You've probably noticed that the Spanish are rather keen on football. And rather good at it; they are currently European and World champions. I was never a football fan till I watched the Spanish national team in the European Cup finals in 2008, when it soon became evident that their style of play was as different from that of the depressingly predictable England side as - I'm struggling to find a comparison here - Marilyn Monroe from Paris Hilton? The National Ballet from Strictly Come Makeatwitofyourself? A fillet steak from a McDonalds burger? You get the gist ...
It is largely acknowledged that la Furia Roja (the Red Fury, as Spain's national team are known) owes its success to its ability to play as a team. There are no superstars who are only on the field to score goals. They play a clean game; they rarely dive to try and get penalties and they were near the bottom of the lists for the number of fouls committed and yellow cards shown in the World Cup. They don't close the game down and play safe once they are 2-0 up. And there are very few scandals off the field to occupy the prensa rosa, the Spanish equivalent of the tabloid newspapers.
One of the reasons Spain can play so well as a team is that many of the players work together all the time. In the 2010 World Cup squad there were five from Real Madrid and seven were from FC Barcelona (known as Barça). Their style of play involves roaming movement and positional interchange amongst midfielders, moving the ball in intricate patterns, and lots of short, accurate passes to maintain possession - a style known as Tiki-taka which originates from Johan Cruyff´s time as manager of Barcelona.
Compare and contrast with the Real Madrid superhero, Portugal´s Cristiano Ronaldo, the world´s most expensive player (RM bought him from Manchester Utd last year for £80 million). When he is on the pitch, the camera follows him all the time. He knows this, but often glances up at the big screen just to make sure. His skills with the ball are indisputable, but his diving skills are pretty hot too. He is prone to tantrums on the pitch, and when one of his colleagues scores a goal he thinks should have been his (as happened in the friendly against Spain the other day) he stomps off in a huff rather than going to congratulate him.
|CRISTIANO TRIES TO CATCH THE REF´S EYE|
El Clásico is about more than football. Historically, these teams reflect cultural and political tensions within Spain; FC Barcelona stands as a symbol of Catalan nationalism, whereas for most Catalans and many other Spaniards, Real Madrid represents the oppressive centralism of the Franco regime. It has a group of right-wing extremists in its fan base, known as Ultras Sur, frequently investigated for racial abuse of opposing players.
Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, their teams currently stand first and second respectively in La Liga (their nearest rival, Villareal, is seven points adrift). Ronaldo and Messi are the leading goalscorers this season, with 14 and 13 respectively (though Messi is well ahead if you count non-league games). Barça won both games last season, and Madrid´s new manager José Mourinho is itching for revenge. It´s going to be one hell of a game.
And yes, I admit I am just a little bit biased ...