Jack FildewComment


Jack FildewComment

Sometimes fate just plays its hand. It doesn’t happen often, and in football, it happens rarely. Occasionally we get the dream final that we all longed for, sometimes we even witness a miracle that is simply unexplainable (à la Denmark or Leicester). Very rarely, however, do the footballing gods look down on us and say; “That game would be great. Not just once, but four times. In three different competitions. All within two and a half weeks of each other.” But in April and May 2011 they did just that, treating us to an era-defining 18 days of football, and more subtly pitting two polar opposite footballing philosophies against one another.

First, there was Barcelona, the House that Guardiola built. The team, constructed in his image, was intelligent, wonderfully gifted both technically and mentally and formed the core of the Spanish side that less than 12 months earlier had won the World Cup for the first time in the country’s history. Many consider them one of the greatest sides of all time, and their tiki-taka style cast a mesmerising spell over everyone watching. They were quite simply a beautiful team, playing the beautiful game in the most beautiful way possible.

And then there was the big bad wolf of Madrid. Los Blancos were the ugly bridesmaid to Barça’s blushing bride. They were a side full of roses (Ronaldo, Özil, Benzema) but had their thorns too (Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo). And if Barcelona were built in the image of their coach, Guardiola, then Madrid were built, reinforced and armoured again in the image of theirs, José Mourinho. The Portuguese had been successful in Porto, at Chelsea and just the year before at Internazionale, and had been brought into Real Madrid with the overwhelming objective of securing the club’s tenth Champions League trophy. La Decima. He was bullish and provocative, but he was a winner too. He came across as the kind of person who was prepared to win at all costs, and as 18 days in April and May 2011 showed, he was prepared to go above and beyond to make that happen.

These 18 days were marked by four wonderfully intriguing games of football, but stained by the bitterness and hatred of the two combatants. What marks this series of games, the grandest of El Clásicos, is not necessarily the 90 minute periods on the pitch themselves, but the sub-plots that became so apparent. The hatred Mourinho retained for Barcelona after being dubbed ‘the translator’ when he was there between 1996-2000, the symbolic clash between the country’s capital side (Madrid) and the city which epitomises Catalan independence (Barcelona), the division between each side’s Spanish players, who a year ago had won the World Cup side by side, and who now could not even look each other in the eye. All of these storylines would come to a stunning crescendo when the final whistle blew on the 3rd May 2011, immortalising personal rivalries and solidifying divisions.

A Prelude –

The series of fixtures that would fall in April/May 2011 were set in motion just weeks before. The first fixture, a league game, was the return of the first Clásico of the season, which in itself was rather extraordinary with Barcelona running riot in a 5-0 win. On a cold November evening, Barça outfought and outclassed their bitter rivals, a result the Daily Mail called “The Night Pep Guardiola Humiliated José Mourinho”. The Copa del Rey final was born from cup semi-final victories in late January/early February, when Barcelona humbled Almeria 8-0 on aggregate whilst Real Madrid overcame Sevilla 3-0 in the two-legged semi-final. On 12th April Barça thrashed Shakhtar to reach the semi-final of the Champions League, whilst Real Madrid, knowing a victory would set up the all-star clash, comfortably overcame Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 on aggregate. As the Guardian’s Spanish football expert Sid Lowe said, “White Hart Lane’s final whistle became the Clasico series’ starting pistol”.

With the first game between the two just three days away, the phony war began. Immediately after the four-game marathon was confirmed, Cristiano Ronaldo declared “He who laughs last, laughs longest”. He was right. Over the next 18 days, there would be four titanic battles, but only one could win the war. However, discussions surrounding the initial game went beyond 22 players on a pitch for 90 minutes. Sid Lowe characterised the battle as cantera versus cartera, the youth system of Barcelona against the wallet of Real Madrid. Paul Hayward, now chief sports writer at the Telegraph, summarised the clash by saying:

“To compress two histories into a fortnight and a half you would take a magnifying glass to José Mourinho's character, measure the weight of plutocratic politics above him, describe the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi star wars, delve deeper into Barça's entertainment manifesto, try to work out how good a coach Pep Guardiola is, unlock the secrets of the Camp Nou academy and set the whole tale in the context of decades of cultural and ethnic loathing.”

This was no longer just a series of football matches: this was a battle of identities. Footballing identities, yes. Guardiola’s slick, passing, attacking style of football bred from the days of Michels and Cruyff against Mourinho’s pragmatic, bullish, win at all costs approach. But it was also a battle of national identities. Many associated with Barcelona the independence movement of Catalonia, with the chronic flag waving and singing of Catalan anthems, whilst Madrid represented the capital of a unified Spain. There was also the battle of personal identities. Ronaldo v Messi of course, but equally significantly Mourinho v Guardiola. The two had been together at Barcelona in the late 1990s, Guardiola a player, Mourinho a coach and translator to Sir Bobby Robson. Mourinho would be stuck with that moniker for some time, and a grudge was born that would overflow into the 2009/10 Champions League semi-final when Mourinho’s Internazionale overcame Guardiola’s Barcelona. Here, a mutual hatred developed, with Mourinho determined to usurp the magnificent dominance of Barça. Finally, this was his chance.

Going into the contest, Barcelona were overwhelming favourites. Their 5-0 thumping of Real Madrid earlier in the season meant they had the psychological edge, whilst their success in the previous two years under Guardiola set them head and shoulders above Real Madrid in the trophy count (8-0 to be precise). In the calm before the storm, the bookmakers made it clear they felt Barcelona were also the overwhelming favourites, giving odds for them to win all four games of 20-1. Real Madrid? 80-1.

16th April 2011: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, La Liga –

The first clash of the four-game set came at the home of Real Madrid, who knew that realistically only a win would keep them in the hunt for the league title. As expected, Mourinho ratcheted up the mind games before kick off. He had told the press that his team had been preparing all week for the match by playing with 10 men in training because “my team always gets red cards against Barcelona”. He was right. In the 51st minute, Raul Albiol slung his arms around the neck of David Villa, hauling him down and giving away a penalty. The incident sparks the first mini-brawl of the series, Messi duly sticks the penalty away and the camera cuts to Mourinho laughing to himself. In his eyes, the injustices had begun.

Reduced to 10 men, 1-0 down in a must-win game, Mourinho rang the changes. Özil came on for Benzema, Adebayor for Di Maria and Arbeloa for Xabi Alonso. The introduction of Arbeloa was a seemingly strange choice, but as he made his way to right back, Sergio Ramos shifted inside to play at centre-half, allowing Pepe to push up into midfield and pressurise the Barça midfield. It worked. Özil won the ball on the edge of the Barcelona area, fed it to Ronaldo who laid it off for Marcelo. Marcelo took a touch past Dani Alves who came sliding in, taking the player and missing the ball. Ronaldo tucked away the 81st-minute penalty and honours were shared.

According to The Telegraph, the “engrossing draw all but ensured Barcelona’s coronation as Spanish champions for a third straight season”, and this was probably true. Barcelona remained eight points clear at the top of La Liga with six games to play. But the discussion after the game wasn’t really about the league title; no one seemed to really care. Sid Lowe claimed “rarely has a league title been so ignored… there was no depression. Instead, this match and the reaction to it appeared to be all about setting the tone for the other two trophies in play”. Attention turned towards Wednesday night’s Copa decider in Valencia, giving the two sides just four days’ turnaround and providing the first opportunity of the season for a real, physical trophy.

20th April 2011: Barcelona 0-1 Real Madrid: Estadio de Mestalla, Copa del Rey Final -

The build up to the Copa del Rey final saw each club bring out its finery, and whilst the mind games between the two teams and managers continued, the pre-match previews were characterised by some notable interventions of club legends. Writing in his column for Marca, Real Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano said that Los Blancos lacked “personality” and that the final against Barcelona would be like a mouse playing a lion. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s demi-god Johan Cruyff had his own thoughts on the four-game set, saying that the first game was rather irrelevant: all Barcelona had to do was win the second and fourth games, that is where the real trophies would be won.

As ever the cup final was held in a neutral stadium, with the 2011 edition being hosted in the intimidating coliseum of the Estadio de Mestalla in Valencia. Madrid and Barça fans made their way down to the city in the sun, where 2,000 police officers were on “maximum alert”, no doubt expecting tensions to boil over. The game itself was rather scrappy, where quality and technical superiority was overawed by raw power, tactical acumen and a fear of losing. Once more Pepe played in midfield, and once again put in an impressive display, pressing Xavi constantly and disrupting the Barça passing game. The game was dogged and moved into extra time but finally, in the 103rd minute, one piece of supreme quality ensured the Copa del Rey trophy would be heading back to Madrid for the first time since 2004. A nicely worked move on the left released Angel Di Maria, whose first-time cross fizzed across the area. And then time stood still for a second. It was one of those classic Ronaldo moments where he out-jumped the defender and hung in the air, before powering the header beyond Barcelona keeper José Pinto. He had done it in the Champions League final for Manchester United in almost exactly the same way, and this was another one to add to his cup final collection. Seventeen minutes later the game ends, Di Maria has been sent off, but Madrid have drawn first blood and Barcelona are devastated.

The immediate aftermath was as you may expect: Barcelona were left with the long trip back, licking their wounds, whilst Real Madrid celebrated enthusiastically. That very night, Madrid travelled back home to an open top bus parade, showing off the trophy as they meandered through the city; flares dominate the scene and a banner reading Copa Del Rey Winners 2011 adorns their bus. But that is not the end of the bizarre events of the night. Almost unbelievably, in front of thousands of fans on the streets and on video that can be seen on YouTube, Sergio Ramos drops the trophy over the front end of the bus. No one really seems to be able to believe it. Did that really just happen!? If you look closely at the footage, you can even see the bus jolting just a little as the Kings Cup crunches under its tyres. A trophy that Madrid had longed for, winning it for the first time since 2004, thrown under the bus.

The post mortem of the following day saw the return of hostilities. The immortal beauty of Barcelona was under threat. They had won their last five games against Madrid in all competitions prior to the first of this four-game series, but had now drawn one and lost one. Barça had continued to play the Barça way, whilst Madrid had been characteristically determined and defensive. In a way, the beautiful game was at risk after these first two games. Surely it couldn’t be that Mourinho’s vindictive and win at all costs style of football would trump Guardiola’s silky tiki-taka? In the post match tit for tat, Cruyff called Mourinho a coach who wins titles but not football. Mourinho’s comeback? “Thank you, I like being a coach who wins titles”. Alfredo Di Stefano, who just before the final had criticised Mourinho and Madrid, said “Madrid’s appetite for victory doesn’t happen with the flick of a switch, it was the result of the work headed up by Mourinho since he arrived. I hope he stays for many years”. All of a sudden Guardiola and Barcelona’s style was under attack. Guardiola’s response?

"Playing attacking football is the only way I understand, it's our club's philosophy and I'm not going to change it. We are going to attack and to try to score goals at the Bernabéu"

Despite the contest between the two in the league and Madrid’s victory at the Estadio de Mestalla, it was clear that the big two were still to come. League titles and cups are expected of these two sides, but vanquishing Europe is what it is all really about. In the press conference after the cup final win, Mourinho immediately focussed on the two-legged Champions League tie, saying that his side had demonstrated already that they can take Barcelona on over two legs and beat them. But he also upped the ante psychologically on Barcelona and particularly Pep Guardiola. Mourinho claimed that there were three types of managers: those who didn’t criticise referees ever; those who criticise them when they make mistakes (such as himself); and Guardiola, who criticises referees even when they make the right decisions. Finally, on the eve of the semi-final first leg in a televised press conference, Guardiola snapped:

“In this room [Real Madrid's press room], he is the chief, the fucking man. In here he is the fucking man and I can't compete with him. If Barcelona want someone who competes with that, then they should look for another manager. But we, as a person and an institution, don't do that.”

Pep had lost his cool, and Mourinho had won the mind games. As the lights came down the stage was set. Madrid and Barcelona, Mourinho and Guardiola, with the world waiting excitedly.

27th April 2011: Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Champions League Semi Final 1st Leg –

If the first two games had been relatively tame, then the “Game of Shame” made up for that. According to Henry Winter, “this was a game that dignity forgot. There was no respect, no charm, no integrity”. The football had become a sideshow to the manic cabaret that was taking part on the sidelines and, quite frankly, all over the pitch. When he was the manager of Barcelona, Sir Bobby Robson had called the rivalry with Real Madrid a “powder keg”. The fuse was just about to be lit.

Real Madrid again started with Pepe in midfield, giving him licence to chase and harry the Barça midfield. The injured Sami Khedira was replaced with Lassana Diarra whilst Raul Albiol came in for Ricardo Carvalho. For Barcelona, Puyol came back into the side, playing at left back, whilst Mascherano dropped into defence and Keita started in midfield in lieu of the injured Iniesta. As soon as the players walked out, you could tell this game was different. The noise from the crowd was louder, the intensity higher, and straight away there were niggling fouls and signs of frustration.

From the off, neither team wants to give an inch. The first flashpoint comes in the 39th minute. Pedro runs into Arbeloa and goes down like he’s been shot, which leads to handbags between the usual suspects, Busquets is there, Pique, of course, Alonso pushes him back. Half-time comes and it is 0-0, and as the players make their way towards the tunnel, a mass brawl begins. Dozens of players and staff from both sides tangle, José Pinto, the Barça reserve goalkeeper is sent off, and the crowd is whipped up into a frenzy.

The second half restarts in much the same fashion before the turning point. As a ball is played across to Dani Alves, Pepe comes charging in, studs up, and fells the Brazilian right back. Straight away the Barcelona and Madrid players surround the referee, leaving the prone Alves to his own devices. Wolfgang Stark, the German referee, is surrounded in a tunnel of Spanish indignation. He breaks out of the huddle, moves towards Pepe and brandishes a red card. The camera turns to the Madrid players’ protestations, Pepe’s foot was high but it looked a little harsh. Then the camera focuses on Mourinho. He’s not on the touchline anymore but is being smuggled into the front row of the crowd by the stewards. The red card graphic for Mourinho floats up onto our TV screens, and then the cameras cut to a replay from moments before showing Mourinho putting his thumbs up, winking at the fourth official and mouthing “well done”. Madrid were not only down to 10 men but had lost their talismanic coach as well. From that point on you feel the Madrid players expect to lose: they had their excuses already, what happened in the rest of this game wouldn’t really matter. It did to Barça. In the 76th minute, Messi gets the breakthrough with his 51st goal of the season, a relative tap in for him after some good work by the substitute Afellay. And then in the 87th minute, he does it again. Except this is no tap in. It’s one of those moments that will forever be referred to when debating the greatest player of all time. He picks up the ball about 10 yards into the Madrid half, as Busquets just lays it off for him and then moves out the way as quickly as possible. Messi starts centre of the goal, uses his initial burst of pace to beat the defenders, and then just keeps going. Into the Madrid area, one-on-one with Casillas, he tucks the ball beyond him, rolling it into the bottom corner. 0-2, two away goals, both from Messi. The greatest of all time? Probably.

The full-time whistle blows shortly after, and we all know what’s coming next. A tweet posted on the BBC’s live stream of the game sums it all up: “Phew. Finally, the 90 minutes of build-up is over. Now to the real spectacle - Mourinho's post-match press conference!" But it doesn’t come. Not immediately anyway. In an unprecedented move, Uefa lock the two sides in their own dressing rooms, forbidding them from immediately speaking to the press. They know what they’ve witnessed, their premier competition, watched by millions of people around the world, has descended into a complete farce. Eventually, they are let out, Mourinho is naturally “disgusted at the world we live in”, and confirms “yes, we have already been knocked out”. But his comments take on a more serious tone. Mourinho starts to talk about “dark forces” at work and claims that Uefa do not want Madrid to progress and only want Barcelona to win. Essentially, Uefa were fixing the tournament. He also says Guardiola should be ashamed of the way his team had acted, that they were constantly diving and protesting to the referee in order to get Madrid players sent off. Personally to Guardiola, he said, “I would like Josép Guardiola to win this competition properly”. His rant ended by talking up the conspiracy again: why had certain referees been picked for Barcelona games?

"If I tell Uefa what I really think and feel, my career would end now. Instead, I will just ask a question to which I hope one day to get a response: Why? Why? Why Ovrebo? Why Busacca? Why De Bleeckere? Why Stark? Why? Because every semi-final the same things happen. We are talking about an absolutely fantastic football team, so why do they need that? Why? Why does a team as good as they are need something [extra] that is so obvious that everyone sees it?”

Guardiola’s reaction was muted: he refused to comment on the ‘dark forces’ claim and simply discussed Messi’s brilliance and pragmatically talked of how everything was still to play for. In the days after, Barcelona confirmed that they had reported the comments of Mourinho (and by extension Madrid who supported him) to Uefa. In retaliation, Madrid reported Barcelona for hounding the referees. Nothing much would come of the allegations, a few fines here and there, a touchline ban for Mourinho, but the football world had been left stunned, and a dark cloud had descended over the two clubs.

3rd May 2011: Barcelona 1-1 Real Madrid: Camp Nou, Champions League Semi Final 2nd Leg –

Three games had gone and only one remained. The odds were of course in Barcelona’s favour. They had the two away goals, were playing at home and the only suspension they faced was that of reserve goalkeeper José Pinto. Real Madrid were without Pepe and also manager Mourinho, who decided to watch the game from his hotel room having been given a five-match ban, which was to be extended into the next season’s Champions League. Whilst the build-up had been erratic and vindictive, the game was not. Tempers had been dampened, perhaps by the tumultuous rain that was falling in Barcelona that night. Both sides appeared to have learnt at least some lessons from the first leg, and the first half passed by largely without incident. That changed in the second half. In the 53rd minute, Argentine Gonzalo Higuain struck the ball past Barça keeper Victor Valdes. That would have made it 0-1 to Madrid with the majority of the second half to play. But the goal was ruled out, harshly. As Ronaldo broke centre of the goal he tipped the ball past Pique, about 25 yards out, and the two touched slightly. Ronaldo was moving at some speed, went down, and as he did so he clipped the heels, accidentally, of the recovering defender Mascherano, who fell. It seems impossibly unfair, and given what Mourinho had said after the first leg about dark forces working in Barcelona’s favour, you can’t help but feel he had a rueful smile on his face as he watched the game from his hotel room. In the 54th minute, the game is taken away from Madrid when Pedro is slid in by Iniesta and buries the ball beyond Casillas. To their credit, Madrid keep going. Marcelo scores in the 64th minute, but the game is gone. Barcelona progress to the Champions League final 3-1 on aggregate and go on to beat Manchester United at Wembley.

The post game furore was not as vicious as from the previous game: it was more a tale of acceptance. Madrid had said that the referees favoured Barcelona with their decisions, and in their eyes this game proved it. Iker Casillas said “they have shot us down” and that if Higuain’s goal had stood they could have gone on to achieve mission impossible. Ronaldo crudely commented, “maybe next year they should give them the trophy directly”. But it didn’t really matter: these four games in 18 days had been a series of battles, two draws, one win apiece, but the victors had undoubtedly been Barcelona. They had won the league and would go on to win the Champions League, playing good football. But they had also been tarnished by this whole affair. Madrid had been despicable, but Barcelona facilitated it. The person who perhaps had the most to do following these 18 days of hatred was the Spanish national team manager Vicente Del Bosque. Twelve months earlier Spain had won the World Cup; now their players had been embroiled in a bitter fight, where one-half had come out on top. The clashes had taken their toll. Guardiola would leave Barcelona a year later citing fatigue, taking a one-year sabbatical. Mourinho would arguably have the last laugh. The next season Madrid beat Barça to the league title, meaning Mourinho had now won league titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. But he would also remain tarnished. He would forever be the man who had accused Uefa and Barcelona of match-fixing, set his teams out to defend and would always be the man who had been hell-bent on breaking up the beautiful game.

These 18 days in April and May have gone down in history. Many of us remember the iconic games, the constant accusations and deceptions played out in front of our eyes, but now it seems a distant memory. The ramifications, however, are still felt today. When Mourinho left Real Madrid, he believed his players had betrayed him, that there was a mole in the dressing room, and that was something that he believed had stemmed from the intensity of these games. Barcelona were now characterised as a team that had a penchant for play-acting: they could play the beautiful game, but could also employ the dark arts - a perception that still remains.

After an intense two and a half weeks, reputations had been stained and enemies had been made. The world had enjoyed a spectacle, but the unsavoury side of football had come to the fore. The not so beautiful game. To use Sir Bobby Robson’s analogy, the powder keg had well and truly exploded, the mess of which would take a long time to clear up.

By Jack Fildew. Header image credit goes fully to Jan S0L0