El Clasico: Barcelona v Real Madrid
Global exposure for Barcelona and Real Madrid is at an all-time high and interest levels are rising with each new twist their unique rivalry provides. Whether it is the juxtaposition of figureheads Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the tactical battles in the dugout or the catalogue of sub-plots that stalk each of these footballing institutions, there is little doubt that this relationship captivates audiences like no other.
In recent seasons the feud has been amplified and intensified. Pep Guardiola's all-conquering team captured the public's imagination while Jose Mourinho's arrival as the 'bad guy' tasked with taking Pep's crown only added to the drama. Meanwhile, the increasing number of Clasicos, occurring not just domestically but frequently in European competition, have taken the clash to a whole new level, with Eidur Gudjohnsen comparing the build-up to that of a "World Cup final".
Therefore, when I was given the opportunity to review Richard Fitzpatrick's book El Clasico, I assumed it would be a contemporary profile of Barca and Real's dominance. In fact, it goes quite a bit deeper than that, explaining the origins of a fraught and fractious history to produce, as it is described on the cover, 'Football's Greatest Rivalry'.
Fitzpatrick writes that "the origins of the Barca-Madrid rivalry stretch back centuries" and in El Clasico he examines the political and cultural tensions between the two cities and what they represent on the pitch, but more interestingly off it. Charting a timeline through history to the modern day, he analyses the significance of flashpoints such as Franco's abolition of the Catalan language, the arrival of Johan Cruyff in 1973 - a player who went from being a poster boy of the rebel culture at the football club to one of the most important figures in its modern history - and the lukewarm reaction from Catalans when Spain retained their European Championship title in 2012.
An effort is also made to delve into the often unreported sides of present-day Barca and Real. Sections are dedicated to their influential hooligan groups - the Boixos Nois and Ultras Sur - and the role they play in the identity of the clubs; the different attitude to fandom in Spain that sees few fans travel to away games; and the reasoning behind Real's preference for Galacticos and Barca's development of homegrown players through La Masia.
Fitzpatrick, a journalist for the Irish Times, El Pais and the New York Times, does a fine job, drawing on experts, authors, historians, filmmakers, eye-witnesses, fans, ex-players and managers to enrich the narrative with insight and opinion while remaining impartial himself.
Gudjohnsen, for instance, has first-hand knowledge of the inner sanctums of modern Barcelona as well as experience of Mourinho's managerial techniques from his time under the Portuguese at Chelsea, while Steve McManaman reveals that Luis Figo was "unteasable" in the Bernabeu dressing room and explains the real reason Florentino Perez obsessed over stockpiling Galacticos; it all helps to enhance the mystique and intrigue that make the clubs the forces they are.
The landscape of the Clasico may be changing - the Guardiola era has passed at Camp Nou, while, in Madrid, Mourinho appears to be acting out his final scenes before an inevitable parting of the ways in the summer - but the rich, shared history of Barcelona and Real Madrid makes El Clasico a great companion to European football's premier fixture.