Johannesburg - In the context of this week’s events, the massive Real Madrid and Barcelona encounter at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium should be one of the victorious versus the humiliated; the confident versus the frustrated; the leaders versus the followers; and the European record-setters versus the onlookers.
But none of that will count when the 233rd edition of El Clasico is played in Madrid on Sunday. When the two sides take to the field, history and current form will be merely academic. The sides will be equal and the ancient rivalry will be raw.
The thing about El Clasico is that it is never boring. Many other derbies – including our own Soweto derby – have their off days and do not live up to the hype. Not so the most-watched club game on the planet. These two enemies play to the death.
On the day of El Clasico, history, politics, regionalism and football tribalism play themselves out with equal intensity.
Catalonian nationalism comes to the fore as the people of the region – many of whom wish for independence from Spain – know it is only on the football field that they avenge the political dominance of their “oppressors” in the capital.
The Madridistas see victory as a way of rubbing Catalan noses in the dirt.
Around the world, people who would not be able to point to Madrid and Barcelona on a map forget the heat of their domestic politics and transfer their emotions to the Iberian peninsula. No sporting rivalry transcends national borders and continents in a greater way than this one.
On the field, friendships – formed during childhood, national team call-ups and in previous teams – are suspended. The players become enemies, and fisticuffs and harsh verbal exchanges are rarely far away. For referees, the task is prestigious, but also unenviable. A good vino tinto after officiating an El Clasico is usually well deserved.
The two sides go into this clash after Barcelona’s humiliating quarterfinal exit from the Champions League at the hands of Juventus.
Having conceded three goals without reply in the first leg in Turin, Barcelona were hoping to complete a similar Houdini act to the one they pulled off in the round of 16 at Camp Nou.
But Juventus were no Paris Saint-Germain, and frustrated the hell out of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar. The 66% possession enjoyed by Luis Enrique’s men was just that – possession. The image of Neymar weeping uncontrollably at the end the game told the whole story.
Level on points
Madrid, on the other hand, converted their 2-1 first-leg advantage against Bayern Munich into a 6-3 aggregate victory, and are now three games away from a record 12th Champions League trophy.
In contrast to the frustration experienced by the Barcelona players, Madrid’s stars were shining in their home game.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick might have earned him hero status, but the night belonged to Marcelo, the left- back who was all over the pitch. From making a goal-line clearance and bossing the midfield to setting up goal-scoring chances, he was a dominant force on the pitch. The whole team was on song, thus sending an ominous warning to Barcelona ahead of tonight.
Should they continue on the same note as midweek and outclass second-placed Barcelona, they will open a six-point gap at the top of La Liga.
They have a game in hand, so this will virtually seal the championship for Los Blancos.
A head-to-head victory would give them an advantage should the teams finish the season level on points.
Barcelona need Sunday night's victory more than their rivals. Having been dumped out of the Champions League, they will hope to cause a last-minute upset in the La Liga race. If they falter, they will have to settle for the consolation prize of the domestic Copa del Rey competition. Barca play 11th-placed Alavés in the final late next month.
The bad news for Luis Enrique is that Neymar is ineligible for the game because of a two-match suspension. Barcelona initially intended to appeal the ban – which Neymar brought upon himself after sarcastically applauding the referee for booking him – but decided against it. The Brazilian’s petulance could well cost his team the league.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane will be heartened by the news that Gareth Bale will most likely return to the team after missing out on the mid-week action.
He limped off with a calf injury during the first leg of the quarterfinal in Munich, but indications are that he is now back to full fitness. His presence may just be what Ronaldo needs to continue his fine form.
But, again, the make-up of the squads is academic in El Clasico. This is a game in which psychology, motivation, temperament and supporters are as important as fitness and tactics.
It is a clash in which the smallest blunder and the most opportunistic chance can determine the victor.
If you are not among the more than 500 million human beings watching Sunday evening's game, you are wasting our precious oxygen.