Whether you’re a die-hard football fan or a casual bystander, each year, the world stops for 90 minutes to watch the biggest game in club football — El Clásico Español, a game between Spanish juggernauts Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Only this year, Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium wasn’t rocking. The teams’ 99,000 fans had to chant from home.
Nevertheless, the match was as wild as expected. Real Madrid took an early lead through Federico Valverde, but Barcelona’s Ansu Fati quickly equalized. A controversial penalty was awarded to Real Madrid when their captain, Sergio Ramos, had his shirt pulled in the box. With Barcelona chasing the game until the last minute, Luka Modric scored the dagger goal to finish off the match with a 3-1 scoreline.
But the empty stadium did detract from the emotion and intensity with which Clasicos are usually played. Although much of last season was played without fans, Saturday was the first time in history these bitter rivals played each other in an empty stadium, a rare sight, given Barcelona has the largest stadium in the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on April 14, 2020 in regards to mass gatherings, which discouraged in-person attendance of sports and concerts. Coupled with protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for social distancing and wearing masks, these recommendations led to the cancelation of season tickets across all of Europe.
The last game of the season across all competitions played before a live audience was Liverpool’s March 11 match against Atlético Madrid. Around 52,267 fans filled the stadium, but empty patches were spread through the stands. Even that number was far too many, according to UEFA, Europe’s main football governing body, which launched an investigation on how the virus may have spread through the mass gatherings.
This year was the first time any UEFA Champions League final was played without fans. The Merseyside Derby, Battle of Manchester and other traditional rivalry matches have been played in empty stadiums — but never El Clásico.
Nevertheless, with or without fans, tempers on the field were as fierce as ever. On Saturday, there was no comradery.
Tatum Kauka, a forward for the Stony Brook University women’s soccer team, has been playing since age four and can attest to the kind of rivalries that dominate the game.
“When you’re on the field, there are no friends,” she said.
At the professional level, where players make their living off of results, the tension is even greater. None more so than when El Clásico peaked during the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era.
At that time, Real Madrid and Barcelona fought for league titles, and fed off of each other’s greatness to push each other, and their top scorers, to higher levels. The heights Messi and Ronaldo reached from 2009 to 2018 were large contributing factors to the rise in notoriety of El Clásico as a global event.
However, despite a decline in revenue in recent years, due to the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the most influential athlete on social media, El Clasico is still the biggest football match in the world — twice a year.
Real Madrid’s victory at this year’s El Clásico put the team on top of the league, while Barcelona dropped all the way to 12th place. The win broke the stalemate of all-time wins, deadlocked at 96. But now, Real Madrid have socially distanced themselves from Barcelona in pursuit of their record 35th La Liga title.