Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid
By Sid Lowe
Yellow Press, 2013
With Atletico Madrid winning La Liga this year you can forgive Sid Lowe for finding their success a bit of a nuisance. Having written about the rivalry of the second and third-placed teams, he recently tweeted, tongue firmly in cheek, that his book was ‘pointless bollocks’. Fear and Loathing in La Ligais in fact neither pointless nor bollocks, especially after Real Madrid’s ‘La Decima’ triumph in Europe. Instead it’s an informative, engaging, and enjoyable look at what remain Spain’s two biggest clubs. The success of Atleti this year has been astonishing, and their efforts in breaking the Barca-Real duopoly only further highlight the dominance of the big two in the past decade and throughout the history of the Spanish game. Atletico are still a long way behind as the third most successful team in the history of the Spanish league, winning only their 10th title compared with Barcelona’s 22 and Real’s 32. The last nine winners of the Ballon d’Or plied their trade at these two giants, and they are the two clubs with the most Champions League trophies since the competition’s rebranding in 1992. Individually, Barcelona and Real Madrid are both European giants; but as enemies, they’re the most famous clubs in the world.
From the start Lowe is keen to highlight the complexity of the rivalry, dismissing the common-held dichotomies: Madrid bad, Barca good, Madrid facists, Barca freedom fighters. Dealing with the common accusation that Madrid were Franco’s team, for example, Lowe points out that the city of Madrid suffered greatly through, and as a consequence of, the Second World War, and that the club that emerged was weak and failed to win a single league title in the first 15 years of Franco’s dictatorship. Not that Barca’s ‘victim complex’ is without some foundation; the controversial 11-1 Copa del Generalissimo defeat in 1943 is explored in detail, and the sole surviving member of the Barca team from that day tracked down and interviewed about the military intimidation. Lowe’s considered argument is that the establishment’s support of Madrid was a result of their success rather than the cause of it. A government seeking international recognition needed popular representatives and Real with their five consecutive European Cup victories in the late 1950s embraced their role as ‘the best embassy Spain had’. This level of balanced analysis is found throughout Fear and Loathing, as Lowe sifts through the mass of myth and folklore.
The rivalry – and thus the book itself – is also full of interesting parallels and contrasts. Both clubs lost their Civil War-era presidents to the Republican cause but whereas Barca’s Josep Sunyol became a martyr figure, Real’s Rafael Sanchez Guerra is largely forgotten. Barca’s ill-fated appointment of the original ‘Special One’, Helenio Herrera, to break Real Madrid’s dominance, is mirrored fifty years later by Jose Mourinho’s unsuccessful attempt to oust Guardiola’s Barcelona. In the transfer market, the constant attempts to outdo each other turn out to be nothing new. For Neymar and Gareth Bale in 2013, think the likes of László Kubala and Alfredo Di Stéfano in the 1950s. If anything, the rivalry is less hostile today; the Spanish government was forced to intervene in the Di Stéfano saga.
In amongst these stories, the sheer breadth and depth of research is plain to see. Lowe, an historian by trade, trawls the archives to uncover fascinating documents about the Di Stefano transfer and Sunyol’s death. He also gains unprecedented access to many of the protagonists in each club’s story – Zidane, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Iniesta, Joan Laporta, and best of all Figo, who offers a very interesting insight into his (in)famous transfer between the two clubs. Lowe has stated that he had to trim about a third of his original draft for the book and that would certainly explain the sparse references to greats such as Maradona, Henry and Gravesen. Here’s hoping for a director’s cut to further the education.
All in all, Fear and Loathing is a great achievement and a very worthy addition to the Spanish football canon. It’s accessible and full of facts and anecdotes that will be new to even the most knowledgeable of football fans. One often gets the sense from reading Lowe’s articles and listening to his contributions on The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcasts that he tires of reporting on these two Spanish giants but that doesn’t come across in this book at all. The Michu epigraph – ‘Barcelona or Madrid? Oviedo’ – highlights Lowe’s awareness that though this rivalry does dominate Spanish football, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Though hopes of a book about Getafe and Valladolid’s rivalry are slim, one does hope that we see another Sid Lowe masterpiece in the not too distant future.