Guardian columnist Paul Hayward penned a story on how the Real Madrid/Barcelona conflict, still simmering long after last week’s contentious Champions League semifinal tie, has gone “digital.” I will one-up Mr. Hayward and say the Spanish feud has gone hyperreal. For the semioticians among you, that term is a dusty descriptor from an out of fashion postmodern philosophy espoused by late 20th century thinkers like Jean Baudrillard. The concept describes how the signs and symbols in modern mass media detached from and replaced the real objects they once represented. You see it in the idea of ‘branding,’ like the vague exhortation by Nike to “Just Do It,” which bears almost no representational relationship to the concept of buying well-made and practical basketball shoes. The concept also seems oddly applicable to the media hysteria over Mourinho versus Pep versus UEFA this past week.
Let me explain. El Clasico used to be a football match between the two historically best teams in Spain. There were certain significant cultural symbols at play; the uneasy historical relationship between Catalonia and Madrid since the repression of Catalan nationalism during the Franco regime, for example. But fundamentally, this was a contest played out on the pitch, and often produced some of the most entertaining football in Europe.
Now, in a digital age which requires 24 hour news content to feed the football media machine, with cameras facing every angle, including Sergio Busquets allegedly racist mouth, El Clasico has gone hyperreal. It’s no longer about football—last week’s aesthetically dreadful CL game attested to that. Rather, it’s a tetherless conflict fueled by a hatred without purpose or end, played out second-by-second online in the form of back and forth recriminations between managers and players and legal threats and accusations of doctored footage and sabotage expertly leaked to a hungry sports media. It’s about Mourinho’s conspiracies and Barcelona’s diving and covert racism, about UEFA’s handling of the post-match events, and how it’s portrayed in opposing arenas in the Spanish media.
Meanwhile, the actual act of ‘winning a football match’—getting to the Champions League final in Wembley by scoring more goals than the other after two legs—is now a mere accident of El Clasico’s simulated substance, the empty cause of a perpetual rivalry that now goes beyond Franco, Spain, La Liga, European football. El Clasico now has no end, temporally and teleogically. It now exists merely to be covered on Twitter, the Guardian website, and blogs like The Score.
El Clasico isn’t alone in this regard in European football. In England, the Premier League provides the formal template for Fergie’s mindgames, Wenger’s persecution complex, the endless sideshow of an increasingly narrow and pre-ordained title “race.” What was once a league competition is now a television event, and media sportswriters drive the narrative. But as Hayward points out,
In this marathon of review and counter-accusation the clubs appear to hope their own misdemeanours will be drowned out by moral and legal noise. The ferocity of the attacks is unprecedented. But they look orchestrated, too, by lawyers and communications directors, to lift each team off their hook. Digital age outlets (Twitter, in-house TV stations) have served the purposes of dissemination. This precedent will be studied and copied for future footballing disputes.
El Clasico now presents the perfect hyperreal model for the 21st century game, and sets the standard for the bloated digital news media event that is football. And as Baudrillard warned, there is no going back.