Once billed as the biggest game in the world for the definitive styles and nonchalance both clubs displayed, this weekend’s El Clásico takes on even more significance on many fronts.
The years of the Galacticos have given way, at least temporarily, to a younger generation and the vintage Barcelona ‘way’ has subsided to a more considered approach under Ernesto Valverde.
Yet to most of us outside of Spain, this clash has only ever been about the aforementioned. The wider world will now focus on the political themes of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Not that they weren’t always present – they just weren’t prevalent in the coverage or build-up.
We find ourselves less than forty-eight hours removed from Catalan regional elections. The Santiago Bernabeu will be home to more Spanish flags than usual. A clash of identities has always been present, yet never quite as potent in the air.
There is a plenty at stake on a micro level, or macro level, depending on what weight you give political identity. For all the overly-branded nonsense that football has become over the last two decades, the most gripping game in the world will once again host tension – but of a more surreal variety.
Stepping away from politics, the scene is once again set for a Ronaldo v Messi showdown – as usual, with underlying themes. Both men have now lifted five Balon d’Ors each. They’re both very much in the winding-down section of their careers, yet are firmly still the best two players on the planet.
Ronaldo’s even suggested he wants a move, at 32, for an increased salary.
The numbers and honours suggest he can still command it. If nothing else, this game never ceases to attract storylines.
Then there’s the domestic front. Barcelona sit six points clear atop the La Liga table, yet that’s not from Real Madrid. No, that’s from Atletico – with a further two points back to Valencia.
Real find themselves in a lowly fourth position – and a loss at home to Barca would all but end their aspirations of back-to-back league titles for the first time since 2008.
There’s also a sense of La Liga’s depreciation among Spanish press. After failing to land their typical marquee signing in the summer, the league itself is losing more and more ground to the Premier League.
Ironically, thanks to a Pep Guardiola-led Manchester City. Atleti failed to qualify and Spurs finished ahead of Real in the group stages. Perhaps the best league in the world might actually be living up to its subtitle.
The evolution of both these clubs is uncertain – almost alongside the state of the Spanish political scene at the moment.
While it’s only ever ‘just football’, for ninety minutes on Saturday, politics will take centre stage through twenty-two players that represent clubs fronting very different ideologies.