The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A lot at stake in Spain’s bitter derby

Madrid: The teams may only be lying tenth and fifth respectively in the Spanish La Liga, but the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid on Saturday overshadows all others this weekend.

There are few derbies in the world to equal the battle between the representatives of Catalonia and Castile and the match has become a distillation of centuries-old animosity between the two regions with differing cultures, ideologies and even languages.

To understand why the game invokes such passions, one has to be more of a historian than a football fan.

In 1920, King Alfonso XIII gave royal assent to Madrid to add Real to their name, much to the disgust of the independence-minded Catalans, who are traditionally opposed to all things emanating from the Spanish capital.

After Franco assumed power in 1939, he further disenfranchised Barcelona fan by openly favouring Real, and at the same time persecuting Catalans for their opposition to him during the three year civil war.

For much of Franco’s reign, until his death in 1975, Barcelona’s football grounds were the only places where Catalan could be openly spoken.

The bitterness between the two sides remains to this day and the principal debate this week has been whether Luis Figo would take Real’s corners on his return to the Nou Camp stadium.

Figo was a Barcelona hero until his defection to the enemy in July 2000 for a then world record transfer fee of 59.3 million euros and, since then, ‘traitor’ has been one of the more pleasant words used by the Barcelona faithful at any mention of his name.

On his first visit following his move, Figo was pelted with every imaginable object and the Portuguese captain admitted he lost his nerve, though he got to grips with the hostility a little better when Real won 2-0 in the Nou Camp in the Champions League semi-final first leg in April.

“If I’m playing I’m going to take the corners. I don’t have a problem with that. I just hope people can control themselves. I know some people are sensitive about me but violence isn’t part of football,” pleaded Figo.

The other main talking point has been the return of Ronaldo to Barcelona, the club where he spent the 1996-97 season and topped the Spanish La Liga’s scoring charts.

Ronaldo’s main concern, apart from any effects from his tiring midweek trip to South Korea, where he scored two goals in Brazil’s 3-2 victory over the World Cup hosts, will be to show his true colours after a disastrous match last Sunday against League leaders Real Sociedad.

“It was one of the worst games of my life and I now want to show people what I can really do. I am really geared up to try and win on Saturday,” Ronaldo told reporters.

Barcelona coach Louis Van Gaal was taking the threat of Ronaldo running amok very seriously this week, despite the World Cup winner’s loss of form for Real.

“I’m not going to do anything that will wind him up. Ask me in July what I think about Ronaldo,” commented the Dutch coach cautiously.

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