There are many reasons to be nervous about this weekend’s El Clásico matchup. Will Messi play? Will Navas be ready to defend the portería? Will I have enough nails to bite and gum to nervously chew by the time David Fernández Borbalán blows the opening whistle? Will we be embarrassed at home and go six points down against our bitter arch rivals? The list goes on.
On a more serious note, in light of recent events, it’s important to highlight the confidence of Spanish officials – like Secretary of State for Security Francisco Martínez – who believe that “unprecedented security measures” should be “more than enough” to guarantee the safety and well-being of players, spectators, staff, and passersby on Saturday (hopefully cutting security from our long list of reasons to be freaking out ahead of Madrid–Barça).
The unprecedented security undertaking is said to include 1,500 police officers, as well as designated security zones around the stadium. According to Madrid government delegate Concepción Dancausa, even bags of pepitas and sandwiches will be checked. As a fan who police have pushed aside while drunken away supporters marched and sang around the Bernabéu’s perimeter ahead of Champions League action, as a fan who’s been inside the stadium to see flares set aflame after somehow making it through one of dozens of entry points, I sincerely hope that these measures prove to be effective. The match has been declared a high-risk event – a common occurrence for derbies – but despite additional precautions, Martínez urges fans to attend with “normality” and “tranquility” (but let’s be real, when are fans ever truly tranquil on derby day?).
I hope that petty arguments and typical matchday dramatics will be set aside on Saturday in an effort to emphasize fútbol’s capacity to unite rather than divide. After all, the sport provides an important means for collective identity around the world. It brings people together and distinguishes them from their opposition. Identity creation takes place on the soccer pitch and in stadiums across the globe on a daily basis, affecting how we think about constructions of nation, place, and individual identity, especially during times of great change. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum either; as Robert Lypsite writes in his introduction to C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary: “Lurking beyond the boundaries of every game are the controlling interests, the forces of oppression; the economics of the owners, the politics of the government, even the passions of the fans…sport is no sanctuary from the real world because sport is part of the real world, and the liberation and the oppression are inextricably bound.”
In my own studies (if you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit obsessed with El Clásico and Spanish fútbol more generally), I’ve focused on this sort of identity creation in relation to the Spanish Civil War, but I think that a similar line of thought can be used in relation to the times we’re living in today. Soccer matters. It plays a role. Throughout the history of the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry, constructions of nation, place, and identity have reached dangerously mythical heights, with the former looked upon with an overly critical eye and the latter viewed as the polar opposite end of the spectrum in more ways than one. In reality, these two iconic teams are much more similar than they are irreconcilably different.
People from all corners of the map will come together to celebrate and be a part of the latest chapter in this historic rivalry in the Spanish capital on Saturday. In line with the powerful show of solidarity at Wembley Stadium ahead of England-France, everyone involved has a chance to prove the sport’s uniting energy through peace, tranquility, normality, and a love of the game, the quality that makes it one of the most important unimportant things in the world.