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Friday, Dec. 5, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Barcelona vs. Real Madrid match stirs passions like no other


LONDON -- Sir Bobby Robson called it "a powder keg." It is not so much football rivalry but a chance for political revenge and when the teams last met, among the objects thrown on to the pitch was a pig's head.

Christopher Davies

Welcome to Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, David Beckham.

If the England captain thought he has been there, seen it and done it, he is wrong because when Real plays Barca at the Nou Camp on Saturday evening it will be a whole new experience for Beckham.

The Manchester derby, like most derbies, is essentially about football. Celtic vs. Rangers has religious undertones and probably comes the nearest to a Barca-Real clash, but even the Glasgow derby trails this game for the deep-rooted resentment that goes far further than just football.

Former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, a self-declared Real supporter, persecuted the region of Catalonia because of its resistance to his regime.

Franco banned the Catalan language and the Nou Camp was the only place it could be spoken without fear. Since his death in 1975, almost 30 years after he came to power, Catalans have been able to express their freedom and the most high-profile way has been in the two Primera Liga games against Real, especially when the enemy comes to town.

Barcelona believes, with justification, Real receive disproportionate favors from the government. This view gained credibility when Real was recently given a large, valuable property by the city of Madrid -- which the club used to build a new sports complex -- and the land that was left over was sold back to cover the club's $150 million in debts.

The biggest sin a footballer in Spain can commit is to transfer from one club to the other and Real has two defectors in Luis Figo and Ronaldo (even though the Brazilian arrived via Inter Milan).

Beckham turned down the chance to join Barca last summer, instead becoming the latest galactica on Real's dream team and that is seen in the same light as a transfer between the clubs in Catalan eyes.

Joan Laporta was elected president of Barca partly because he had agreed on a fee for Beckham with Manchester United. However, he had not agreed to a contract with Beckham, who signed with Real instead.

Beckham and Real will not so much be playing a team but the entire Catalan nation -- Barca's motto is "more than a club" while the banner at the Nou Camp "Catalonia is not Spain" is self-explanatory.

Ronaldo has not yet been back to the Nou Camp as a Real player, untimely injuries preventing this.

Figo moved from Barca to Real for $38 million three years ago and in his first game back in the lion's den saw coins, bricks, mobile phones and a bicycle chain thrown on to the pitch as he attempted to take corners.

At last year's "super derby" a pig's head was tossed in Figo's direction (how the thing was smuggled into the stadium in the first place does not really bear thinking about) and the football authorities ordered a two-game closure of the Nou Camp.

Barcelona did not believe it deserved any punishment and a series of appeals has meant the case is still pending one year on.

This time it is Beckham, now Real's corner taker, who will be the easy target -- no wonder Sir Bobby Robson, the Newcastle manager who was in charge at Barca for a season, called it "a game like no other."

Sandro Rosell, Barca's vice president, has said that against Real "fans must whistle politely with elegance" so no doubt as you read this Catalans are perfecting the art of whistling politely and elegantly. And pigs -- or pig's heads -- might fly.

The mid-week derby (just "derby" not "super derby") against Atletico Madrid would have given Beckham some idea of Spanish footballing passion, and while the midfielder said yes, he will take the corners at the Nou Camp and no, he isn't scared, the laid-back stewarding in the stadium does not discourage supporters from being literally spitting mad toward the opposition.

Ronaldinho, the Brazilian who snubbed Manchester United to become the superstar Laporta needed to sign after Beckham's refusal, will miss the game with an injury.

However, even without Ronaldinho, Barcelona can feel confident as history favors the Catalans.

Real has not won in La Liga at the Nou Camp for 20 years, though it did register a 2-0 Champions League semifinal victory two seasons ago.

Gary Lineker is one Englishman who knows the sensation of scoring in a super derby -- "the explosion of noise . . . had there been a roof on the stadium it would have blown off," he said of his goal for Barca against Real in 1986.

Patrick Kluivert, who will lead the Barca attack, said: "It is impossible to express how important a Barcelona-Real game is. For football reasons it is significant, but for matters of regional pride in Spain it is even greater.

"Real broke our hearts when they beat us in the Champions League. We have not beaten them since and it would give me huge pleasure to put that right."

Figo, who maintains that "crossing the divide is not something I regret," had a few words of warning for Beckham. The Portuguese forward said: "There is always a lot of hype surrounding these game, even more so with me because of my history with the two clubs.

"The occasion and level of noise will be something special. I know that in England there are passionate derbies, but I don't think anything will have prepared Beckham for the intensity of when Real plays Barcelona.

"The game is more than football, it is about pride, history and tradition."

Last week Beckham was at Buckingham Palace where he collected his Order of the British Empire from the Queen, whom the player said was "a football fan."

Whether or not Her Majesty will be tuned in to watch the sport's latest OBE in action against Barcelona is unknown, but the tackling and language at the Nou Camp may have even the football-loving Queen asking one of the royal butlers to see if there is something less violent on another channel.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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