Spain Soccer La Liga

Barcelona fans celebrate at the end of a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, dubbed 'el clasico', at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, May 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Before stepping foot in the stadium, the noise was deafening.

The bellowing of the crowd could be heard on the staircase from the metro to the street. Thousands of fans inundated the streets surrounding The Santiago Bernabéu.

It was a current of 100,000 people faced in every direction, but each called out the same curse into the night air.

“Puta Barca, Puta Barca, Ay, Ay!”

Last week, I attended one of the most famous rivalries in sports: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. The eternal enemies locked horns in Game 1 of a two-match series in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey.

The rivalry has been a tradition for the last 121 years; it’s older than the World Cup. Fittingly, it has earned the name “El Clásico,” and for soccer fans, it doesn’t get any more classic than this.

El Clásico has always been the highlight of any football fan’s calendar.

The game is played between the sport’s two biggest clubs that traditionally have stacked their rosters with the very best talent money can buy or that their respective youth academies can nurture.

The rivalry has been a proving ground and the spot of coronations for some of the best players in history. It’s always been an opportunity for someone to seize his moment and become a legend.

The last decade of El Clásicos have been defined by the rivalry between former Barcelona man Lionel Messi and his foil former Real Madrid No. 7 Cristiano Ronaldo.

But the age of Messi- and Ronaldo-led Clásicos are over, and it’s entirely possible the world will never see the two step on the same pitch ever again, with the former playing in Paris Saint-Germain and the latter in Saudi Arabia.

The rivalry has reshaped significantly since I first started watching as a kid. There’re plenty of new faces filling out each roster.

When I saw my first El Clásico, Barcelona midfielder Xavi was captaining his side to romping wins over Los Blancos. Now, the club legend commands his team from the bench as manager.

While Xavi might not be able to harm Real Madrid on the pitch, the Madridistas will never forget their former tormentor.

I pushed my way through the fan-flooded streets around the stadium surveyed by police in full riot gear and ambulances on each corner.

What I didn’t realize was that the majority of the police were focused not on the stadium but on a congregation of ultra supporters in what’s called “La Previa.”

On one of the roads pointed toward the Bernabéu, an even thicker horde of fans moshed and raged under the light of red flares filling the night sky with fluorescent smoke.

When I pushed my way in, I was showered with beer and thrown about by the fans pushing and shoving as they chanted their songs for Madrid.

As I worked my way out of the frenzy, I heard thousands shout: “Xavi muérete! Xavi muérete!” (Die Xavi! Die Xavi!)

This rivalry runs far deeper than the sport.

This manifestation of a political divide has roots in the founding of modern Spain. The two cities of Barcelona and Madrid represent two different Spains.

One city is the capital and where the monarch calls home. Real Madrid translates to “Royal Madrid.” Los Blancos, nicknamed for their traditionally all-white uniforms, are the king’s team.

Barcelona has historically been an industrial hub and more blue collar in its ideals. The city is a bastion for Catalan independence and separatism from Spain all together.

In the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona was one of the last stronghold of the Republic against the fascists that ultimately took over the country in the form of a military dictatorship.

The dictator, Francisco Franco, chose Real Madrid as his team. This isn’t a legend to sell tickets. This history is literally woven into the fabric of these two clubs.

Today, Barcelona always has a small Catalan flag (red and yellow stripes) sown into the design of its traditional Blaugrana (blue and red) kits. Some years, Barça even wears full red-and-yellow-striped kits.

Madrid doesn’t bother with any subtly either.

The king’s team has a crown seated on the top of its crest. Madrid’s white kits are usually accented with gold and purple — the colors of regality.

This is a battle of ideologies. This is a political standoff — a war between Castillians and Catalonians.

This is so much more than a game, and there are no bad seats in the house at Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

Ticket sales opened last week on Madrid’s website on Monday morning. In the middle of my history of Spanish architecture class, two friends and I dropped $220 to sit in the nosebleeds to watch these two giants duke it out in the semifinals of the Spanish cup.

Outside of the stadium was fierce madness, but inside was a soccer heaven.

The pitch glowed emerald green that night. A fast and physical match was highlighted by technical and tactical brilliance.

On TV, every hard tackle or moment of brilliance is ever so slightly muted, but in person, even from the upper reaches of the stadium, every touch of the ball shines that much brighter, and every foul crunches that much harder.

In the seats towering above the grass were 81,000 fans who sang and chanted in unison to egg on their team, berate the referee and mercilessly demoralize the opposition.

Every call that went Barcelona’s way lighted the ire of the Madridistas, and every foul against the home team was met with booming outcries and whistles.

Children sitting in their mothers’ laps were yelling out to urge their favorite players on — “Vamos Vinny!” — or to tell trampled Barcelona players to get back on their feet: “Levantate! Levantate!”

Barcelona managed to suck the life out of the stadium. The away team scored first, and with a superior defensive effort, the Blaugrana shut out Los Blancos in their stadium.

A tiny section of Barça fans (the home team only allows for a small group of fans to attend each match) reveled in their team’s victory and jeered at the Madrileños.

Before the end of the match, a stadium official announced that the away fans would be kept in their seats after the match until the police deemed it safe to leave the Bernabéu.

The walk out of the stadium grumbled with bitter disappointment as the Madrid fans had to wait until the second leg of the semifinal to exact their vengeance on their rival.

As a Penn Stater, I’ve seen incredible atmospheres every fall weekend in Beaver Stadium. I’ve felt our avalanche of noise pour through the canyoning stands and out onto the field.

But the Beaver Stadium experience is full of specially curated songs led by a stadium crew blasting “Zombie Nation” through speakers and cheerleaders to cue “We Are” chants.

After the kickoff, the stadium speakers go silent during soccer matches, and it becomes an affair between fans and the athletes.

The game was special. It quickly became clear why this match is the crown jewel of all of soccer, and without doubt, this rivalry stands alone in all of athletic competition.

It’s natural. It’s spontaneous. It’s El Clásico.

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