El Clasico is not just about Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, even if the two players have almost come to define the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry in recent years.
In fact, there are dozens of others who deserve to be in an all-time combined XI; that’s just the way it goes when you’re sifting through the long histories of two of the planet’s biggest and most successful clubs. So take this with a pinch of salt by all means — the formation would be fluid, to say the least! — but here are 11 of the very best to stand on opposites sides of Spanish football’s great divide.
Antoni Ramallets won six league titles, five Spanish cups, and two Fairs Cups with Barcelona; he reached the semifinal of the 1950 World Cup with Spain and collected 35 caps. He earned a long, long list of medals that he carefully and lovingly compiled — a kind of post-career CV of which he was rightly proud. In Barcelona there was a shop window featuring a white cat that looked like it had sprouted wings; or maybe someone had attached flying appendages to its body, Ramallets could not remember for sure. When he made an especially outstanding save at the World Cup, the commentator shouted: “And Ramallets has flown like a cat with wings.” From that day on, he became known as the Cat of Maracaná.
“Imagine if I had been any good,” Dani Alves said. Yes, imagine. A footballing Sonic the Hedgehog and hyperactive one-man band at Sevilla who turned out to be even better when he was surrounded by stars at Barcelona. There was something golden about that Alves-Xavi-Messi triangle. “Dani Alves, right-back”: there can’t have been many more inadequate descriptions. There were silly songs, daft comments and loud clothes; there were also 23 trophies in eight seasons.
The cartoon hero to end cartoon heroes, only he plays at the back, somehow making it all even more absurd, more comic book, more don’t-be-stupid. A defender with a “striker’s soul,” or so he says, Sergio Ramos scored 10 times last season, including that header against Barcelona. All told, he has 68 strikes for Madrid. He has won the World Cup and two Euros; he dinked in a Panenka in one of the latter, for goodness sake. Yes, he has more red cards than anyone else and yes, there are mistakes and moments of madness. But when it really matters, somehow he’s there. Ramos has won 15 titles, including three European Cups in four years. Even the numbers don’t really do him justice, though 92.48 gets pretty close.
“Good God, he’s deformed, isn’t he?” Steve McManaman couldn’t help giggling every time he talked about Roberto Carlos, the defender with thunderous thighs shaped like the hams that hang from the ceilings of bars all over Madrid, who sent shots shooting off at hundreds of miles an hour. Well, sort of. One newspaper took a speedometer and clocked him at over 100; while standing next to him hitting it, the sound was genuinely scary. A freak. A fabulous freak, who changed the way people looked at full-backs forever.
Pep Guardiola once told Xavi Hernández that he (Xavi) was going to retire him (Guardiola) and that “this guy” (Andres Iniesta) was going to retire them both. In fact, they ended up working together: “Xaviniesta” in the midfield under Guardiola. Xavi, midfielder, ideologue and — one day — probably a manager. “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day,” he explained. “Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space.”
Luis Suárez likes to wind people up. “Xavi? My game was much more complete than Xavi.” The only Spaniard to ever win the Balón d’Or and a deep-lying midfielder who could pass all day long and shoot, he was named the “architect” by Alfredo Di Stéfano. Evaristo, the goal scorer who helped Barcelona become the first team to knock Madrid out of Europe (before heading to the Bernabéu himself), described Suárez as “the greatest player I ever saw.” That’s high praise, considering he played alongside some seriously good players.
Barcelona beat Madrid 5-0 on Jan. 8, 1994. Almost exactly a year later, on Jan. 7, 1995, Madrid beat Barcelona 5-0. What changed? Michael Laudrup changed…clubs. After the second game, Madrid’s assistant coach Ángel Cappa remembers seeing Laudrup sitting quietly in the dressing room, then saying softly: “I won 10-0.” Cappa grins: “Laudrup was good but not that good.” He was good, though. So good that when Juan Carlos I discovered he was leaving the country, ending his top-level career in Europe, he said: “That’s good: I can go back to being the only King of Spain.”
It doesn’t get much better than this: Johan Cruyff called his son Jordi — “What’s not allowed? I decide: I’m Dutch. I decide the name of my son” he said to the registrar, who resisted writing it down — having timed the C-section birth so that he could face Madrid, then led Barcelona to a 5-0 win. In truth, looked at coldly, what Cruyff did on the pitch was surprisingly limited, but that is testimony to his gigantic impact beyond the pitch. He made his mark on Barca emotionally, ideologically, and psychologically. His influence was made evident by what he did as a coach, but he broke the mould as player as well. His teammate Charly Rexach described him as the “revolution”. He says: “I remember going to places like Santander, Burgos, or Granada and sometimes even their own fans would have a go at their players when they fouled us. For the first time in their lives they had the chance to see a world-class figure like Johan Cruyff in the flesh and they didn’t want their centre-back to ruin the spectacle.”
“Raúl is synonymous with Real Madrid,” said Jorge Valdano, the coach who gave him his debut as a seventeen-year-old, beginning a 16-year career in which he won six league titles and three European Cups. “He has been the face of the club for the 25 years,” added Valdano. “Quantity above quality, absolute commitment and endeavor above all else. Utter professionalism. Every. Single. Day. Of. His. Life. If you wrote a list of Raúl’s qualities, it would be a list of the values of Real Madrid. He is the Di Stéfano of our time. He is the people, the incarnation of Madridismo.”
Outside the Camp Nou stands a statue of Laszlo Kubala, muscles tearing through his top and shorts. Madrid wanted to sign him; Barcelona did, controversially. Kubala had defected from the eastern bloc, slipping across the border dressed as a Russian soldier into Austria, then Italy, before finally heading for Spain where he became the best player in the world. (His wife and child later crossed the Danube, baby Branko in a tyre). “Among the players I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot; he is the best of all time,” Luis Suárez says. The story goes that Kubala was given a violin when he was a kid; he used it as a goalpost.
“Scoring goals is like making love: Everyone knows how to do it but no one does it like me,” Alfredo Di Stéfano once joked. But he was more than just a goalscorer, and no player has had such an impact on the game, at least at club level. He changed everything forever; without him, none of this makes sense. This game doesn’t. The rivalry doesn’t, either. His still-contested 1953 signing for Madrid, not Barcelona, may be the ultimate “what if” in the history of the game. The blunt truth is that Madrid weren’t really that good when he arrived (and Barcelona were); by the time he left, five European Cups (he scored in the final of each) and eight league titles later, they had become the biggest club in the world. Helenio Herrera famously claimed that if Pelé was the lead violinist, Di Stéfano was the entire orchestra. His Madrid teammate Juan Santisteban said: “Whatever people have told you about Alfredo Di Stéfano, it is not enough. However good they say Alfredo was, he was better.”