Spanish flag with team logos

What Is El Clasico in Football?

Some footballing rivalries transcend the beautiful game and become much more than just two teams kicking a ball around – there are local bragging rights to be won, not to mention the clash of cultures and ideologies that accompany matches between certain teams. Manchester United and Liverpool, Celtic and Rangers, AC and Inter Milan, River Plate and Boca Juniors… the reasons behind many of the sport’s bitterest rivalries require little explanation.

That is also the case for arguably the most storied conflict in football: that which pits the nationalistic ideals of Real Madrid against the separatist rebellion of FC Barcelona. The rivalry is so strong that the game is watched by millions of people around the world each season, and even has its own name: El Clasico.

Real Madrid & Barcelona Rivalry

El Clásico rivalryThe name El Clasico is fitting as it literally translates into English as ‘the classic’, which is a great moniker for a match of this tradition and magnitude. It’s a reference to the classic nature of the contest: Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most famous and successful clubs in Spain, therefore whenever they meet – be it in La Liga, the Copa del Rey (the Spanish domestic cup) or even the Champions league, the game is given the El Clasico tag.

But this is a rivalry that digs deeper than mere skirmishes on the football pitch, so calling this game ‘the classic’ is a reminder of its gravitas, which goes far beyond a mere battle for three points. The name El Clasico is, relatively speaking, a fairly modern invention – although ‘clasico’ is used to describe the matches between fierce rivals in many Spanish-speaking countries, including the ‘Superclasico’ between Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

How Did El Clasico Begin?

The first meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona took place way back in 1902, although that was before the El Clasico ‘branding’ had been dreamt up. Their rivalry really began to take hold from the 1930s, when General Franco effectively started a civil war against the Second Spanish Republic. That action would see Josep Sunyol, Barcelona’s president and a significant political figure in the country, executed without trial under the orders of Franco.

That set the battle lines between the Spanish nationalists and the Catalonians, who ultimately saw independence from Franco’s regime. Such ill feeling would often spill out onto the pitch whenever Real Madrid and Barcelona met. Barcelona’s club motto – ‘mes que un club’ – means ‘more than a club’, a philosophy forged in this dark period of Spanish politics. Franco was a nationalist icon who was known to favour Madrid’s football teams, regularly appearing at major finals that the Galacticos qualified for – that hardly enamoured him to the various separatist groups in Spain that also followed the beautiful game.

For all that history and bad blood, it wasn’t until much later that the El Clasico name was born – the 1980s were perhaps the first time that the moniker was used, before it was latched onto by the media to hype up a game that, in all truth, needs little in the way of introduction to football fans around the globe. And then, in 2023, something truly bizarre happened. The Spanish Patent and Trademark Office effectively banned both clubs from using the term El Clasico to promote the game – so, in one sense, El Clasico doesn’t even exist anymore!

What Is Special About El Clasico?

El Clasico
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There are many bitter rivalries in football around the world, but few pit clubs of such obvious difference against one another. In the white corner, you have Real Madrid – monied heavyweights, representatives of the establishment and a team that, historically, has not been shy of utilising the dark arts on the pitch to gain an advantage. Their fanbase is typically considered to be conservatist and nationalist, and somewhat right-wing in their ideology.

Then in the red and blue corner, we have FC Barcelona – rebellious, anti-establishment, socialist in their outlook. The likes of Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi are synonymous with the Catalan club; geniuses with the ball at their feet who have been idolised by millions.

In boxing, they say that styles make fights – and the complete contrast between Real Madrid and Barcelona has only served to promote the intense rivalry between them yet further. Even when you cast aside the politics, the success of these teams – which has seen them lock horns for glory both domestically and on the continent – means that they are, and you assume always will be, inextricably linked.

In 94 years of La Liga, the top division of Spanish football, these two clubs have shared the title an extraordinary 62 times – that number extends to 17 of the last 20 seasons, too. Since 1955, when the European Cup (that would become the Champions League) was founded, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the most prestigious prize in club football on 19 occasions between them.

Who Has Won More El Clasico Games?

Barcelona football
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When you factor in every single game ever played between the sides, which includes exhibitions (testimonials, etc.) and outings in various cup competitions around the globe, Real Madrid and Barcelona have met on 297 occasions in games that can be termed El Clasico. It is Barcelona that have come out on top in the historical head-to-heads, with 124 wins to Real’s 109. Incredibly, those 297 games have witnessed more than 1,000 goals scored!

Despite being on the wrong side of the historical data, Real Madrid have actually won more La Liga games against Barcelona than vice versa – those standings are 78-74 in Real’s favour. In the European Cup/Champions League, there is only been eight occasions on which the two teams have met – Real winning three of them, Barcelona two and the other trio ending in stalemate.

One of the most prolific meeting grounds for the sides has been the Spanish Copa del Rey. From those 37 collisions Barcelona lead 16-13, with eight draws. There you go: a potted history of more than 120 years of games between Real Madrid and Barcelona… here’s to 120 more!