, June 14, 2021

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El Clasico is still European soccer’s biggest fixture, but the shine is gone

  •   3 min reads
Messi and Sergio Ramos remain critical cogs for their respective clubs. Alberto Estevez/EPA.

Unlike in England, 4pm isn’t a traditional kick off time in Spanish soccer. That is, however, when Saturday’s Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid will start, as it has done a number of times over the last few years, with La Liga identifying 4pm as the best possible time slot to draw the largest audience from the lucrative Asian market.

El Clasico is club soccer’s biggest fixture and La Liga views it as one of its most effective tools to pull new fans to the Spanish game. La Liga scheduled a December 17 fixture between Barcelona and Real Madrid even earlier (1pm local time) only for the backlash from supporters to force them to push back the kick off time of future games, but not by enough that the Asian market is completely disregarded.

An estimated global audience of around 650 million watched the last Clasico clash back in March, making it the sport’s most-watched fixture. But while Barcelona v Real Madrid is still the most noteworthy game in soccer, some of the shine has been lost. The rivalry might be the same as it was a few years ago, but the product on the pitch certainly isn’t.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are two teams in the midst of a generational transition. While the two sides were not so long ago distinct rivals not just in terms of their history and tradition, but also their respective identities and outlook on the game. Now they are suffering many of the same problems.

Cristiano Ronaldo is gone at the Santiago Bernabeu, but the likes of Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos remain. Real Madrid’s established core provided Zinedine Zidane with the pillars required to build last season’s title triumph on top of, but this is an aging core of players who will need phased out over the next year or two.

Barca are in a similar position. Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique still form the spine of the Camp Nou side, even after all these years, and while Barcelona’s principles and values as a club can be found in these La Masia graduates, generational renewal is desperately required.

Ronald Koeman has overseen an effort to lower the age of the squad, and the wage bill, since his appointment during the summer, with highly-rated youngsters Sergino Dest, Pedri and Francisco Trincao all signed in the transfer window. They have been added to the exciting group of academy graduates including Ronald Araujo, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig he inherited.

Ansu might well be the most exciting young talent to have burst through at Barcelona since Messi. The comparisons are unavoidable, with the 17-year-old already one of the most important players at the Camp Nou. Ansu plays the game with a composure beyond his years, netting five times in just six appearances so far this season. Of all the teenage prodigies to have been billed as the next Messi, none have have been destined to succeed the great man like Ansu.

Vinicius Junior isn’t as polished as Ansu, but he performs a similar role for Real Madrid as their brightest hope for the future. The Brazilian winger is raw and frequently makes the wrong decisions from dangerous positions, but he makes things happen. Real Madrid have more than once needed Vinicius to break open low defensive blocks. It was, after all, Vinicius who scored the opener against Barcelona in March. He was the one who effectively broke the Catalans.

Saturday’s Clasico will be a unique one. The lack of fans in the Camp Nou stands will rob the match of its typical atmosphere and spectacle. This could in turn result in a peculiar lack of edge between two teams politically and ideologically opposed to each other in almost every way. This is normally more than a soccer match, but that might not be the case in this particular instance.

There is a certain level intrigue attached to the prospect of watching two rivals uncertain of themselves face off, but it is a different kind of intrigue to what has been customary for El Clasico over the last decade or so. At the height of the Messi v Ronaldo era, this fixture was a demonstration of the sport at its very best. The same can’t be said for Saturday.

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