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Chaos, Violence, and Glory at El Clásico

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Ten years ago, Barcelona and Real Madrid embarked on an unprecedented period in their rivalry, playing four Clásicos in 18 days: one La Liga matchup, a Copa del Rey final, and two legs in the Champions League semifinal. When it began, Madrid trailed Barcelona in the league; they had not won a Copa Del Rey in 18 years, and were in desperate pursuit of La Décima, their long-awaited 10th European Cup.

Usually, one would attempt to refrain from straying into hyperbole when revisiting classic matches, but it’s impossible in this instance. The period between April 16, 2011, and May 3, 2011 was and most likely will always be the closest football will get to an NBA Finals playoff series.

The Guardian’s Sid Lowe described the plot as “four battles,one war.” It was almost unimaginable, with perfect timing and unparalleled casting: a tale of two cities, two giants with competing ideologies, directly opposed in a conflict that stretched far back in time and well beyond the green grass and white lines. If a writer had presented it to you as a screenplay, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all a bit too on the nose—too much narrative, too much at stake.

At the time, Pep Guardiola was on his way to turning the Catalans into arguably the greatest club side in history. Barcelona won the treble in his first season in 2009, and Lionel Messi had won his first Ballon d’Or later that year, at 22 years old. José Mourinho arrived at Madrid in 2010 with a simple objective: take down Guardiola and Barcelona. Mourinho had the experience; his Inter Milan side beat Barcelona in the Champions League in 2010 en route to a treble, the first and only for an Italian side. And he had history with Barcelona; he coached under Bobby Robson there early in his career and wanted the job before it was given to Guardiola.

Under these two coaches, Barcelona and Madrid took their rivalry beyond anyone’s wildest dreams—or fears. They represented two extremes engaging in a showdown for football’s soul. Barcelona were relentless—passing, moving, and reinventing our understanding of football before our very eyes with its starting lineup filled with La Masia graduates. Real Madrid were an immaculately designed vehicle of riches, boasting the most expensive player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo.

El Clásico had already become the biggest club fixture in the world prior to this period, but these four matches elevated it to something else entirely. They took place in the shadow of Barcelona’s 5-0 thrashing of Madrid at Camp Nou earlier in the season, Barcelona’s biggest win since 1994, and a match Mourinho called the “biggest defeat of his career.” He was right based on the scoreline and in the stature of the loss—he was not brought to Madrid to oversee such a humiliation. Sergio Ramos was sent off late in the game, a preview of what would come in the spring. Mourinho knew that Real Madrid couldn’t beat Barcelona purely on footballing terms, despite having the likes of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Ángel Di María, Mesut Özil, and Kaká at his disposal. Mourinho knew that to succeed, he would have to take Madrid to a far darker place.

The first of the four matches came six months after that 5-0 defeat and it took less than 10 seconds for the game’s first foul, when Benzema brought down Sergio Busquets, setting a fitting tone for the next 400 minutes of game play. The jeers—yet to die down from the opening whistle—grew more piercing. Misplaced passes from the legendary pairing of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, by Messi, by everyone. The opening 10 minutes were feverish, enthralling, unrivaled elite-level chaos.

But if the intensity was high in the first half, it ramped up in the…

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