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El Clásico Exits Its Golden Age

Barcelona can no longer rely on the inevitable brilliance of Lionel Messi to save them against Real Madrid, a worrisome sign as soccer’s biggest rivalry enters a new decade

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the 38th minute, Lionel Messi chested a ball down on the edge of the Real Madrid penalty box after a glorious pass from Sergio Busquets. For a moment, the air seemed to vanish from the Santiago Bernabéu. For Real Madrid fans, the familiar sight of Messi with just the goalkeeper to beat could have only one outcome. A second later, however, came something less familiar. Messi shot directly at Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who punched the ball to safety, keeping the score at 0-0. The Argentine, who had scored 15 goals in 21 previous games at the Bernabéu, was stymied.

Messi’s miss symbolized the current evolution of El Clásico, which once guaranteed a spectacle on a scale unlike any game in the world. Real Madrid won the latest edition on Sunday, beating Barcelona 2-0, their first league win at home over their rivals since 2014. The stakes remain high when the two Spanish giants meet—Madrid leapfrogged Barcelona into first place in La Liga with the win—but Sunday’s game lacked the dynamism and drama of past meetings, as well as the individual brilliance of superstar players like Messi. The biggest fixture in club soccer entered 2020 in a manner far different from how it entered the last decade. El Clásico has long since left its golden era and is now deep into a transitional phase, much like the two clubs at its center.

El Clásico exploded in the 2010s under almost too-perfect circumstances: La Liga had been broadcast globally for a decade by that point, and with the advance of social media, a new generation bore witness to two giants constructed with hugely opposing ideologies, fielding the best players in the game, colliding on a global scale. Around the world, new Culés and Madridistas had none of the geographical ties that lay at the heart of the rivalry, nor the political animosity that has infused it since before the Franco era in Spain. These newfound loyalties were determined by which of the clubs people most related to, whether they were drawn to star players like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, managers Pep Guardiola or José Mourinho, or simply which team they preferred to play with on FIFA.

At the start of 2010, Barcelona were in their second season under Guardiola, on their way to creating a dynasty that would transform the sport and define the next decade. Big-money signings, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were replaced with graduates from the famed La Masia academy and shrewd signings from elsewhere in La Liga. Not only were Barça building arguably the greatest club side of all time, they were doing so with homegrown players. Even Messi, despite representing his native Argentina at the national level, had joined the club at age 13. The philosophy was so successful that in 2012, Barça fielded 11 players who’d graduated from La Masia.

On the other side of the divide, in 2009 Real Madrid signed Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player at the time, and were coached by Mourinho, who was hired in 2011 with the explicit task of stopping the rampage of Guardiola’s Barcelona. Madrid wanted to win—especially the coveted La Décima, their 10th European championship—by any means necessary. Barcelona’s challenge was also aesthetic; they couldn’t just win, they had to win in a style that Los Blancos could not.

During Mourinho’s first season in charge, four meetings between the teams in 18 days confirmed the clásico as the biggest show in world soccer and cemented the identities of both clubs in the ensuing years. Barça carved out their reputation as the soccer purists; while Madrid would simply buy talent, Barcelona would develop it. The battles were ferocious and played at a remarkably high level. If the period containing those four brutal meetings were a movie, it wouldn’t be defined by a single genre. It was comedic, sinister, brilliant, dramatic, all within the same game. Yet the intensity of that era took an emotional toll on both clubs.

By the end of the decade, Madrid had secured their dominance in the Champions League, winning four titles in five years from 2014 to 2018, and Barcelona had asserted its prominence in La Liga, winning four titles in five years from 2015 to 2019. But the lines between them that were once so distinct became much more blurred. Gradually, Barcelona abandoned its commitment to La Masia graduates. They broke their club-record fee in two consecutive years to acquire Neymar in 2013 and Luis Suárez in 2014. They won a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League titles in 2015, but a lack of continuity from the academy to the first team exposed the club’s overreliance on a superstar attacking trio of Messi, Suárez and Neymar.

In the summer of 2017, the cracks in Barcelona’s foundation were exposed. Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record fee of $262 million. The Brazilian had been hailed as Messi’s successor and was expected to stay long after the Argentine’s retirement. It seemed unthinkable that a player at the peak of their powers would leave Barcelona. Neymar’s departure broke up the front three that had been responsible for 250 goals in 299 league games and brought Barcelona the highest transfer fee in history, but at what cost?

Neymar’s sale broke Barça, and the club has yet to fix itself. They didn’t merely lose an heir to Messi’s throne; they also lost their pride. Their attempts to find an immediate replacement—by spending almost $280 million in total transfer fees for Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool and Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund—have failed. Dembélé has shown glimpses of brilliance but has so far struggled to fulfill his potential, thanks to some cruel luck with injuries. Coutinho was loaned to Bayern Munich this season to make space for new signing Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid. The French World Cup winner has also struggled to fit the Barcelona system and to reach form he displayed at his former club, providing yet another example of Barcelona’s poorly conceived big spending.

On the field, Barcelona’s identity no longer resembles the philosophy instilled by Guardiola, whose principles can be traced back to Johan Cruyff’s time as manager in the 1980s and ’90s. Unpopular managerial appointments, as well as disputes between the board and the players, have tested fans’ patience—even Messi has criticized the Barcelona board recently. It’s a worrying sign that a club that once set such an example could now be accused of ruining the last years of the greatest player of all time. Where the club’s motto, Més que un club (“More than a club”), once commanded envy and admiration, it has now turned to ridicule.

Real Madrid is undergoing its own transitional phase since Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus in 2018. They lost almost a million Twitter followers in the 24 hours after the Portuguese forward’s transfer but didn’t respond as hastily as their Catalan rivals did after losing Neymar. Despite landing marquee signing Eden Hazard from Chelsea last summer, Real Madrid have demonstrated a willingness to go for youth. Players such as Vinícius Júnior and Federico Valverde have been given prominent roles since Ronaldo’s departure. In Sunday’s win, the 19-year-old Vinícius became the youngest scorer in a clásico in the 21st century, beating Messi’s previous record by 26 days. Real Madrid is hardly fielding starting 11s full of academy graduates, but they’ve put faith in youth and have displayed a renewed pragmatism and discipline under Zinedine Zidane. Barça, on the other hand, have been the team guilty of chasing galácticos.

The rivalry between the world’s two biggest clubs, once defined by Messi and Ronaldo, is entering a strange new phase. Despite still being on a level no player can reach, Messi can no longer be expected to save Barcelona on his own, as the last two clásicos, as well as the latter stages of the Champions League over the past few seasons, have shown. He’s recently hinted that his retirement may not be too far away. When that time comes, with no heir on either team ready to take the throne, El Clásico may have to fall a little further before returning to anything like its former heights.

Ryan Hunn is the cofounder of Stadio and cohost of The Stadio Podcast. He is based in Berlin.