No one can accuse Sid Lowe of cutting any corners as he wrote Fear And Loathing In La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid. His first draft was 199,000 words, of which 70,000 – almost a book in itself – ended on the editing floor.
Barcelona claim to be “mes que un club” – more than a club. Lowe’s fascinating account of the good, the bad and the ugly of what he claims is the sport’s biggest rivalry is more than a football book. He is well placed to write about both the occasionally beautiful game plus the politics and cultural differences that are inseparable from the two clubs that dominate Spanish football. Lowe went to Spain 12 years ago as a 25-year-old to write a PHD on right wing politics and fascism in the 1930’s Spain. He was already covering Spanish football, though little did he know what was to come. The Barclays Premier League may dominate in England, but such is the popularity of La Liga that Saturday’s clásico is almost as eagerly awaited as anything the domestic game has to offer.
“In 2001 when I came to Spain it was the summer Real Madrid bought Zinedine Zidane,” said Lowe as the era of the galáctico moved into top gear. “The interest from David Beckham made a big difference while the importance of the Champions League obliges English fans to take an interest in other countries. The success of Real and Barcelona plus the Spain national team and the crossover of Spanish players into England…a lot of ingredients have come together which, from my point of view, have been ideal.”
Writing a book on any rivalry inevitably leads to accusations of bias, but Lowe’s allegiances are with Real Oviedo of the Spanish second division B. Oviedo was where he was based during the third year of his university degree in 1996/97. As Spanish football gained a growing cult following on Sky Sports, Lowe became a regular contributor to, among others, the Guardian, World Soccer and talkSPORT.
The idea of writing a book on one of the most intriguing and bitter rivalries in world football did not initially appeal to Lowe. He said: “I’ve always tried to champion the other teams in Spain and undermine the dominance of Real and Barcelona. The deciding factor was the run of four clásicos in 18 days [in the spring of 2011] when the impression was these teams had eclipsed everyone else in the world. There was a feeling there could never be anything as big as this again, though since then neither have won the Champions League.
“I grew into the idea of the book, but if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. By that I meant trawling through the archives and interviewing as many people involved with the clubs as possible. I wanted it to have a value for Spaniards as well, not just an English market.”
No one who has read the book, which will be published in Spanish early next year, could doubt Lowe’s research has been anything than thorough, his knowledge of Spanish politics a helpful tool as he explains the restrictions – from a Barça perspective – of the days of the Franco regime to the era of Pep Guardiona and José Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
There are many rivalries in world football based on more than football, Celtic v Rangers the closest to home example, but el clásico is, according to Lowe “everything the other rivalries are and more.” He continued: “Boca Juniors v River Plate may, like el clásico, be the game that dominates Argentina, but they aren’t as big internationally as Real and Barça. Celtic v Rangers has the sectarian, political and social element which el clásico has, but personally I think the feeling between Real and Barça is even greater.
“On top of everything else, Real and Barça are two of the best teams in the world with the two best players, there is the social-political element with a sense of national identification where one is seen as a representative of Spain and the other sees itself and is seen as a representative of Catalonia. No other rivalry has the symbolic charge or the sheer weight of representativeness of Real and Barça.”
It is impossible to understate the importance of el clásico. In the book Lowe writes: “They are two footballing behemoths, eponymous representatives of the two biggest cities in Spain – different cities with different identities, seemingly locked in permanent confrontation, cities whose political and cultural contexts are different. More than just football clubs, these are powerful and democratic institutions. Four national newspapers a day are essentially dedicated to them – two in Madrid, two in Barcelona – and the pressure can be as brutal as the power is seductive.”
The late Sir Bobby Robson, who coached Barcelona, once claimed: “Catalonia is a country and Barcelona is its army.”
The games when Guardiola and Mourinho went head-to-head were classic clásicos. Mourinho’s debut clásico took place back in November 2010 and Madrid were demolished 5-0 at the Camp Nou. Under Guardiola, Barça triumphed in five of the 11 matches, Mourinho’s Real winning twice, one of those in extra-time.
It was a very special mini-era and Lowe said: “I don’t think you could get four games as big as the four clásicos in 18 days which were perfectly set up. There was a La Liga game, then a Copa del Rey final followed by two Champions League semi-finals, at that stage only the third time in history they had met at that stage.
“Guardiola against Mourinho, Messi against Ronaldo…two sets of men who appear to represent their clubs perfectly. As a narrative it was sensational.”
The coaches have gone to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively, but Ronaldo and Messi remain, the latter to the former’s frustration – putting it mildly – invariably pipping the Portugal captain in individual honours and awards.
Ronaldo has been joined by Gareth Bale who should make his clásico debut at Camp Nou on Saturday where the former Tottenham forward will experience a whole new world of rivalry.
Lowe said: “The scrutiny is immense, he will have to become used to every little thing he does being poured over. He will have to be clear in his mind who the media are. By that I mean he will be slaughtered, come what may, by Mundo Deportivo and Sport, the Catalan sports dailies. They will only criticise him in Madrid if he makes mistakes. MARCA and AS are Madrid-supporting papers and if he was to have a good clásico that would give him six months free from pressure.”
Bale has more than football to deal with as his career with Real, which has been interrupted by injury, reaches an early peak on Saturday. Lowe said: “There are things beyond the price tag, the significance of the clubs and the media pressure. He has to settle in Madrid, learn the language, become friends with team-mates and learn the style of football which will be different, not as up-and-down as he’s used to, though Real can be quite a direct side.
“When players leave Spain, how they look back on it can be less to do with how well they have played, but how they enjoyed their time here. Michael Owen was reasonably successful [with Real] but considers it a failure because he never settled. Jonathan Woodgate was very popular and despite all his injuries would tell you he enjoyed his time in Spain. Steve McManaman would say the same, so would Gary Lineker, but Mark Hughes probably wouldn’t.
“Success is important, of course, but there are things less tangible that make you look back with satisfaction.”
*Fear And Loathing In La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe (Yellow Jersey Press, £18.99).