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Will el clásico saturation be good for Spanish football?

21st April, 2011

José Mourinho and his Real Madrid players celebrate their Copa del Rey victory

Well they’ve finally done it. Or rather He’s done it. José Mourinho has brought Real Madrid their first victory in el clásico for three years, their first piece of silverware for the same amount of time, and their first Copa del Rey triumph since 1993. Much to celebrate for Real’s fans, naturally, yet somehow only par for the course as far as the remarkable Mourinho is concerned. Which could prove to be a problem for at least as long as the Portuguese manager remains at the club.

Mourinho has of course famously won domestic cup tournaments in each of the four countries where he has managed. He took Portugal to the Taça de Portugal (Portuguese Cup) in 2003 and his League Cups for Chelsea in 2005 and 2007 bookended an FA Cup victory in 2007. Even though he was slower off the mark with Inter, where he didn’t win the Coppa Italia until 2010, during his second season, he did at least inaugurate his time as manager there with a win in the Supercoppa Italia, Italy’s equivalent of the Community Shield, immediately prior to his first.

Domestic trophies would seem to matter to Mourinho as much as international ones. He has his first one in Madrid now, and if his record in England, where he spent his longest single spell in management to date, is anything to go by there’s no reason to imagine that he will be satisfied with just the one. Should he still be at the helm next season, expect Madrid to be pushing for honours on all fronts, driven by their manager’s mania for success.

Which could get rather dull for the rest of us. How many Clásicos will we really be able to stand? What will happen if this year’s four-game bonanza develops into something of a regular occurrence? Of course there’s no guarantee that Real Madrid and Barcelona will continue to be drawn against each other in the Champions League, but both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s excellent records in that competition suggest that both teams will likely go far much more often than not, increasing dramatically the odds of an encounter in the knockout phase. Pride will also prompt the Catalan club to field strong teams consistently in the Copa del Rey. There seems to be something about losing to Mourinho that leaves a particularly unpleasant taste in the mouths of his opposite numbers. Moreover Guardiola will doubtless not wish to cede any territory to Madrid. Barcelona, in spite of their paucity of finals appearances in recent years, have won the tournament more than any other team and will wish to keep that record safe.

There is another point to be made. As Ramon Besa argues in El País, so thorough has been the two clubs’ dominance in the league that the Copa del Rey has served as a consolation prize for the other teams. Prior to last night’s encounter, Madrid and Barcelona had each featured in four of the last twenty finals of the competition. Madrid had won one of those matches, Barcelona three. None of those finals were against each other. By contrast in the same period four represents the number of occasions on which the league was only won by a team not called Real Madrid or Barcelona. The rest of Spanish football, or at least its upper middle classes, have benefited from the relative disdain with which the two premier clubs have regarded the tournament. In the Copa del Rey, at least, the riches and the prestige, though limited, have been shared amongst a greater number of teams.

The message is clear. Should the two oligarchs of Spanish football decide to start investing in domestic cup trophies as well, then that route to victory may be closed not just to clubs outside the top flight, but even fellow members of La Liga. With an intense and possibly insuperable class divide already striating the league, removing this avenue to glory and a move, if only temporary, up the social ladder may prove extremely detrimental to Spanish football in the long run. Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with their sponsors and the television companies will doubtless be thrilled at the potentially boundless bullion to be plundered. The rest of us however will perhaps start to wince at the recognition of the gulf that has emerged between the upper classes and even the best of the rest. Making matters worse is the fact that unlike a straight knockout tournament, the Copa del Rey’s various rounds are played over two legs, with the exception of the final, further reducing the chances of a committed Madrid or Barcelona being eliminated, since lightning would have to strike twice for another team to prevail.

So congratulations to José Mourinho and to Real Madrid. And thanks to both teams for a thoroughly engrossing match. No doubt Madrid fans will also be grateful to Mourinho for taking the Copa del Rey more seriously than some of his predecessors. But has he initiated a process that won’t easily be undone? It is true that football has never truly embraced the spirit of egalitarianism. From the game’s earliest days victory on the pitch was always supposed to go to the team with the best players. Later on the influence of the coach came to be seen as secondary only to the level of talent available. Off the pitch the corporatisation of football has ensured that a small cadre of teams will typically have the monopoly on recruiting the best players and coaches and therefore the wealthiest sponsors and most lucrative prizes. Our attentions have perhaps been deceived by the pop culture lure of the brightest lights of the game, who have, in the television age, cast a sheen of celebrity over an already immensely popular sport. I suspect, however, that should Real Madrid and Barcelona come to completely overwhelm Spain’s footballing culture, then our interest will ultimately become harder to sustain. Mourinho, of course, will probably have left by then, delighted with the millions in his bank account and the likely prodigious number of times his name will have been recorded in the annals of Spanish footballing history.

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