Tomorrow, as seemingly always, Madrid and Barcelona will face off with the fate of Spain hanging in the balance. This time, though, the Madrid side is Atletico, not Real. Atletico have upended the status quo, and they sit on the verge of cementing their special season with silverware. Their year has been so much fun for outsiders like me because we are so used to seeing Spain dominated by Barca and Real. El Clasico is the subject of Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga, which traces the history of “the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry” on and, even more commonly, off, the pitch.
At more than 400 pages, you get a sense for the scale of it all, and Lowe doesn’t skimp anywhere, though he focuses on periods where the flames burned hottest. Seemingly everyone who has shaped the rivalry is interviewed in the book, from 87-year-old Alfredo Di Stefano, who some say created the rivalry when he went to Real in the ’50s, to more modern characters such as Luis Figo and Xavi.
Real-Barca of course extends far beyond simple soccer. Lowe isn’t afraid to delve into the politics, but he does so with the eye of a skeptic. Often he debunks some of the myths that surround the rivalry, like the notion that Real is somehow a fascist team, Franco’s team. He acknowledges that this is the common belief, but it comes from outside the club, rather than within. Madridistas see the club as apolitical, a fact which just tends to favor the status quo. Real’s success and location in the Spanish capital have made them a useful vehicle for whoever has been in power in Spain, be it Franco or recent democratic regimes. But success on the pitch comes first and foremost. As Lowe puts it:
“It is an exaggeration but it is tempting to suggest that if Madrid and Barcelona sought to explain what they were in two books, one would be large, page after page of story and anecdote and meaning, layer upon layer explaining what Barcelona are. The other, Madrid’s book, would contain a single page. There would be no words: just a photo of the European Cup.”
It is no small task to challenge popular perception, especially on a subject so heated, but Lowe and the massive amounts of research he’s done lend his words authority. You can tell when he wants to make a point, when the mythology is simply false, and he does a wonderful job of clearing the fog of history. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Lowe and his book is that, when I finished reading, I couldn’t come up with a question that still needed answering.