castillian flag. And so his oppression of the other regions began and it was the worst for Catalonia. Because Catalonia had been fighting for independence for a long time and because they were the richest region, Franco wanted them to be completely submissive. A large part of his hatred came down on the fútbol club Barcelona because it embodied the free spirit and resistance of all of Catalonia. He unleashed a brutal campaign against the club including banning their language within their stadium, banning Catalan and Barcelona flags and using referee corruption to help Madrid win games to reinforce Castilian and facsist authority and ideology on the Catalan club. One of Barcelona's presidents Josep Sunyol was also shot down by Francisco's army. It was a reign of terror which continued longer than any dictatorship - for 36 years.
It was after his death in 1975 that FC Barcelona could truly be free. But even then, they were not free of the oppression of the government Franco had left behind and their anthem, flags (with the red and yellow senyera stripes) and banners protesting the arrest of their political leaders and those demanding independence were constantly banned and fined. Even today, Catalonia continues to fight for total independence from Spain, to no effect. In the face of army oppression to freedom calls, footballer matches and specially those against Real Madrid, Franco's favorite club are an exciting prospect for the Catalan fanbase of the Barça. It is because of this history of political conflict between the two clubs that makes Barcelona's motto and slogans more impactful. "Mes que un club" (Catalan) meaning "More Than a Club" signifies its stance of resistance against Spain for all of Catalonia. And the famous Catalan slogan "Visca Barça y visca catalunya" (English: Long live Barça and long live Catalonia) is another symbol of their support for the freedom of what they consider their country.
This is what makes El Clasico a truly fierce and heated rivalry. Not the fact that Messi and Ronaldo played each other (which of course added to the epic feeling of the match), but the fact that it is not two clubs, but two different political ideologies and two different countries battling it out for sporting victory. And that is why El Clasico can never take a back seat to any other rivalry. Even if Messi and Ronaldo have bid their adieus, the battle for victory and the battle for control of Catalonia continues.