Beyond Mere Rivalry : Reign of Spain Remains Source of Catalonian Disdain as 500 Years of Bitterness Is Vented Through Sports


Before I came to Barcelona, I thought I knew what a sporting city was. . . .

--Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics

Real Madrid, Real Madrid. The team of the government, the shame of the nation.

--Barcelona soccer chant


Modern modes of travel have reduced the 360 miles separating Barcelona and Madrid to an afterthought.

The train covers the distance in nine hours, bus service takes about seven, and it is said you can drive it in five hours along the A-2 highway, if you drive very fast. Iberian Airlines makes so many one-hour flights each day--40 round-trips, at last count--that a separate commuter terminal was opened here last spring.

Yet Barcelona and Madrid remain worlds apart. Bitter rivals for more than 500 years, Spain’s two largest cities continue to wage a war of wills and words that touches every facet of daily life, from politics and language to petty jealousies, polarizing the nation in the process. The Spanish Civil War officially ended in 1939, but the rhetoric and animosity here say it still rages.

Nowhere is that rivalry more keenly felt than in sports. Spaniards take their sports as seriously as they take their politics, and it is often difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

But whereas Madrid is secure in its place as the capital of Spain and the seat of imperial power, Barcelona and the entire region of Catalonia regard every athletic endeavor as part of a never-ending battle.

“I know it seems mad, but there’s no way you can understand it from the outside,” said Cordulla Reinhardt, a reporter for the Barcelona sports newspaper, El Mundo Deportivo. “They’ll always tell you the same thing, these people. They say, ‘You haven’t lived the 40 years when we were oppressed. You don’t know what it was like.’ They live just to hate Madrid. I’m sure this must be fanaticism, because it’s certainly not logical.”

Thus, every Barcelona triumph over Madrid in soccer is somehow a convoluted pay-back for the thousands killed during the Civil War. A basketball victory is vengeance for 40 years of dictatorship under Francisco Franco, a water polo triumph a blow for independence. The simple right of public address announcers to speak in their native Catalan after decades of ‘Castillian’ Spanish is the very essence of the region’s autonomy and a catharsis for tortured souls.

Barcelona now is riding an unprecedented high, much of it at the expense of Madrid. The FC Barcelona soccer team not only won the European Cup in 1992, it also won the Spanish League title by dramatically overtaking Real Madrid on the last day of the season. The Joventut Badalona basketball team earned its second consecutive Spanish championship by beating--who else?--Real Madrid in the final, and Barcelona also boasts the European champions in water polo and women’s basketball.


But the 1992 Olympic Games that will begin here July 25 may be the greatest victory of all.

“The Olympic Committee allocates the Games to a city,” sniffs Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall, “not a country.”

“You are right,” Fernando said. “There is no other country in the world like Spain.”

--Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”


When FC Barcelona announced that it was in the market for a high-scoring forward last spring, the name of Mexican star Hugo Sanchez naturally came up.

After all, Sanchez had been the Spanish League’s leading scorer for five of the last seven seasons, his contract was up for renewal, and it was said the Barcelona brass was close to a deal.

Only one problem: Sanchez played for Real Madrid.

One trip to the stadium kept it that way.


“Hugo To Barcelona? No Thanks, I’d Rather Die!” read one sign draped over the railing. “Sanchez Will Never Be One Of Us!” declared another. “Hugo No! Barcelona Si!” unequivocally stated a third. The fans jeered and whistled when club officials took their seats, and someone let a small pig loose to run across the field.

Before long, Barcelona’s front office was in full denial, scoffing at the mere notion of signing someone from Real Madrid. And to this day, no player from Real Madrid has ever been signed in the 93-year history of FC Barcelona.

Spain is a whore!

--Barcelona soccer chant


It’s easy to tell when a Madrid team is playing in Barcelona: Simply go to the nearest McDonald’s restaurant and see if it closes early.

Viewed as wealthy, imperialist extensions of Madrid, the five McDonald’s outlets in Barcelona were regularly trashed by local fans over the years--windows smashed, tables and chairs ripped out--as a show of force against the monarchy the minute the game ended.

In fact, the McDonald’s on Plaza Catalunya was ransacked so savagely after a soccer game two years ago that the owners nearly left it closed, figuring that basketball season was around the corner.

But restaurant managers got wise, and now close early on game days. With extra security guards on hand and at least one staff member monitoring the game via radio at all times, McDonald’s officials begin shooing customers out at halftime. By the final buzzer, the restaurant is dark.


The one thing that’s clear is, this is Catalonia--not the rest of Spain. We’re not a Spanish team.

--A Barcelona Dragons’ executive

It was probably the first true crisis to hit the World League of American Football.

The date: May 11, 1991. The site: Montjuic Stadium in Barcelona.


The weather: Clear. But storm clouds were on the horizon.

With only minutes to go before kickoff, league officials paced, the team’s front office personnel huddled behind closed doors, and security guards fidgeted. In the locker room, the players sat waiting, half dressed.

The Barcelona Dragons’ home green jerseys had been destroyed in the laundry. Which meant they would have to wear their road whites.

Real Madrid wears white.


“That was really a problem,” said Jack Teele, general manager of the Dragons. “We were told that a Barcelona team never wears white, and if we went out there with white jerseys on, there would be a riot. I know it seems silly, but the people we talked to were serious.”

Someone proposed having the Dragons wear the brown “home” jerseys of the visiting San Antonio Riders, but WLAF officials vetoed that idea.

Someone else suggested wearing practice jerseys, but they lacked proper names and numbers and there weren’t enough of the same color. Nobody wanted to mention the obvious solution: postponing the game.

In the end, it was decided to have the public address announcer explain the situation to the spectators and request that they please not riot. And the fans--although obliged to jeer and whistle the white shirts--managed to keep the peace.


Jump, jump, jump. The one who doesn’t jump is a Spaniard.

--Barcelona soccer chant

Emilio Sanchez, one of the ranking tennis players in the world, was born in Madrid and grew up speaking Spanish. His little sister, Arantxa, was born in Barcelona and learned to speak Catalan.

Thus, Emilio Sanchez is jeered and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is cheered whenever they play in Barcelona, even though the entire Sanchez family settled here more than 20 years ago.


In fact, things nearly got out of hand during the 1991 ATP tournament, when Emilio Sanchez found himself facing both local Catalan hero Sergi Brugera and torrents of fan abuse during the final.

What’s worse, Sanchez was being jeered and taunted at the Royal Tennis Club-- his own club.

After winning, Sanchez collected his trophy, picked up the microphone, and addressed the crowd: “You are like a girlfriend that does not love me back. But I will always love you.”

Freedom For Catalonia


--Sign draped around the Olympic torch in Empuries

It should come as no surprise that the 1992 Olympic Games have become swept up in the political fervor of northeastern Spain.

First it was the Catalan Olympic Committee, pressing for international recognition--and being turned down--even as such latecomers as Croatia and Namibia were taken into the fold.

Next it was the Catalan leftist party, which demanded--and got--concessions such as the playing of the Catalan anthem and the raising of the Catalan flag during the opening ceremonies.


Even the long and bitter fight over El Negro, the stuffed African bushman in a local museum, comes down to politics. The possibility that his presence might offend visitors this summer is the reason Olympic officials have demanded El Negro’s removal; the fact that the town is autonomous and unwilling to yield to meddling outsiders is the reason he is still there.

But it remained for the arrival of the Olympic flame on June 13 up the coast in Empuries to drive the point home.

While separatist T-shirt sellers were doing a brisk business and the crowd was booing any public official who failed to speak in Catalan, a near riot occurred when a group of 10 foolhardy souls attempted to parade through the grounds carrying Spanish flags. Only quick thinking by the police got them out alive. Their flags, however, were not so lucky.

Meanwhile, a young man calmly stepped up to the podium during the torch ceremony and unfurled a banner that read “Freedom For Catalonia.” He held the sign aloft, then wrapped it around the base of the torch and casually walked away.


Security officials actually cleared a path for him to get through the crowd.

“I have been waiting all day for the opportunity to do this,” said the young man, who would give only his age--19. “I knew it was dangerous and I knew I might be arrested, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t keep my feelings inside any longer.”