Book review: Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s Spanish football expert, takes a look at one of football’s fieriest rivalries through the lenses of the history of modern Spain.

In Depth: Published in 2013, arguably at its recent and super-charged height, Sid Lowe charts the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona from its deep beginnings in early 20th century Spain.

The book starts with a short history of the clubs and Spain. It identifies the widespread assumption that Real Madrid represent the centralised Spanish State. This comes from its Royal (so therefore Real) patronage as well as its historical association with the Francoist dictatorship. On the other side of the rivalry stands Barcelona, the chief outpost of the Republic and victim of the Spanish Civil War, with its passionately defended Catalonian identity. Although instantly recognisable, and the basis of this book, Lowe quickly challenges this distinction and argues persuasively that the Spanish Civil War was a much more complex conflict, particularly in its relation to these two clubs.

Challenging the historiography of the period, something you wouldn’t expect of a book primarily about football, Lowe outlines how the city of Madrid, as much as Barcelona, suffered at the hands of the Spanish Civil War. Presenting the conflict as Franco/Spain vs the Republic/Catalonia, and ergo Madrid vs Barca, is therefore too simplistic. This is also a product of decades of bitter rivalry between these clubs, where these identifies have been both imposed by rivals as well as acted up to.

After this chapters are chronologically ordered and focus on individual players or teams from the clubs overlapping histories. Highlights include; the politics behind Barcelona’s signing of their first post civil war star László Kubala; the deep history of controversial referees in El Clásico matches, one ref was beaten up by Madrid players after a defeat to Barca; the management of Barcelona by the English coach Vic Buckingham, who also managed Ajax and helped to indoctrinate a young Johan Cruyff into the virtues of the ‘total football’ philosophy; the shocking but widespread use of bonuses by the rivals to motivate smaller clubs when facing their rivals, an extreme example was when Madrid could have won the league on the last day of the 1991-2 season away to Tenerife but lost 3-2 after Barca had offered Tenerife a sizeable bonus to win; the ‘dream team’ of early ’90s Barca with Cruyff as manager and the talents of Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário who won four consecutive league titles and the clubs first European cup at Wembley in 1992; the initial success, but then intrigued political downfall, of Louis Van Gaal during his first Barca spell; the extravagant but disastrous Galácticos policy of Florentino Pérez in the early 2000s; and the rise of the Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and it’s superstar Lionel Messi. The final chapter brings the rivalry up to the titanic, but exhausting, battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.

One particularly interesting chapter looks at the Real legend Alfredo Di Stéfano. Signing for, and very almost spending his career at Barca, Di Stéfano was controversially stole at the last minute by Madrid, supposedly with the help of the regime. Here the book is very much a true history book, focusing on archive materials uncovered by Lowe of Francoist reports on Di Stéfano and his suitability for Real rather than Barca. Lowe comments that this signing, and how it happened and was perceived, secured the early image of Barca as the victim of the centralised Madrid. Lowe then looks at the famous five consecutive European Cups Madrid won in the 1950s, largely driven by Di Stéfano’s genius. This is pinpointed as central to Madrid’s identity and shows why the European Cup remains Madrid’s obsession today. One great passage from the night of Madrid’s fifth consecutive European Cup final at Hampden Park, with some 127,621 in attendance, where Santiago Bernabéu told his players that “Man has five senses and five fingers on each hand … You have four European cups.” Madrid duly went on to win 7-3 against Eintracht Frankfurt in a match so brilliant BBC Scotland continued to show it every year at Christmas.

In the interest of balance one final chapter of note looks at Helenio Herrera, Barca manager from 1958-1960, who won back to back La Liga titles in a turbulent reign during Madrid’s period of European dominance. Lowe brilliantly compares Herrera’s arrival at Barca to José Mourinho’s at Madrid in 2010: the worlds most famous manager, who (initially) had the media eating out of the palm of his hands and who employed a direct & physical tactical approach to overcome his rival’s technical gifts. Aside from this there are hilarious, but quite worrying, anecdotes of how Herrera hired a man to sleep with the girlfriend of a player who was too besotted about her to effectively concentrate on football. And also how “amid countless rumours, Barcelona’s doctor was forced to deny that the ‘sugar’ supplements that Herrera handed out were something else altogether … [as] players complained that they couldn’t sleep after games.”

Overall this book is a wonder for any football fan. Lowe’s interviews with past players from Madrid and Barca are a particular highlight as they include all of the star players and coaches mentioned, demonstrating the respect he is held in in Spain.

Best quote: “We creat ballon d’ors, others buy them.” Joan Laporta, former Barcelona President.

Have you read any books on football which rival this one? Please leave your comments below.

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