Thursday, April 28, 2011

Zoo Time: El Clásico

It was El Clásico on Wednesday night. Again. You couldn't avoid it or the boards that were chalked up outside bars. If there is one Spanish football match that tourists would know about and might want to watch, it is Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The regularity with which the two sides are meeting at present does not diminish the status of the match. Rangers and Celtic may play each other every other week and may also be able to command the attention of far more than just regular football-goers, but they do so because of absurdities far removed from a football pitch.

Barça and Real Madrid are also both an awful lot better than their Glasgow counterparts. They are, along with certain other clubs, such as Manchester United, a fashion item, and not just because of the wearing of a Messi or a Ronaldo shirt. They are football accessory, one to be worn on the chest like a famous brand name, a sporting superficiality for the marketing-manipulated, the johnnies-come-lately of soccer sophistication that brandish boastful awareness of major teams, or worse still, allegiance, as they would brandish a Gucci mark.

When did El Clásico become El Clásico? For the British, at any rate. It never used to be, but now it is, to the extent that Barça and Real merge into one. They are not separate teams, but a combined entity, and it is classic. They are distinguishable only by red and blue and white. Which isn't of course true, but they may as well be.

The marketing of El Clásico has now informed the previously uninformed as to the historical significance of the match and of the two clubs. Barça has long claimed to be more than just a club, but so also is Real Madrid. They are more than just clubs, because the marketing says so.

The classicism of the contest, that which it has now unavoidably assumed, is in the tradition of football puffery, one that Real itself did much to elevate to the heights of hyperbole with its galácticos. Like El Clásico, the term seeped into and then burst out into the consciousness of the distant football fan or nouveau fan, thanks to the compliance of a media that, with the fashionista pretension of a foreign word here or there, granted the match and the two teams an exoticism for the brigades of Roy Keane's prawn-sandwich eaters.

Barça v. Real Madrid has assumed a position of football tourism. Even for the tourist with only passing interest in the game, to be present at El Clásico, in a bar, and especially a Spanish bar, has become an attraction in its own right. It has become de rigueur. The match itself can be unimportant, a largely irrelevant blur of action on a large plasma screen with a commentary that is unintelligible. What is important is the being there. And the being able to say that you had been there.

It may happen that Spanish tourists to England have desires to seek out a pub and sample the atmosphere of a Premier League equivalent, but I somewhat doubt it. Certainly not to the extent that El Clásico would be sought out by a British visitor. But were that Spanish tourist to do so, one would also doubt that there might be quite the same propensity for patronisation, voyeurism, the visit to the zoo; watching the locals wrapped up in the match and smiling inanely and uncomprehendingly at a new best friend who has just exploded as the ball hits a post. "Oh, it was amazing, so passionate, so atmospheric." El Clásico is the new quaint.

But of course, it is passionate. Despite the marketing, despite the pretensions, it does mean a great deal. And there is no Premier League equivalent. Not really. In Scotland, Rangers and Celtic might be, but what it and any major English match does not possess is a quality that makes it culturally correct to be a bar witness not just to the match but also to the natives as they shout, scream and hug each other. And this is the real point about El Clásico. The marketing has reinforced and emphasised its cultural importance. It is more than just a football match, and the clubs are both more than just clubs. The football match as culture.

Any comments to please.

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