This feature is part of A Tale of One City

Gazing out across the mirage of sparkling lights littering the night sky, it was impossible not to fall madly in love. There aren’t enough words to describe quite how breathtaking the overpowering sense of awe was, but then Barcelona is a city that specialises in phenomenal impressions. It is a city overflowing with spectacular views; from the charming 19th century amusement park in the hills behind the city in Tibidabo to the the mosaic terrace at the front of the Parc Güell, and the iconic bridge between the main spires of La Sagrada Família.

Climb up the Montjuïc hill from the Plaza Espanya past the Font Màgica, across the gardens dedicated to Joan Maragall, the great Catalan poet, and you will find a point that rivals all of these. Inside, up plenty of steps until the crisp, open air washed over me again, I had found my own unique view; or at least that’s how it felt as I leant on the ledge at the top of the cavernous Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc Lluís Companys surveying one of Europe’s most colourful and historical cities. Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones and AC/DC, among others, had filled the enormous arena with an electric cacophony of music in the past, but just for a fleeting moment it was filled with a beautiful silence. It didn’t last long.

A sight as spellbinding as any other is FC Barcelona in full flow, orchestrating an intoxicating blend of organic, mesmerising magic, but in December 2003 this was a distant image. Hard as it is to believe over a decade later, for a short while they were in dire straits having won just five of their first 15 La Liga fixtures, sinking into the bottom half of the table.

Andrés Iniesta was still an inexperienced teenager, while the overhang of Louis van Gaal’s Dutch revolution had left a stale feel to the squad, despite the marquee signings of Ronaldinho and Ricardo Quaresma. The trip across town to face Espanyol a fortnight before Christmas meant a whole lot more than a stocking-filling three points. This was war.

If Barcelona were suffering, the only consolation was that Espanyol were even worse off. Rock bottom going into the first Catalan derby of the season, the city’s less illustrious outfit were scrapping for their lives, and scrapping is exactly what they did. Former Barcelona youth product Jordi Cruyff, son of Blaugrana legend Johan, had been sent tumbling by a niggling trip from Giovanni van Brockhurst as early as the sixth minute, but stooped low to nod home an Iván de la Peña free-kick moments later. From one former Barça man to another.

Ronaldinho’s deflected shot a minute later quickly restored parity, but the tone had already been set for what would become one of football’s dirtiest ever matches. Marc Overmars had burned Cyril Domoraud a number of times already, and the hapless Ivorian resorted to hacking the winger down with late challenges. Cruyff had gained revenge for his rough treatment by elbowing his fellow countryman Phillip Cocu across his face, but so far the challenges were expected from a high-octane derby.

Patrick Kluivert added two more to put the visitors in firm control approaching half time, the first a cheeky nutmeg from a tight angle, before the first of many highly controversial flash points.

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maxresdefaultPatrick Kluivert was in devastating form against Espanyol

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Defending a corner for Barça, Rafael Márquez clearly punched the ball after being out jumped by Antonio Soldevilla, but to the incandescent Espanyol players it was their defender who was cautioned for complaining. The home side’s fans were livid and they set fire to banners, ripped up seats and hurled them in disgust. Moments later, things got even worse for the home side as de la Peña was sent off for viciously hacking down Michael Reizeger after the full-back had craftily turned him.

Riot police began swarming towards the stands where the most damage was being done as the Ultras Sur pounded the perimeter fence, and de la Peña had to be restrained and forced to leave the pitch. A legitimate penalty appeal from Raúl Tamudo after his mazy dribble dissected the Barcelona defence was turned down, before Cocu theatrically collapsed after a faint head push from Ángel Morales.

This crazy ten minutes set the temperature going into half time, but there was a whole lot more to come. Márquez was shown a straight red card within a few minutes of the second half getting underway for completely upending Tamudo, and it soon became clear that little football was going to be played; a cat and mouse game began with both sides trying to goad each other into transgressing the laws of the game.

Astonishingly, Quaresma was dismissed for an almost identical challenge on the same player three minutes later, leaving Barcelona suddenly with a man disadvantage and Espanyol pumped up.

The nasty edge that had pervaded most of the match remained, but even though his side now had a one-man advantage, Soldevilla went into an aerial challenge with Gerard López with a leading arm. It was innocuous enough, but the Barcelona substitute reacted and provoked a minor scuffle, for which he was largely responsible. Again, a questionable call from the referee resulted in Soldevilla being given his marching orders.

Inevitably, with the extra space left and only nine players on each side, counter-attacking came into play even more, and when Cocu was left isolated as the last defender with – you’ve guessed it – Tamudo, he hauled him down and was sent off too.

Alberto Lopo was dismissed in the closing moments for a second yellow as the game broke the wrong kind of records; with an astonishing six dismissals, it is officially the most carded match in professional history to be completed. What’s even more incredible is that none of the dismissals were in the same incident. Fires had burnt in the stands, seats had been ripped up, and there was a distinct lack of romance in the air.

As it turned out, Barcelona signed Edgar Davids on loan from Juventus a month later and riding on the Dutchman’s ruthless influence they resurrected their season to finish second, only five points behind Rafa Benítez’s Valencia. That fiery encounter in December was hardly the main catalyst for the renaissance of their season, but what it did do was highlight one of the most under-appreciated derbies in the world.

But how did the rivalry reach proportions such as these? El Clásico needs little introduction; the manic proportions to which the entire sports media whips up the country into a frenzy for Real Madrid versus Barcelona are overwhelming to many outsiders – in November, the first 44 pages of Madrid-based sports paper AS were dedicated entirely to the match. It may have a clear socio-political context, but the battle within Catalunya itself is much more complex.

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In 1930, Miguel Primo de Rivera’s dictatorial period as Prime Minister of Spain came to an end when he resigned having lost the support of King Alfonso XIII and the army, and a year later the Second Republic was established after voters elected republican candidates, leaving Alfonso no choice but to suspend the monarchy. In the same year, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a Catalan pro-independence group, won a majority in the local elections in a major shift in political power away from Madrid. One of the ERC’s candidates, Lluís Companys, joined a military coup of the mayor’s office and was proclaimed the new mayor in a state of anarchy.

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Joan-Gamper-el-fundador-El-29-_54238644662_54115221152_960_640Joan Gamper, the man who founded FC Barcelona

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Companys would later be promoted to speaker of the Catalan government and, in 1933, president of the Generalitat. He was a hardliner who wanted to establish a Catalan state, and upon being shot in 1940 under Franco’s orders, became the only incumbent democratically elected president in Europe to be executed. In 2001 his name was given to the Olympic stadium, which Espanyol occupied for 12 years from 1997.

The naming of both clubs is of vital importance to gain an insight into the development of the relationship between them, or rather how the names have developed. In 1898, a Swiss accountant and football enthusiast named Hans-Max Kamper settled in the city and began playing informally. So enamoured by his new home, he adopted the Catalan spelling Joan Gamper. In his native country he had been the captain of the newly created FC Basel, and still just 20, his enthusiasm was not initially met with widespread acknowledgement.

After advertising for other players to form a club, he founded Foot-Ball Club Barcelona (notice the Anglicised word order) alongside Englishmen Walter Wild, who was named the club’s first president, John and William Parsons, two other Swiss immigrants and a handful of locals. This cosmopolitan outfit was initially successful, winning the Copa Macaya in 1902, the Copa Barcelona in 1905 and reaching the final of the Copa del Rey in 1903.

As a reaction to the establishment of this international outfit, an engineering student at the university decided to set up a club by Spanish and for Spanish players in 1900, and settled on the simple name Club Español de Fútbol. They also enjoyed early success by winning the Copa Macaya the year after Barcelona, and the subsequent Catalan Championship four times before the end of the decade.

Politics have forced – or encouraged – the club to change their name a number of times, the most recent being the change of spelling from Español to the Catalan Espanyol. In 1912, Alfonso XIII gave the club, who had settled on the colours blue and white in homage to the Sicilian sailor Roger de Llúria who worked in the service of the Crown of Aragon, his royal patronage. The club had settled in the affluent district of Sarrià, now bearing the name Real Club Deportivo Español, and represented a focal point for Spanish identity.

Despite Barcelona’s early growth, numbers were beginning to drop off as players were not replaced, so Gamper was brought in as president, a role he fulfilled on five occasions, to resurrect the health of the membership. In 1909 the club moved into a new stadium, the Camp de la Indústria, and by 1922 they had outgrown the 8,000 capacity venue with over 20,000 members, moving to Les Corts, which could originally accommodate the burgeoning numbers, and was later expanded to hold 60,000 spectators.

It was at this arena that an incident occurred in 1925 that would define the following of the club. As the Spanish national anthem was being played, the supporters whistled and jeered in complete defiance of the monarchy and de Rivera’s hugely unpopular autocratic control. The ground was closed for six months as punishment, but the relationship between the central powers and Catalunya, or more specifically the followers of FC Barcelona, was crystallised.

Seven years earlier, Espanyol had started a counter petition against autonomy and were seen as a club that sided with authority. A supporters group would fight on behalf of the Falangists in the Civil War, a heretical action for those connected to Barcelona. These rivalries were formalised on the pitch with the advent of the Primera División, with Barcelona winning the first title. It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War that they claimed their second title, after which they found a clearer rival in Real Madrid, with whom they shared 11 of the 15 championships up to the start of the 1960s.

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hinchada_noticia_espanyol_getty_211013Espanyol supporters are fiercely loyal, passionate and loud, despite the success of their rivals

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Espanyol have never been crowned national league champions, which has contributed to the significance of the derby altering somewhat from its original state. A Copa del Rey victory in 1940 was the last piece of silverware they had to celebrate for over half a century, during which time Barcelona won over 30 domestic trophies. Real Madrid’s complete dominance during the 1960s gave Barcelona a more ambitious target to aim for.

Franco’s open backing of Los Blancos gave an ideological focus for their hatred as opposed to the support for the regime from their neighbours. One of the most famous ties between the two began with the Catalans winning 3-0 in the first leg of the 1943 Cope del Generalísimo – as the Copa del Rey was known under Franco. The dictator was incensed at the humiliation of what he saw as a symbol of his regime and it was rumoured he sent police into the Barcelona changing rooms before the return leg in the capital. Whether this actually happened will never be ascertained, but the 11-1 capitulation that followed has left many in no doubt as to the influence Franco held over matters concerning Real.

The football stadium was the only place where a collective identity could be expressed – as in many oppressive regimes around the world – and now the figurehead of everything they stood against was seen to be meddling unfairly in the one area Barcelona felt they could control matters. Theirs is a city that has inspired revolutionaries, artists and independence with a powerful aura of strength.

When George Orwell arrived in the city as a journalist, he was struck by the impact of the place. “There was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an ear of equality and freedom,” he wrote in his seminal work A Homage to Catalonia. “Human beings were trying to behave as human beings, not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

Barcelona followers began to adopt the fight for freedom and Catalan identity as their own, viewing Espanyol as traitors for betraying this energetic independent movement by not fighting for it – and it forms the basis of the derby.

The sheer dominance of Barcelona in modern football has obscured the status of Espnayol on the pitch. The Blanquiazules have only won at the Camp Nou three times in the league in nearly 60 years and trail their illustrious opponents with only 34 wins to 93, but they have contributed significantly to the modern game.

Take the award for the best goalkeeper in Spain, the Zamora Trophy. It is named after Ricardo Zamora, a handsome chain-smoker who started his career as an athletic 16-year-old at Espanyol. He later joined Barcelona for a three-year spell before returning across the city to spend another eight years there before joining Real Madrid, where his spectacular last minute save in the final of the Copa del Presidente de la República against Barcelona prevented his former employers from snatching victory.

A known Franco sympathiser, he accepted The Great Cross of the Order of Cisneros from the Generlísimo in the 1950s, and an Order of the Republic in 1934, both acts that saw him embraced by Espanyol and vilified by Barcelona. He was far from the only player to represent both of the city’s clubs: László Kubala had fled Hungary in 1949, famously joining Barcelona for a decade where he scored 131 goals in 186 games, but he had in fact been spotted in a friendly match for Espanyol, where he also spent a couple of seasons as a player.

The Catalan derby is one defined by what each club stands for above results on the pitch. The uneasy juxtaposition of royal patronage with a Catalanised spelling of their name makes Espanyol’s character extremely complex, whereas Barcelona’s has never been in doubt.

Sponsorship deals, media attention and global superstars may flock to the most marketable derby in the world in El Clásico, but in Catalunya there is always a storm brewing – just be careful how far you fall for the madness.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint