El Clasico Fails to Catch Fire Amid Night of Rioting

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 19, 2019

A man takes photos of fires that burn toward the end of a Catalan pro-independence protest outside the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Thousands of Catalan separatists protested around and inside Barcelona's Camp Nou Stadium during Wednesday's match against fierce rival Real Madrid. (AP Photo/Joan Mateu)
Joan Mateu/Associated Press

As Barcelona's match against Real Madrid drew to a close last night at the Camp Nou, the unmistakable smell of burning wafted through the air. The game—which finished 0-0—failed to catch fire, but outside the ground, bonfires continued to blaze past midnight along Travessera de les Corts, the street that runs along the south end of the Camp Nou.

It was an eventful day in the history of El Clasico. Barcelona still edge their eternal rivals—with 96 wins, one more than Real Madrid—since their first encounter in 1902, but all the talk was about the action off the pitch.

The game was originally scheduled for October 26. The protesting, however, that followed the sentencing of nine Catalan separatist politicians and civic leaders for sedition, and which ground Barcelona airport to a halt and convulsed the city in street rioting, led Spain's football authorities to postpone the match.

Nerves were frayed in the run-up to the rescheduled game (with the fear that the Camp Nou would be shut for two years if a pitch invasion happened). Tsunami Democratic, a digital protest platform that was behind the temporary paralysis of Barcelona airport, set about orchestrating a demonstration that would catch the eyes of the 600 million people watching the match.

A few hours before kick-off, Catalan separatist protesters peacefully converged at four points outside the stadium, singing, standing around or sitting on the street, playing cards. The group stationed at the corner of the Princess Sofia Hotel—where both teams were billeted at during the day—set off on a march towards the stadium.

As they ambled along, chanting "Libertat presos politicos (free political prisoners)", they passed a bank of police vans along the pavement, an unfamiliar presence for fans used to taking the last stretch of walkway down towards the Camp Nou on matchday.

Things turned ugly 15 minutes before the game started when the Boixos Nois (Barcelona's far-right hooligan brigade, which former president Joan Laporta banished from the Camp Nou back in 2003) clashed with left-wing Catalan independence protesters along Travessera de les Corts. "Nazis get out of our neighbourhood!" the protestors screamed amid the blows.

Scenes in Barcelona on El Clasico night
Scenes in Barcelona on El Clasico nightFelipe Dana/Associated Press

According to El Pais, security staff at the ground confiscated paper hats, balloons, even a bicycle pump hidden within the folds of a bocadillo sandwich as part of Tsunami Democratic's plan to rain beach balls down on the pitch in the second half of the game, and some of the 100,000 blue paper placards Tsunami Democratic printed and handed out with the message: "Spain sit and talk! #TsunamiDemocratic." (There is an ongoing campaign in Catalonia to persuade Spain's acting government under Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to negotiate with Catalan separatists.)

As the match progressed, rioting continued outside the ground. Barricades were set up with large, six-foot-high refuse bins, which were set alight. It was reported that a Molotov cocktail was hurled at one police cordon. Police baton-charged masked protestors. According to La Vanguardia, a group stormed the stadium, trying to break through one of the Camp Nou's access gates. At the time of writing, 64 people were injured during the skirmishes, including 39 police officers.

Inside the stadium, as the whirr of police helicopters flying overhead persisted, Barcelona and Real Madrid slugged it out, like two heavyweight boxers trading blows but failing to land a knockout punch. It was the first Clasico to end scoreless since the infamous game in 2002 when a Barca fan launched a pig's head at Real Madrid's Luis Figo (a former Barcelona star and, in their eyes, a traitor), and only the ninth 0-0 in the history of the tie.  

The front page of Diario AS, which is one of two Madrid-based sports newspapers, featured a picture of Barcelona's Clement Lenglet digging his boot into the leg of Real Madrid's Raphael Varane over the headline: "White Tsunami Without Goal[s] and Without [favourable intervention by] VAR." Inside its pages, it went into detail about the two "clear" penalties not given for fouls on Varane, while both Marca and Diario AS featured a picture of Varane's gashed leg that the player released on social media after the game.

Diario AS @diarioas

🗞️ Esta es la #PortadaAS de este jueves 19 de diciembre de 2019 📰 Tsunami blanco sin gol y sin VAR https://t.co/W9gmohXeR0

The manner in which Real Madrid's midfield overran Barcelona was the standout feature of the game. The performance of Fede Valverde, who has been Real Madrid's breakout player this season, was widely applauded by the Spanish media, and in particular his duel with one of Barcelona's big summer purchases, Frenkie de Jong.

All five of some of Spain's biggest newspapers covering the game, including three Barcelona-based papers, gave Valverde a higher rating: El Periodico (7-6), Marca (2-1), Diario AS (3-1), Mundo Deportivo (3-2) and Diario Sport (7-5). They applauded the young Uruguayan for being the first to defend and the first to attack for Real Madrid; "another exhibition from a total footballer," cooed Jose Felix Diaz in Marca

Valverde was ably assisted by Casemiro in the middle of the park. The Brazilian fixer was the only player in Marca's ratings to merit three stars. Interestingly, the Catalan paper Mundo Deportivo focused on the re-emergence of Isco, who was playing as a roving playmaker at the top of Real Madrid's midfield diamond. Reporter Manuel Bruna described him as Zinedine Zidane's "secret weapon" and the player capable of "disarming" defences.

Isco is the beneficiary of one of several brave moves made by Zidane since his return as head coach in March. The French manager has resurrected the Spaniard's career, along with that of Marcelo, who was out injured last night, and Toni Kroos. Zidane has started Isco in the team's big games this season, including a gala performance against Paris Saint-Germain at the Bernabeu in the UEFA Champions League and a gritty 1-1 draw last weekend at Valencia.

The story of Barcelona's insipid performance lies in the embers of a shambolic midfield display. Sergio Busquets pulled out before kick-off with a bout of flu, although several Spanish pundits claimed the illness was a convenient excuse for Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde to drop him.

Wistfully described in Ramon Besa's match report for El Pais as "the philosopher's stone of Barca's football," his absence was a clear signal that Barcelona can no longer dominate possession in games, a fact that was made all the more poignant because Thursday is the 10th anniversary of Barcelona's unique feat in winning six trophies in a single year under Pep Guardiola.

Apart from some gallant defending by Lenglet and Gerard Pique—who, incidentally, was the subject of a new piece of graffiti unveiled earlier in the week along Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia by iconic street artist TvBoy, which shows Pique passionately kissing Real Madrid's other great leader, Sergio Ramos, to symbolise the need for Catalonia and the rest of Spain to come together—Barca again were reduced to hoping for some Leo Messi magic to get them out of a fix.  

Valverde got the better of De Jong in the eyes of the media.
Valverde got the better of De Jong in the eyes of the media.Pablo Morano/MB Media/Getty Images

Messi, who is joint-top scorer and joint-top assist provider in La Liga despite having missed almost a third of the season so far through injury, helped create Barcelona's one gilt-edged opportunity shortly before half-time, when he lofted a sublime pass over Real Madrid's defence into the path of Jordi Alba, who squandered the chance of scoring.

Writing in Diario AS, Alfredo Relano, the newspaper's honorary president, summed it up when he declared: "With respect to Barcelona, we know that they are Messi and 10 more. If Messi doesn't show up, we're left with the other 10, who, on this occasion, didn't have enough to trouble Real Madrid."

Relano concluded that a draw was as good as a victory for Real Madrid—going to Barcelona's stadium, playing against a team it hasn't defeated in six previous league encounters and dominating them, in particular in the midfield battle that is such an important ideological zone for Barca. All they lacked was a goal, or, as Relano put it, someone to partner the underrated Karim Benzema.  

Perhaps it was significant that buried on page 43 of Marca was an article headlined "'Air' Cristiano," an account of Ronaldo's continuing lust for goals. Last night, he scored another incredible header against Sampdoria, a remarkable feat of athleticism for a man who turns 35 in February. The strike helped Juventus to a 2-1 win and was his sixth goal in five games.

It's almost a year-and-a-half since he left Real Madrid, having scored 450 goals in nine glorious seasons. How they could have done with one of his goals to break the stalemate last night.


Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz