It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Ten years ago, Barcelona and Real Madrid embarked on an unprecedented period in their rivalry, playing four Clásicos in 18 days: one La Liga matchup, a Copa del Rey final, and two legs in the Champions League semifinal. When it began, Madrid trailed Barcelona in the league; they had not won a Copa Del Rey in 18 years, and were in desperate pursuit of La Décima, their long-awaited 10th European Cup.
Usually, one would attempt to refrain from straying into hyperbole when revisiting classic matches, but it’s impossible in this instance. The period between April 16, 2011, and May 3, 2011 was and most likely will always be the closest football will get to an NBA Finals playoff series.
The Guardian’s Sid Lowe described the plot as “four battles,one war.” It was almost unimaginable, with perfect timing and unparalleled casting: a tale of two cities, two giants with competing ideologies, directly opposed in a conflict that stretched far back in time and well beyond the green grass and white lines. If a writer had presented it to you as a screenplay, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all a bit too on the nose—too much narrative, too much at stake.
At the time, Pep Guardiola was on his way to turning the Catalans into arguably the greatest club side in history. Barcelona won the treble in his first season in 2009, and Lionel Messi had won his first Ballon d’Or later that year, at 22 years old. José Mourinho arrived at Madrid in 2010 with a simple objective: take down Guardiola and Barcelona. Mourinho had the experience; his Inter Milan side beat Barcelona in the Champions League in 2010 en route to a treble, the first and only for an Italian side. And he had history with Barcelona; he coached under Bobby Robson there early in his career and wanted the job before it was given to Guardiola.
Under these two coaches, Barcelona and Madrid took their rivalry beyond anyone’s wildest dreams—or fears. They represented two extremes engaging in a showdown for football’s soul. Barcelona were relentless—passing, moving, and reinventing our understanding of football before our very eyes with its starting lineup filled with La Masia graduates. Real Madrid were an immaculately designed vehicle of riches, boasting the most expensive player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo.
El Clásico had already become the biggest club fixture in the world prior to this period, but these four matches elevated it to something else entirely. They took place in the shadow of Barcelona’s 5-0 thrashing of Madrid at Camp Nou earlier in the season, Barcelona’s biggest win since 1994, and a match Mourinho called the “biggest defeat of his career.” He was right based on the scoreline and in the stature of the loss—he was not brought to Madrid to oversee such a humiliation. Sergio Ramos was sent off late in the game, a preview of what would come in the spring. Mourinho knew that Real Madrid couldn’t beat Barcelona purely on footballing terms, despite having the likes of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Ángel Di María, Mesut Özil, and Kaká at his disposal. Mourinho knew that to succeed, he would have to take Madrid to a far darker place.
The first of the four matches came six months after that 5-0 defeat and it took less than 10 seconds for the game’s first foul, when Benzema brought down Sergio Busquets, setting a fitting tone for the next 400 minutes of game play. The jeers—yet to die down from the opening whistle—grew more piercing. Misplaced passes from the legendary pairing of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, by Messi, by everyone. The opening 10 minutes were feverish, enthralling, unrivaled elite-level chaos.
But if the intensity was high in the first half, it ramped up in the second. Raúl Albiol was given a red card after bringing down David Villa in the Real Madrid box, and Messi converted the penalty, his 30th goal in 29 league games. First blood, Barcelona. Ronaldo leveled the score at 1-1 with a penalty of his own with 10 minutes remaining and that’s how the game would end. Real Madrid had stopped their run of five consecutive El Clásico defeats, but the league was gone, and they knew it. But there were still three more games against Barcelona.
There was a sense of exhaustion after the game, from the players to the managers and even the press. How could this go on for another 17 days? Mourinho was criticized for his defensive approach. Even Los Blancos legend Alfredo di Stéfano weighed in, praising Barcelona and marveling at how they “play football and dance,” while accusing his beloved Madrid of being “a team without personality.” Barcelona registered 76 percent possession at the Bernabéu. Mourinho blamed the referee.
Real Madrid won the next game four days later in the Copa del Rey final thanks to a Ronaldo header in extra time at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, a neutral site, with fans from both teams in attendance. It was arguably the most relentless game of the series with a cacophony of boos, jeers, chants, and cheers for 120 minutes. Mourinho had his win, and Real Madrid had their Copa del Rey trophy, which Sergio Ramos dropped under a bus.
Then came the Champions League first leg and that’s when it happened: Guardiola stepped into his pre-match press conference and launched into a composed but vicious tirade directed at Mourinho. The only surprise was that it had taken until late April for Guardiola to respond to Mourinho’s taunts; his remarks that day served as the final break in their relationship. Mourinho had previously accused Pep of being the only member of a group of coaches to criticize a referee for making the right decision. Guardiola finally snapped. “Tomorrow at 8.45 p.m. we will meet each other on the pitch. Off the pitch he has won all year. He can have his personal Champions League outside the field. Fine. Let him enjoy it, I’ll give him that,” Guardiola said.
His comments got a reaction: Barça won the game 2-0, and Mourinho and Pepe were sent off, along with Barcelona reserve goalkeeper José Manuel Pinto, who was punished for his part in a bench-clearing brawl between both squads. After the game, it was Mourinho’s turn to fire back. He launched into another tirade, accusing the referees of bias in favor of Barcelona. “If I tell UEFA what I really think and feel, my career would end now,” he said, before taking aim at Guardiola. “He is a fantastic coach, but I have won two Champions Leagues. He has won one Champions League and that is one that would embarrass me.” Barcelona released a statement saying they were considering filing a formal complaint to UEFA.
It was an ugly conclusion to an ugly encounter that featured at least one moment of iconic beauty. Having already scored Barcelona’s opening goal, Messi played a lazy one-two with Busquets and bore down on an increasingly panicked Madrid backline, sending bodies scampering as he squirmed the ball past Iker Casillas a few minutes from time. The two sides would draw the return leg, and Barcelona celebrated its place in the final by dancing in the center circle and applauding a sold-out Camp Nou crowd that had risen to its collective feet. It was euphoric and joyous, and allowed for a sense of relief that one of the biggest and intense periods of this rivalry—maybe the biggest—had concluded. And that, as they say, was that.
Except it wasn’t and it never would be again. Those four Clásicos in 18 days poured fuel on an already heated and rich rivalry, steeped in sport, politics, and nationalism, and then set it alight and turbocharged it beyond recognition. Each of the four games was more volatile than the one that preceded it. It was as beautiful for some of its football as it was enraging for its antics, continuously whipped further and further into a frenzy and then whipped some more. It was exhausting; fuck, it was exhausting. For fans, for players, for coaches, for the media. Watching all four matches back recently, it was like if Game of Thrones had run four continuous episodes featuring the “Battle of Winterfell,” each one with more dragons, more carnage, and higher stakes.
The animosity didn’t fade after those 18 days. Their next meeting, less than four months later, in the Spanish Super Cup, showed that the anger had not subsided. Deep into stoppage time of the second leg, Madrid fullback Marcelo scythed down Cesc Fàbregas right in front of the team benches. Both benches cleared; Marcelo was shown a straight red, and the customary brawl between players, coaches, and subs ensued.
It was a pretty shocking display of brutal hostility and it was about to get worse. During the melee, Mourinho, unprovoked, walked up behind Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova and hooked a finger into his eye. As Vilanova pushed him away, Mourinho raised his chin and gave a defiant smirk. The season hadn’t even yet fully begun.
Those 18 days seemed to break both clubs. Guardiola would leave in 2012, exhausted. Mourinho would leave not long after, his reputation taking hits that he never truly recovered from. It was as if it broke everyone involved: Madrid broke Mourinho, Mourinho kind of broke Guardiola, and Barcelona and Real Madrid kind of broke each other. Real Madrid secured La Décima three years later and won another three Champions Leagues between 2016 and 2018. Barcelona added another treble in 2015. But as I’ve written before, neither really got over those four Clásicos. It was, for them, the best of times, and also the worst of times.