Sports, politics & nationalism: the story of 2011's 4 Clásicos in 18 days
Two giants boasting competing ideologies embarked on an 18-day journey in 2011 that would encapsulate their historic rivalry as far more than one made on the green grass and white lines of a football pitch.
Not too long ago in a país that isn’t very far away, the entirety of world football was eclipsed by 18 days of war, ‘La Guerra de los Clásicos’. The world was frozen in place for just under 3 weeks in the spring of 2011 as Barcelona and Real Madrid locked horns on 4 occasions over 3 competitions. Yet, before we get to reminisce on this period of time, we need to delve even further into the history books in order to contextualise it all.
The first confrontation between Barça and Los Blancos can be traced back to the Copa del Rey of 1916, when Real Madrid beat the Catalans 4-2 in a replay of a 6-6 draw. Santiago Bernabéu was on the scoresheet that day as Barcelona’s star player, Paulino Alcántara, later described the game as a defeat that produced “tremendous sadness” in him. He exclaimed “It was the first time that I had cried like a child, such was the terrible and unexpected humiliation.” Over a century later, the rivalry has grown exponentially on a political, sporting and economical scale.
However, fast-forward to Rotterdam, 1997, 5,085 days prior to the first of the four meetings in the 2010/11 season. 36,802 spectators piled into the stands of the Stadion Feijenoord to witness 1997’s edition of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup Final between Barcelona and Pairs-Saint-Germain. The three-time winners from Catalunya and the holders from the French capital contested a competitive affair and only a first-half Ronaldo Nazário penalty that was thumped down the middle could separate the two sides. Pep Guardiola marshalled the centre of the park alongside Romanian defender Gheorghe Popescu that day and José Mourinho was a part of the backroom staff, one of the closest to the manager, Sir Bobby Robson. Following this win, a young Pep pointed at Mourinho before embracing him tightly, a perspicuous contrast to what would transpire a couple of decades later.
Pep and José shared a strong relationship, spending a lot of time together at Barcelona due to their similar analytical, erudite and idiosyncratic characters. However, as time progressed, life took the pair away from each other and since their days together at Barça, they have sat in opposite dugouts on a number of occasions, more recently in the English Premier League, but most notably at either end of one of the fiercest rivalries in world football.
José Mourinho arrived back in Spain ahead of the 2010/11 season, but this time boasting the outfit of white and gold, and they started the campaign flying. Out of an available 36 points, Real Madrid were able to attain 32 and going into the November clásico, they had just breezed past Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Club 5-1. Despite all of these factors, proceedings didn’t exactly satisfy the plan that many may have expected as Barcelona hit Madrid for 5 in what a lot of people deem the greatest performance in the club’s history. Ramos saw red during injury time, topping off the total of 8 different Real Madrid players receiving a booking, which would really epitomise Mourinho’s reign in Madrid. Jerzy Dudek, back-up goalkeeper to Iker Casillas, later took to the media to recall “after the match, in the locker room, there was total chaos. Some of us were crying, some were arguing, some were just looking at the floor.”
“Then Mourinho came in. He knew how bad it was, but he looked at us and said, ‘I know this hurts you. Perhaps for most of you, it’s the worst loss of your entire career. They are happy now and seem to have won the championship, but they have only won one game. This is just the beginning. There is still a long way to get to the title. Tomorrow, I will give you the day off, but do not stay in your houses. Go with your families, children or friends for a walk around the city. Let people see that you can overcome this. Perhaps people talk about the significance of this defeat but do not hide behind it. You must show your balls. After this defeat, we must fight for the title.’”
Six long months separated the famous 5-0 and the first of the four battles in early 2011. Barcelona were 8 points better off than Madrid going into this fixture and Los Blancos needed the win in order to narrow the gap on Barça and keep alive their chances of lifting the LaLiga title come the season’s culmination. José Mourinho held an impressive 150-game unbeaten record at home prior to the visit of Sporting Gijón a fortnight before the clásico, ending in a 1-0 defeat for Los Merengues. This particular result or the haunting memory of a certain 5-0 thrashing seemed to pray on the mind of the Portuguese manager as one of the primary talking points that the world took from this game is how Mourinho initially set up. The reverse fixture earlier on in the season saw Mesut Özil receive the nod in the centre of the park, but the substitutes bench beckoned at the Bernabéu for young Mesut as his manager decided to line up with Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira in the Spanish capital.
The game’s first foul occurred within the opening 10 seconds when Busquets dribbled beyond Benzema and the Frenchman decided to get stuck in early. The first half was surprisingly vapid, but David Villa and Iker Casillas provided the world with a penalty debate that would divide opinions for years to come. Villa would be down again in the second half but this time around, César Muñiz Fernández would point to the spot following a last-man challenge by Raúl Albiol that concluded with the Valencian defender seeing red, reducing his team to 10. Messi netted the ensuing penalty, but Barça failed to convert the many chances that the second half would provide, punishing them late on when Cristiano Ronaldo scored a penalty of his own after Dani Alves took down Marcelo in the box.
The chance of domestic triumph had basically diminished as Barcelona were allowed to maintain their 8-point advantage at the head of LaLiga and the press were quick to cast their blames upon the man that resides within the Real Madrid dugout. Mourinho’s negative tactical approach to the perceived surrender of the league audibly had its critics, but Mourinho was able to use the point as a foundation to build upon with a long 17 more days to come.
Four days later the critics were fuelled further by Mourinho’s team selection as the defensive-midfield trio of Pepe, Alonso and Khedira returned to the starting line-up, but this time in the neutral venue of Mestalla. Özil was reinstated into the starting XI in unexpected fashion as he found himself replacing Karim Benzema in the front-three. The Copa del Rey final edition of the clásico completely conformed to the desires of Mourinho as it took 102 minutes for either team to blink. Alves failed to eradicate the threat that Di Maria was imposing as the Argentinian whipped an inch-perfect cross to Ronaldo, who characteristically thumped a towering header beyond Pinto. The first Copa del Rey trophy to enter Real Madrid’s trophy cabinet since 1993 definitely meant a lot to the club and supporters given the period of war that they found themselves in, but it didn’t stop Sergio Ramos from famously dropping the piece of silverware under the bus during the parade.
At this point, the antics that were performed at the press conferences in the build-up to the first leg of the Champions League tie between these two eternal rivals took centre stage. One point of contention: Pedro’s axe goal during the Copa del Rey final. It led to a chronological chain reaction of events that would materialize off the pitch in the days following the final. The goal was correctly ruled out as Pedro was very marginally in an offside position and Guardiola was only pointing this out, but not in the eyes of Mourinho.
“A new era has begun. Until now there were two groups of coaches. One very, very small group of coaches that don’t talk about the referees and then a large group of coaches, of which I am part, who criticise the refs when they make mistakes – people like me who do not control their frustration but also people who are happy to value a great job from a ref”.
“Now there is a third group, which is only Guardiola, that criticises referees when they get the decisions right. Now there is a new meaning to football, in his first season Guardiola lived the scandal of Stamford Bridge in the semi-final, last year he played against a 10-man Inter. Now he is not happy with refs getting it right. I am not asking the referee to help my team. If the referee is good, everybody will be happy, except Pep. He wants them to get them wrong”.
That’s what José Mourinho said, verbatim, in response to Pep’s comments about the decision in the Copa del Rey. What followed was one of the most unexpected, explosive and insane press conferences in the history of football. Pep had always refrained from these sorts of detonations, but he eventually was broken by José albeit in his own, relatively detained and punctilious way.
“Tomorrow at 8:45 we will play a match on the field. Outside of the field, he has won, he has won for the entire year, the entire season and also in the future. He can have his personal Champions League outside of the field, fine. Let him enjoy it, I’ll give him that, but this is a game. When it comes to sport, we will play and sometimes we will win, sometimes we will lose. We are happy with smaller victories, trying to get the world to admire us, and we are very proud of this.”
“I can give you an immense number of things in which we can complain about, 300-thousand things. We could remember Stamford Bridge and another thousand things, but I do not have that many people working for me. Secretaries, referees and people writing things. So tomorrow, 8:45pm, we will take to the field, and we will try to play football as best as possible.”
“In this room, he is the chief, he is the f*cking boss. In here he is the f*cking man, and I can’t compete with him. If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager. But we, as people and an institution, don’t do that. I could talk about Bequerenca [the referee from the 2010 Champions League semi-final against Inter], about the offside goal from Diego Milito or the penalty of Dani Alves, but I don’t. Well, until tonight. If you think after three years that I always moan, always make excuses and always complain, then there is nothing I can do about that.”
“We worked together for four years, he knows me, I know him and that’s all. If he wants to go by things written after the Copa del Rey by friends from the written press or Florentino Pérez, with his milkmaid’s tales, then fine. If that matters more than our relationship, then that’s up to him, I am not going to justify my words. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when someone that you had a relationship with does what he has done. I always thought that when people didn’t understand me, it was because I had explained myself badly, but now I don’t.”
“I said that the referee (in the Copa del Rey final) had been very smart and attentive. I said that it was right. I pointed out simply that the result can be down to small things, that’s all. It was not a complaint. After their victory, I congratulated Real Madrid and that is what Barça does. We applauded Real Madrid for the cup that they won on the field against a team that I proudly represent.”
One can argue that, in hindsight, the outburst boiled down to the mental strain that Guardiola was experiencing, which progressed in tandem with the season, but it seemed like a masterstroke in its immediacy. The Barcelona team at the time have since described the reaction to the Guardiola explosion; he received a round of applause as he entered the room at the team hotel.
Mourinho was faced with the injury of Khedira and the suspension of Ricardo Carvalho, but that didn’t stop the Portuguese from continuing with the formation that consisted of 3 defensive midfielders, but this time Lassana Diarra partnered Alonso and Pepe. Özil was again named alongside Ronaldo and Di Maria while Iniesta missed out due to an injury and Puyol slotted in at right-back for the visitors.
The first half saw no goals, but it was feisty, and that atmosphere filtered into the tunnel at half-time as Pinto was punished for causing a heated situation on the way to the dressing rooms. It took 15 minutes of play during the second period for a player to see red as Pepe was dismissed for a high challenge on Alves despite the Brazilian receiving little to no contact. Mourinho had to get involved as well though, didn’t he? The Real Madrid manager sarcastically clapped his hands at Alves and taunted the fourth official with further aggressive, sarcastic gestures, leading to his expulsion too. Comical stuff.
Now we get to the tasty bit. Guardiola’s options from the bench were stark and Dutch winger Ibrahim Afellay was Pep’s first change against a numerically weakened Madrid. Yet it took 5 minutes for the Dutchman to define his career in a matter of seconds as he skipped beyond an onrushing Marcelo and lifted the ball into the 6-yard-box for a certain little Argentine that goes by the name of Lionel Messi to tap home from close range.
16 minutes later, that little Argentine cemented his place among the best players in the history of the beautiful game with 10 seconds of play that nobody will ever recreate. Messi turned halfway through the Real Madrid half and slid it to Busquets, who casually rolled it back to him with a pass that he jokingly described as “putting it on a plate for Messi” during the creation of Graham Hunter’s ‘Take the ball, Pass the Ball’ documentary. It’s almost as if he thought “Ah, it’s Messi” and he was right to do so if that was the case, as Leo proceeded to take it past Alonso and Diarra in the blink of an eye before cutting through Marcelo, Ramos and Albiol like a hot knife through butter. Before Casillas could react, the ball was already nestling in the back of net and Messi was already closer to the corner flag, wheeling away in celebration. Speaking of Iker, his reaction to goal was perfectly fitting following one of the best goals of all time, as he jumped to his feet and slowly looked around at his team with his arms out and mouth wide open, trying to process what had just happened.
Post-match was no different to half-time as more drama emerged from the depths of the Bernabéu, but Ian Hawkey was able to witness a touching moment between two friends as “Pique gently and unostentatiously gave Casillas a pat on the back while he went past. The goalkeeper was doing a radio interview and the small interaction reminded you that despite they’d had been obliged to put on these masks of venom – and certainly in Pique’s case provocation – that there was still that relationship there. A reassurance that all of the toxicity between the managers isn’t going to completely undermine what we have done together.”
After the result, Mourinho let out 3 years’ worth of pent-up anger in another unforgettable press conference “If I tell UEFA what I really think and feel, my career would end now. Instead, I will just ask a question to which I hope one day to get a response. Why? Why? Why Ovrebo? Why Busacca? Why De Bleeckere? Why Stark? Why? Because every semi-final the same things happen. We are talking about an absolutely fantastic football team, so why do they need that? Why? Why does a team as good as they are need some extra that is so obvious that everybody sees it?”
“It could have been 0-0 tonight, but then suddenly we are down to 10 men, and they have a free path to find solutions that they could not find before then; we could have played for three hours and they would not have scored, but today we have seen that it is not difficult, it is impossible. The question is why? I don’t know if it is the UNICEF sponsorship or if it because they are perceived as nice guys. I don’t understand. Congratulations to Barcelona on being a great team and congratulations for all the other stuff you have which must be very hard to achieve. They have power and we have no chance. Chelsea had bans for Drogba and Bosingwa; Wenger and Nasri were banned for Arsenal; me today. I don’t know why. All I can do is leave that question here in the air and hope that one day I will get the response. They have to get to the final and they will get there, full stop.”
“We will go there with pride and respect for football. It is a world that sometimes disgusts me to live in and earn a living from, but it is my world. We have to go there without Pepe, who didn’t do anything, without Ramos, who didn’t do anything, without a coach who cannot be on the bench. It is impossible, and if we score a goal and open up the tie a little, they will just kill it again. Tonight, we have seen that we don’t have a chance”.
Mourinho should’ve held his tongue because those comments earned the Portuguese a hefty €50,000 fine and a five-match ban, courtesy of UEFA. Real Madrid also released a video accusing Busquets of calling Marcelo a ‘mono’ (monkey) while covering his hand, but Guardiola denied the allegations and UEFA did not pursue the case due to a ‘lack of strong and convincing evidence.’
Six days had passed, and Los Blancos had made the 600km trip across Spain to try and do what Mourinho said they couldn’t. José chose to view the game from the team’s hotel as there had been no agreement between the two clubs about where he would be situated in the Camp Nou. With nothing to lose, Madrid opted to make use of Kaká as their shape transformed into a 4-2-3-1 led by Higuaín. Out of the four games, this one was the most exciting as Barça were mercilessly attacking Real Madrid. 12 shots were registered from a Barcelona perspective, with Messi contributing half of them, while Ronaldo couldn’t manage one.
Gonzalo Higuaín thought that he had given his team a lifeline seconds into the second half, but it was disallowed by referee Frank De Bleeckere. Things just got worse for Madrid as within 10 minutes Pedro latched onto a fizzing pass from Iniesta and slammed the ball home to put the tie out of reach for Real Madrid. Marcelo was able to get one back for Los Merengues after Di Maria had shaken the post, but they failed to push it any further beyond that point. The final whistle blew to mark the end of the game, the tie and the war and the sold-out Camp Nou stands erupted into fierce and collective applause as their players remained in the centre circle, dancing and celebrating in joyous and euphoric fashion. Finally, it was all over.
They say all good things come to an end, but this rivalry will never cease to dominate world football, even if there aren’t 4 games in the space of 18 days. Less than 4 months later, the two met again in the Spanish Super Cup and the animosity had far from subsided. During stoppage time in the second leg, Marcelo tore Fábregas down to the grass directly in front of the dugouts and all hell broke loose. Marcelo saw red and another melée was instigated, galvanising Mourinho to jab a finger into the eye of Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova and smirking as he was pushed away from the scene.
In 2021 the landscape is a lot different; Barcelona and Real Madrid are no longer domineering figures that are front-runners for LaLiga and Champions League success, and both of their projects are very much centred around the future, but that doesn’t mean that the clásico on Sunday won’t be a thriller. As with every other meeting between the two, expect bookings, expect goals, expect emotion and expect entertainment. As we reminisce one last time on the 18 days of early 2011, it was for them, the best of times, and also the worst of times. Neither club came off unscathed and that period in history will go down in sports history for centuries to come.
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