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An El Classico Which Fulfilled Expectations

30 April 2011.

With all due respect to the entertaining tussles between IPL sides, the most riveting confrontation of the week occurred not on an Indian cricket ground but on a Spanish football field.

How closely soccer is followed in India these days is unclear but a rupee to a paisa says it is growing apace. Scrutiny of local magazines and newspapers reinforces the point.

It’s the same elsewhere. My African home was jam-packed for the match. Apparently some Englishmen even stopped gasping about the Royal wedding for the day!

Sport has few rivalries to match that between Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the three giants of the game. Nor can any other sport attract remotely as wide a following.

Happily the latest El Classico fulfilled expectations. Admittedly it was not the prettiest game. Sport, though, has never relied entirely on the aesthetic. It is a contest not a ballet; the primeval struggle is its essence. Beauty is a by product not an aim.

Astute game

It was a battle of wills and a reminder of the part played by managers – not coaches – in soccer. The sight of two uncompromising teams chewing each other’s ears offers its own satisfaction. After all they were not playing tiddly winks. Barcelona won because they played an astute game and were prepared to get their hands dirty. Now and then even the most fluent sides need to produce what Australians admiringly call “mongrel”.

In a recent cup final Barcelona had stroked the ball around skilfully and attacked relentlessly only to fall foul to Madrid’s sucker punch. Jose Mourinho’s sides are always superbly structured, physical, determined and grudging.

This time Barcelona refused to press. Realising that they were the away side, they sat back and teasingly invited Real Madrid to come and get the ball. A stalemate resulted and by half-time the score remained deadlocked. Both sides had been bloody minded and tempers had frayed.

Upsetting the rhythm

It was fascinating. Mourinho knows better than anyone else how to beat Barca, knows he must upset their rhythm, break up their dazzling short game. To do that Madrid needed to stifle their opponents – and that required manpower in midfield. Now he felt obliged to push his forwards.

Barcelona began to look more dangerous. To make matters worse for the home side Pepe was presently given a straight red card for an ugly challenge. In a trice a difficult task had become well nigh impossible. Madrid had lost a player in the cup final as well but that was against another Barça, a more dispassionate side committed to style. Now the visitors did not give a fig for anything except the result.

But there was another reason that the visitors prevailed. Barça had at its disposal a twinkle-toed genius going by the name of Lionel Messi. Afterwards the experts put him alongside Pele and Maradona as the best players seen in the last 50 years. It is high praise and it is deserved.


Messi is not so much a great player as a genius. It is not quite the same thing. Sachin Tendulkar is a great batsman, Brian Lara was a genius. Great sportsmen dominate for long periods and rise to the greatest challenges. Geniuses repeatedly perform deeds beyond the capacity of mere mortals.

Brian Lara Lord's Bicentenary

Lord’s Bicentenary Anniversary Match – Brian Lara
Photo ©: Paul Hudson /

Messi scored both goals, one of them predatory, the other with an irresistible dribble. He is an extraordinary player, from another planet in the opinion of one pundit. Only one thing can be said against him – so far he has not quite done the deed for his country. In that regard the two champions of yesteryear remain his superior.

This article was written for The Hindu.
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