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Barcelona vs Real Madrid: what U.S. team rivalries are similar to El Clásico?

As the big two in LaLiga go head-to-head once again, we take a look at comparable rivalries across other sporting competitions.

Larry Bird #33 of the Boston Celtics poses for a portrait with Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1983. As the big two in LaLiga go head-to-head once again, we take a look at comparable rivalries across other sporting competitions.
Andrew D. BernsteinDIARIO AS

Arch rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid meet for the 255th time on Saturday, in the latest edition of Spain’s ‘El Clásico’. It’s a clash between two clubs whose long-standing enmity has so many layers to it that one could hardly do it justice without writing a whole book about it. (Spanish soccer expert Sid Lowe has written a whole book about it - Fear and Loathing in La Liga - and we at AS USA wholeheartedly recommend you give it a read.)

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Barça vs Madrid: a century-old Clásico rivalry

El Clásico is a meeting of two of the world’s most successful soccer clubs: Madrid have won 34 LaLiga titles, 20 Copas del Rey and 14 European Cups. Barcelona have 27 LaLigas, 31 Copas del Rey and five continental crowns. Madrid vs Barça is a rivalry that has regularly decided the destination of major trophies: the teams have met in seven Copa finals and eight Spanish Super Cup deciders, and this century alone have finished as the top two in LaLiga 14 times. Although they’re yet to contest a European Cup final, they have been paired together in the semi-finals on three occasions.

There’s also a complex web of social and political context tangled up in El Clásico. On the one hand, Madrid are seen as the representatives of centralist Spain, the establishment club from the capital who have “royal” in their name and were favoured by General Franco, the dictator who presided over an oppressive, far-right regime in Spain between 1939 and 1975. On the other hand, Barça are the representatives of Catalan regional identity - an identity that Franco enthusiastically sought to repress, along with those of other regions in Spain. Such is Barça’s significance to Catalonia, indeed, that when the region’s government made a failed, unilateral bid for independence from Spain in 2017, one of the major debates in the Spanish media surrounded whether or not the club would be allowed to stay in LaLiga were Catalonia to secede.

Former Barcelona star Lionel Messi scored 26 goals in El Clásico, eight more than anyone else.
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Former Barcelona star Lionel Messi scored 26 goals in El Clásico, eight more than anyone else. OSCAR DEL POZOAFP

First played in 1902, El Clásico has involved many of soccer’s great players: from Ricardo Zamora, to Alfredo di Stéfano, to Johan Cruyff, to Zinedine Zidane, to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Zamora actually played for both clubs - as did Luis Figo, whose 2000 transfer from Barça to Madrid is one of the most controversial deals the game has ever witnessed. When Figo and Madrid visited Barça for a November 2002 Clásico, the home fans’ hatred for their former hero even led them to lob a pig’s head at the Portuguese winger. How many other rivalries have that on their resumé?

When it comes to comparing El Clásico with the biggest rivalries in US team sports - at least, the four American rivalries that this article focuses on - that appears to be one parallel that can’t be drawn. But plenty of others can be, chiefly in terms of factors like longevity, combined trophy collections and, overall, just being a fixture that’s a very, very big deal.

Ohio State Buckeyes vs Michigan Wolverines - NCAA football

According to the American sports journalist Zack Pumerantz, you won’t find much of a bigger deal in the US than the college-football rivalry between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines. Ohio State vs Michigan is “perhaps the greatest rivalry in North American sports”, Pumerantz declares. Known simply as “The Game”, the Buckeyes-Wolverines clash has, like El Clásico, been around for a very long time. In fact, it beats Madrid vs Barça in the history stakes: it was first played in 1897. A fixture that involves two of the most successful teams in NCAA Division I football history, it has been played at the end of every Big Ten regular season since 1935, and tends to have a big say in deciding the identity of the conference title winner, who traditionally goes on to contest the Rose Bowl Game against the Pac-12 champion.

Green Bay Packers vs Chicago Bears - NFL

Staying with football, the rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears is, like Madrid vs Barça and the Buckeyes vs the Wolverines, notable for how long it has been in place. Indeed, it’s the longest-running in the NFL. The Packers and the Bears have met a total of 206 times since they first faced off in 1921. With a combined 22 NFL championships, they’re also two of their sport’s most successful teams - albeit the Bears only have one title in the Super Bowl era, which began over half a century ago.

Just as the antipathy between Madrid and Barcelona is also fuelled by their off-the-field differences, a further factor behind the enmity between the Packers and the Bears is a basic lack of love lost between the residents of the states of Wisconsin and Illinois. “People from Wisconsin simply can’t stand people from Illinois,” Matt Stein writes in Bleacher Report. “Chicago is only a 30-minute drive from the Wisconsin border, which Chicago residents only remember when they want to make Wisconsin their personal vacation state.”

Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics - NBA

A pattern is starting to emerge here. As is the case of each of the examples above, the Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics is a rivalry that involves two teams with bulging trophy cabinets. The Lakers and the Celtics each boast 17 NBA championships - more than any other franchises in North America’s elite basketball competition. And, as in El Clásico, the Lakers vs the Celtics has been a match-up that has directly decided the destination of major silverware. The teams have met in a record 12 NBA finals, including seven championship-series clashes between 1959 and 1969. Boston won all seven, leading Lakers star Jerry West - who played in six of those finals - to later reveal: “I hated green [the colour of the Celtics’ uniform] for a long time. I wouldn’t wear anything green. It just got to the point where it was so frustrating to hear the noise and shouting after games that we had lost.”

While El Clásico had Ronaldo vs Messi for the best part of a decade, the Lakers vs the Celtics has also brought with it a match-up between two pre-eminent playing stars: in the late 60s, it was Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell; in the 80s, it was Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson vs Larry Bird.

Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees - MLB

In the same way that Figo’s move from Barça to Madrid is a defining moment in the Clásico rivalry, you can’t talk about the Red Sox vs the Yankees without talking about ‘Babe’ Ruth’s 1919 switch from Boston to New York. The Red Sox had won three World Series in four years before Ruth was sold to the Yankees, but didn’t win another in nearly nine decades after that. Ruth, on the other hand, went on to help New York to four World Series championships and established himself as a player widely viewed as MLB’s greatest ever.

In 1919, the Yankees hadn’t won a single MLB title; they now have 27, more than any other franchise. Having been struck by the ‘Curse of the Bambino’, the Red Sox remained marooned on five championships until 2004, when they ended their World Series drought by beating the St Louis Cardinals. On the way to that 2004 win, Boston saw off the Yankees in an American League championship series for the ages, overcoming a three-game deficit to triumph in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.

As with Madrid vs Barcelona, tensions between two prominent population bases were also a major factor in the development of animosity between the Red Sox and the Yankees. The cities of Boston and New York have held a long-standing rivalry, dating back to the period before the American Revolution, when the former was considered a centre of educational, cultural and artistic prosperity, and looked down on New York as its dirty, overcrowded inferior.