x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

It was a game of two halves supporting el clasico

Spending 45 minutes at their respective supporters clubs in Dubai, our columnist joins fans with Spanish eyes.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo scored both goals for their respective clubs in the 2-2 draw. Lluis Gene, Quique Garcia / AFP;
Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo scored both goals for their respective clubs in the 2-2 draw. Lluis Gene, Quique Garcia / AFP;

"Wouldn't you be this arrogant if you were that good?"

Cristiano Ronaldo, who else, had just given Real Madrid the lead in Sunday night's fantastically chaotic el clasico and had celebrated it in that non-celebratory manner he usually marks goals with, prompting what the elderly Scottish gentleman presumably intended as a rhetorical question.

He only had to wait eight minutes for his answer.

All fist-pumping and unrestrained passion, the celebration of Barcelona's equaliser by the only player on the planet arguably better than Ronaldo, showed that brilliance and arrogance do not have to go hand in hand.

No two players divide opinion like Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two of the all-time greats at the peak of their powers. And no two clubs divide opinion like Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The rivalry, indeed the outright animosity between the two clubs, has its origins in Spain's political history, but today, el clasico, and all its baggage, no longer belongs to Catalunya and Madrid only.

It is the world's derby.

At Camp Nou on Sunday there were flags from India and Iran. From Europe and Africa and many Palestinian flags.

Football fans of all nationalities, it seems, are polarised by the two Spanish giants. And by an Argentine and a Portuguese, too.

And not least right here on our own doorstep, at Dubai's Mina Al Siyahi, where Real Madrid's official supporters club congregate each week to follow Le Merengues.

When Ronaldo's brilliant finish capped half an hour of Madrid dominance, the cheers were in Arabic, Farsi, Indian and English.

"We'll win 3-1," a Lebanese Madridista confidently predicted.

Several English fans in Manchester United shirts who had stuck around after watching their team beat Newcastle United earlier, also celebrated the goal by one of their former heroes. If you strained your ears, you could also hear a few Spanish voices, too.

And their confidence was not misplaced.

Barcelona had not recovered a deficit against Madrid at Camp Nou for 23 years. For half an hour Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Karim Benzema had run riot. Madrid could have killed off Barcelona. Instead, they let in an equaliser from Messi and half time brought a subdued reaction from Madrid's eclectic Dubai fan base. They knew in their hearts that their team had let Barca off the hook.

Across town, at Wafi's Seville's restaurant, home of the Barcelona UAE Fan Club, the mood at the start of the second half was marginally better.

The crowd, mostly made up of Spaniards and Emiratis, was quiet, betraying a lack of confidence in their team. But then Messi began conducting play and Barcelona regained their identity.

It was only a matter of time before a goal arrived and it came on the hour mark. Messi's stunning free kick was greeted with, more than anything, relief.

Barca's fans had seen enough of their team's shocking defending to be worried. And sure enough Madrid responded only six minutes later, another brilliant finish by you-know-who.

Messi 2, Ronaldo 2.

Still, as the final whistle blew, Barcelona's "local" contingent seemed disappointed with the 2-2 draw which keeps them eight points clear of their rivals, although level on points with Atletico Madrid.

"Our defence is the problem, we need [Gerard] Pique back," an Emirati in a replica Barcelona home shirt said.

Have the fans become too demanding? Perhaps. Spoilt? Undoubtedly.

Barcelona and Madrid's foreign-based fans are often accused of jumping on the bandwagon. And while smug, fair-weather fans are no one's idea of good company, the accusation can often be unfair.

After all, it is no different than supporting Roger Federer, the LA Lakers or rugby union's New Zealand All Blacks.

And with Messi, Ronaldo and the rest on show, fans from relatively weak football-playing nations are hardly going to fall in love with a team like Stoke City, are they?

Excellence will always attract mainstream adoration, no matter how much the "real" fans look down their noses at it.

"Barcelona v Real Madrid is one of the biggest rivalries in sports," Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers legend, said after the match. "Now I can say I was here and saw it live."

And if it's good enough for Magic ...

El clasico might come around only twice a year, but for the Barca and Madrid fans - whether in Spain, UAE or around the world - not to mention the hilariously blinkered Catalan and Madrid papers, the rivalry is a 365-day affair. And the whole world is invited.

Keep March 13, 2013 free in your diary.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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