The cameramen covering Sunday’s meeting between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou will have a job deciding where to train their lenses. The first clásico of the season will bring together some of the biggest stars in the game, from Kaka, Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Taking top billing, however, will be Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The Portuguese, the 2008 FIFA World Player, and the Argentinian, the runner-up for the last two years, are set to face each other for the first time since last season’s UEFA Champions League final in Rome. On that occasion Messi and Co got the better of Ronaldo and his then team-mates at Manchester United to complete an unprecedented treble. Six months on from that stunning achievement and the famous 6-2 defeat they inflicted on Madrid in their own backyard, Barcelona find themselves a point behind Los Merengues, adding even more intrigue to this weekend’s duel.
Though injuries have blighted their preparations, Ronaldo and Messi have no intention of missing one of the biggest dates on the footballing calendar. “I’m fine and I want to play,” said the Portuguese wizard after making a brief return against Zurich on Wednesday evening. “The injury’s not bothering me at all. I haven’t played for a month and a half and I’m not 100 per cent but I want to help the team at the Camp Nou.”
The first legends
The current posse of gifted ballplayers are the latest in a long line of legendary names who have graced Spanish football’s biggest rivalry.
The inaugural clásico took place on 17 February 1928, with Los Blancos earning a 2-1 away win at Les Corts. It was not until the mid-1950s, however, and the arrival of Argentinian ace Alfredo Di Stefano at the Santiago Bernabeu and the hugely talented Hungarian Ladislao Kubala at Can Barça that the fixture generated the first of its many great personal duels.
In the 1953-54 season Kubala’s Barcelona inflicted a humiliating 5-1 defeat on a Madrid side featuring the newly arrived Di Stefano. Interestingly, the talented imports would later become team-mates in the Spanish national side.
I haven’t played for a month and a half and I’m not 100 per cent but I want to help the team at the Camp Nou.
Los Culés dominated in the years that followed before Madrid earned a 2-0 win at the recently opened Camp Nou in 1958. Di Stefano would not gain full revenge over Kubala until the Hungarian’s final clásico in 1960, a match that also featured luminaries such as Ferenc Puskas, Paco Gento and Luis Suarez and which Madrid memorably won 5-3.
The departure of those great names robbed the fixture of glamour, which it would not regain until the arrival of Johan Cruyff in 1973. In his first season the Dutchman inspired Barça to their first title in 14 years, and although his maiden outing against Madrid ended goalless, he played a starring role in his second, a stunning 5-0 away win against a Madrid side comprising players of the stature of Jose Antonio Camacho, Vicente del Bosque and Carlos Santillana.
The Camp Nou remained an unhappy hunting ground for Los Blancos until 1978, Cruyff’s last season in Spain, when Santillana and their new German signing Uli Stielike helped the visitors to a 3-2 win.
Diego, El Buitre and the Dream Team
Diego Maradona arrived in Barcelona shortly afterwards. Though his stay was a relatively brief one, El Pelusa still managed to make his mark on the fixture in the 1982/83 season, helping Los Azulgranas to a 2-1 win over a Madrid side coached by Di Stefano. Revenge would be Di Stefano’s a year later when the men in white won 2-1 in Barcelona, their last away win in the fixture for the next 20 years.
Even the emergence of Emilio Butragueno’s Quinta del Buitre (The Vulture’s Cohort) and the prolific Hugo Sanchez failed to stem the tide. Despite Madrid’s run of five straight league titles, Los Culés continued to dominate their national rivals in the late 80s, a trend that continued when Cruyff took up residence on the Barça bench and shaped the fabled Dream Team, the winners of four championships in a row. One of the many highpoints of Cruyff’s reign was an unforgettable 1994 triumph over their old rivals, with a Barcelona side comprising Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and a young Josep Guardiola storming to a 5-0 win, three of the goals coming from an inspired Romario.
With the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Luis Figo then joining the ranks, Barcelona continued to hold sway over Madrid at the Camp Nou. From the 1992/93 season they chalked up seven home wins in a row, a run Los Blancos were powerless to prevent despite the recruitment of Fernando Redondo, Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic among others.
The era of Los Galácticos, Ronaldinho and Messi
Madrid broke that negative run with a 2-2 draw in October 1999, a game in which when Raul famously silenced the crowd by putting his index finger to his lips. Yet it was not until four years later and the arrival of Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Figo and Ronaldo, a.k.a. Los Galácticos, that Raul could celebrate a victory in Barcelona, Madrid running out 2-1 winners in December 2003.
Barça responded by blending home-grown talents, among them Xavi and Carles Puyol, with exciting signings such as Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, a mix that became even more potent when Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi broke into the side.
The Argentinian scored a hat-trick in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Madrid in March 2007 and followed up with goals in both of last season’s clásico wins. Can he keep that run going on Sunday or will the revamped Merengues extend their lead at the top? Whatever the outcome, it should be quite an occasion.