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Sep 2, 2011

Trouble in paradise

My first, already fading, memories of a Real Madrid-Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu go back to December 1990. After a long history of failed efforts, a bunch of friends and myself finally managed to get tickets to watch the two giants face to face live. It was the second leg of that season's Supercopa, and even though the tournament was perceived as second-rate when compared to La Liga or the old European Cup, the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic.

Fired up by that exciting feeling that only first-timers experience, my mates and I had a terrific time yelling, screaming and insulting left, right and centre, all this fun capped with an amazing final goal from Santi Aragon, who scored from midfield to complete Real Madrid's 4-1 victory.

But more than Aragon's masterpiece, what remained from that match among all of us was the distinctive feeling that the Bernabeu suffered a striking metamorphosis when Barcelona were its guest - even more shocking live than it already seemed on TV. The usually reserved socios became foul-mouthed monsters, while the happy and festive gallinero -the working class stands, nowadays a much more well-behaved bourgeois meeting point - morphed into a screaming, tireless sea of heads and white scarves.

For the best part of the following 20 years, the Bernabéu kept rising up to the occasion in almost every derby, regardless of who the best team were that season or how the teams fared in La Liga's table.

However, during the last few years of the noughties, an unexpected series of events took some steam out of the clasicos. First, the national team, under the firm though controversial hand of Luis Aragonés, started winning matches and then even trophies. The Wise Man from Hortaleza defined a brand-new tactical design for the Team Formerly Known as The Armada, right after getting rid of a few long-time squad members who allegedly polarised the internal atmosphere more than was appropriate.

This suddenly consistent national side conquered Euro 2008 with a combination of players from Barcelona, Valencia, Villarreal and Real Madrid, and they developed extremely close bonds during the tournament. Some of them - such as David Villa, Raul Albiol or Xabi Alonso - ended up playing for one of the two Spanish giants.

Almost coincidentally, Pep Guardiola took over the reins at Barcelona, sparking a run of unprecedented success, not only in most tournaments but specifically in the Azulgrana's head-to-head confrontations with Real Madrid. No matter the identity of the opposing coach - Bernd Schuster, Juande Ramos or Manuel Pellegrini - for two and a half seasons, Guardiola's Barcelona defeated Real Madrid time and again.

For the old timers, this frustrating sequence of defeats appeared barely more shocking than the way these matches finished: the players of both teams talking amiably while they left the pitch, good friends used to winning together with Spain and now sharing their thoughts on a match in which they happened to play in opposing sides.

After the last defeat of the Manuel Pellegrini era - Barcelona's extremely comfortable 2-0 win at the Bernabeu - I clearly remember Jose Antonio, a usually well-mannered gentleman, complaining about the apparent lack of spirit of the Madridistas when facing their arch rivals: "They should at least foul them hard once or twice. It's disgusting. It looks like they're ready to roll over and die."

Fast forward to August 2011. Jose Antonio may not be happy with his team's results, but at least he's not complaining over the lack of hard fouls or the problems caused by the friendships between players of both teams. The arrival of a certain Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2010 not only recovered the antagonism between the troops but took it to a level of extreme tension that most fans didn't even remember.

The national team indeed felt the consequences of this energetic renewal of the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry. The four consecutive derbies at the tail-end of last season, overhyped and played in an extremely charged atmosphere, have taken their toll in the hitherto successful and harmonious squad. David Villa and Alvaro Arbeloa barely speak to each other after their fight during the Copa del Rey final. Despite Sergio Ramos' efforts during Spain's summer tour, most Real Madrid players still refuse to accept Gerard Pique as one of their own team-mates in the national side. Xavi Hernandez still can't come to terms with the fact that Villa, his protege for both Barcelona and Spain, has suffered several dangerous fouls at the hands of his fellow Spain internationals when they have donned the Real Madrid shirt.

Although the summer tour seemed to have calmed the waters to some extent, the Supercopa final then stirred things up again brutally. Marcelo's challenge on Cesc Fabregas at the end of the match and the subsequent bench-clearing brawl only heightened the ill feeling among the internationals from both teams. Skipper Iker Casillas, initially incensed by what he thought was another instance of diving from Barcelona, re-watched the match, reflected on Marcelo's tackle and decided to call a truce by talking with Xavi and Carles Puyol. That he decided to leak these exchanges to the press got him in trouble with his coach and Real Madrid's media department, but it proved that someone finally had realised the risk of failing to deal with this abnormal level of tension between players on the same national team.

Spain are now in Saint Gallen in Switzerland, where they will face Chile on Friday evening. All reports seem to agree that there is a much better atmosphere and a lighter, more upbeat interaction between Madridistas and Barcelonistas, after several sets of talks between Xavi and Casillas. Hopefully this friendly match and the subsequent Euro 2012 qualifier against Liechtenstein will serve to recover a sizeable part of the chemistry among the world champions. I'm sure that not even Jose Antonio believes that regaining the excitement of the old Clasicos is worth wasting the best generation of footballers to ever play for Spain.

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