By Max Grieve
In Bilbao, Real Madrid won the title for the first time in four years, whilst at the Camp Nou Lionel Messi equalled, then surpassed, the record for the most goals scored in a European season. The Spanish newspapers would have you believe that only one or the other of these happened, of course.
“El Mejor!” Marca’s front page screams the following morning – “The Best”. Mourinho is thrown into the air, one finger raised, and images of a euphoric Ronaldo are splashed below the headlines. In Barcelona, El Mundo Deportivo pays tribute to “Torpedo Messi”, and the little Argentine is seen lifting the ball over Carlos Kameni to score his third – Barcelona’s fourth – to scratch Gerd Müller’s name from the 39-year-old record.
Below the singing Xabi Alonso, below the elated Iker Casillas, below the hoards dancing in the Plaza de Cibeles, a box the same size as the neighbouring advertisement for the new Subaru XV acknowledges that Barcelona have played. Even then, the image accompanying the scoreline is one of a rueful Guardiola. In the smallest type imaginable for the front page of a national newspaper, Marca make a note of Messi’s historic hattrick.
Not that the Catalan media is any better. “El Madrid gana la Liga” states El Mundo Deportivo in a thin banner – “Madrid win the league”. There is little else; you’d have to go much deeper into its pages until you’d reach the same pictures that Marca so proudly display beneath its headline. This is the way of the Spanish football media. So often placing their allegiance to a club before balanced journalism; just as Barcelona and Madrid battle for supremacy on the field, the newspapers take it upon themselves to continue the brawl between the weekend round of fixtures.
There are four main daily sports newspapers in Spain. “Newspaper” is perhaps a generous term – they are, in a relative sense, propaganda machines. In Catalonia, El Mundo Deportivo and Sport are unashamedly pro-Barcelona. Marca and AS are blatantly pro-Madrid. Indeed, each is so steeped in open support for their respective clubs that they have come to see themselves as an extension, and even an integral component, of either side. Writes Sid Lowe, “One editor claims that every Madrid win is an extra 10,000 in sales; one editor of a Catalan radio station, pandering to the most fanatical Barcelona agenda, publicly applauds the recent decision to cheer Madrid’s opponents as an “ingenious” way of getting closer to the supporters. Never mind getting closer to the truth.”
It is a blind devotion that pays little attention to journalistic integrity, though this was lost long ago. All run campaigns against players, referees, teams and even the governing body of Spanish football as they see fit: when Barcelona reached the Champions League final ahead of Madrid in 2011, during that intoxicating period which saw four Clásicos played out over sixteen days, the media in the capital turned on UEFA, and even went so far as to edit images of Pepe’s red card challenge on Dani Alves, clearing a space between the Portuguese’s studs and the Brazilian’s leg to emphasise the injustice.
AS notably airbrushed Athletic Bilbao’s Koikili from the face of the earth to make Dani Alves appear more offside than he actually was as the fullback broke through to set up David Villa for a 1-0 lead in the league. A glance at the television would have made clear that though Alves may have been offside, the “clear evidence”, as AS claimed it to be, simply wasn’t there (some might recall that under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet government would often erase undesirable figures from their history by simply removing their image from photographs). They were sorry, but only because they were caught. “We apologise for an error in the computer graphics that illustrated the possible offside in the Villa goal, and didn’t show the Bilbao defender that could have been in line with Alves”. A cheeky “oops” wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
The petulant squabbles over the Pichichi are tedious: the prize for top scorer in La Liga is awarded by Marca, who invariably, and outrageously when they do, favour the Real Madrid player over every other. Last season, Cristiano Ronaldo controversially finished on 40 goals according to the newspaper, though Liga de Fútbol Profesional, the game’s governing body in Spain, had given one of them, a free kick effort against Real Sociedad, to Pepe. In having been awarded the additional goal, Ronaldo broke the previous record set jointly by Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez. There could be nothing debatable about the winner of this season's Pichichi.
Increasingly, one is either Barcelona or Madrid. Faint criticism of one side is punished with an emphatic mark of allegiance to the other. A fan of both Messi and Ronaldo? Come now, don’t be silly. Was Özil brought down, or did he dive? Did the ball cross Valdes’ line, or was it cleared in time? Where is the referee from? Who did he support as a child? Is that a photo of the lineman standing in front of a woman in a Barcelona jersey in a park on a Friday afternoon? No wonder he didn’t call Messi offside; he clearly adores the man. Quite simply, there is no middle ground. In Spain, everything is either black, or it is white – or rather, blaugrana or blanco.
Though the same broadcast across the globe saw Barcelona crash out of the Champions League, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Spanish media had watched entirely different matches altogether. Sport claimed “football punished Barça”, going on to read “Unjust, cruel, horrible, unmerited. Any adjective is not enough to define the incredible elimination of Barça at the hands of Chelsea. Few times has a team done so much to deserve to reach the Champions League final as that of Guardiola’s. And rarely has a rival, with so little, gained that very prize”. Marca revelled in Barcelona’s failings, claiming the end of an era. AS simply read: “Adíos Barcelona”.
The next day, Madrid fell spectacularly out of Europe too. Catalonia laughed accordingly; their misery seemingly forgotten.
They are sickening loyalties yet, at the same time, they are so incredibly enthralling. Perhaps it is because in English-language media, bias usually appears to be better disguised. Shamelessly supportive, ignorant of photographic and statistical evidence, Barcelona or Madrid must be wrong, or Barcelona or Madrid must be right. In either city, it is one or the other. Onside, offside; over, not over; dive, foul; goal, no goal; yes, no; black, white; blaugrana, blanco.
Soon enough, the Clasico will be overshadowed by the gross fanaticism, the overt manipulation, and the Stalinist propaganda. That is, of course, if we are not already at such a point.