Barcelona vs. Real Madrid more subdued but Clasico-fever in full swing
BARCELONA -- "El Clasico is different from all other games," according to Barcelona's Javier Mascherano. And he has a point.
The match against Real Madrid draws a global television audience of over 400 million and everything is different. The players start preparing earlier, the media coverage is more intense and, for the fans, Clasico-fever is in full swing well before the 232nd instalment of the rivalry on Saturday.
Around the city of Barcelona, though, it's largely felt much like any other week. You might even call the atmosphere subdued. In part that's because the huge number of tourists -- a particular bugbear for mayor Ada Colau -- now infiltrate the Gotico, Born and Eixample areas in the middle of a city which, like its most famous football club, has experienced a huge rise in popularity since the early 1990s.
However, there may be another factor which is playing a part. Having two controversy-dodging coaches in charge has sucked some of the vitriol out of the fixture.
"The boiling point was in those Jose Mourinho-Pep Guardiola years," Albert Masnou, the sub director at newspaper Diario Sport in Barcelona, tells ESPN FC. "The whole city felt more up for it at that point, fuelled by the hate generated by Mou. I'd say that era more than any other created a special atmosphere.
"It's different [at the moment]. We have two managers in Zinedine Zidane and Luis Enrique who both want to avoid controversy. It feels more decaffeinated as neither of them want to stoke any fires. There is still excitement, of course, but not as much. Maybe because of Barcelona's recent form, too."
The day before pic.twitter.com/yLR4aZPeBP- Sam Marsden (@samuelmarsden) December 2, 2016
Ramon, a socio at the club for more than 40 years, also preferred the rivalry when there was a more local feel to it and believes some people, previously wrapped up in the political undertones of the fixture, have switched off due to the increased globalisation of the game.
"There was a better atmosphere when the game was less global," he says of a game laced with politics, society and identity. "But you still notice that change [in the city] before the game, the chit-chat when you're out and about."
That's a point you don't need to necessarily be a football fan to note, either. Like the game or loathe it, you can't live in Barcelona without being by the game in some way.
"Once I didn't realise there was a Clasico on and popped out," says Ruth, Ramon's niece who is one of the few Barcelona residents who tries not to get caught up in the frenzy. "There was no-one anywhere, there wasn't even any traffic on the streets. I quickly realised why. There are conversations in work, bars, shops (...) people ask you in lifts if you'll be watching the game."
Come kickoff on Saturday there's unlikely to be a free seat in the city centre. Despite the late afternoon time slot the game has been given -- a slot complained about by local fans more accustomed to waking from siestas at that hour -- restaurants and bars will be full to the brim, with some reservations taken weeks in advance.
Unlike in England where supporters cram into pubs, in Barcelona, there are few establishments where watching this game is not an option. Italian, Mexican and Argentine eateries will all be among the venues hoping for a small economic boost.
It won't just be Barca fans filling the local haunts, either. It's reported that Real Madrid have the second largest support in Catalonia -- behind Barcelona but ahead of Espanyol.
Dani Solera, a journalist at beIN Sports, is among them. So what's it like behind enemy lines?
"To be a Real Madrid fan in Barcelona is to be a survivor," he says. "Above all, in the last 10 years, to be a Real Madrid fan is to swim against the tide in a city where they only believe one type of football exists. To be a Real Madrid fan in this city means that almost every day people are going to say something about your team and you have two options: stick your chest out and defend your team or take the blow.
"You constantly have to put up with phrases about the first six European Cups not being in colour, referees favouring [Madrid] throughout history... during the [Clasico] week people try to destabilise you, laughing at the team, the players, how we play... But I think that in the background they're just trying to convince themselves that even when they lose, they play better football than anyone and that's the only thing that matters."
Solera doesn't have a ticket this time. It's not common for away teams to be given many in Spain and a large percentage of the 99,364 seats inside Camp Nou will be filled by home supporters. The scramble for tickets has been going on throughout the week and will continue right up until kickoff.
Barca's official site had VIP tickets available a cost of close €2,000 and returned tickets will go on general sale on Friday. You'd have to be quicker than Usain Bolt to land them through official channels, though. Instead, people turn to ticket websites where the cheapest tickets were going for more €500. Touts at least season's game were looking for around €800 on the day.
The game doesn't end at the final whistle, either. A Barca win will ensure the fans watching the game in the city stay out for the rest of the night, while local newspapers hope for a surge in sales too.
"You notice a gradual boost in sales going into the game," Diario Sport's Masnou explains. "But then you get an especially big spike the day after the game if Barca win. Even with more and more people going online and print journalism struggling, these days people always want a paper."
Solero, on the other hand, is hoping there's no sales boost for Diario. If there is, it means he's in for a bad week: "If [Barca] don't win, on Monday after the game no-one speaks and you have your shot at revenge," he says. "But if they win it's one of those days you want to bury your head in under the pillow and not get up for a week."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.