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.

Comments (12)

  1. I’m 19 years old and Ive been playing and watching soccer for going on 14 years now and ive been really intrigued about the el classico matches as im sure every soccer fan has been. But watching these last few games has made me feel sick about where the game is and where it continues to go heading forward.These players are role models and they way theyre portraying the game is a disgrace. The play acting that barcelona have been doing is absolutely disgusting and it has put a damper on the sport. Something needs to be done about this. Don’t get me wrong i love the way xavi, iniesta, messi play but all three of them have been caught diving and and trying to get people booked amongst many other players on barcelona. Watchingthe pepe tackle on dani alves again shows that he made no contact with alves and for him to role around on the ground and get carried of on a stretcher then come back on and be perfectly fine is disgusting. If you get carried off on a stretcher you should be genuinely injured. Its been really frustrating watching these games because as i assume everyone else was hoping for a well played tie with players being professional and not acting. As well, its frustrating listening to commentators on television because they cant speak their mind and they dont say what they really feel. So i thought you guys being the home for the hardcore you should be able to speak about this more in depth because the acting by these players including, yes, the man everyone thinks is god messi, is getting out of control. As well as the storming towards the ref. Im watching the final game right now and as im typing this im seeing players role around grabbing themselves while looking at the ref, its just getting ridiculous to watch and i hope you guys may be able to have a lenghty discussion about where the game is heading and the state of the game now

  2. I agree that the barcelona players are a bunch of divers, but so are the real madrid players, and so are every other team in the world (to generalize). Diving is everywhere, and it almost seems to be an accepted part of the game in many places. But let’s be serious, it is not limited to Barca or spain or Real Madrid; it is everywhere.

    As to Messi, I think that he is one of the few players I have never seen dive. Or if he does dive, he does it with a far smaller frequency than most players. Surpirising considering how much he gets fouled. From what I’ve seen, he does his best to stay on his feet, and I’ve never seen him go down easily.

    Agree with you that the playacting is getting tiring. The players are such babies. They roll around at every little contact. Perhaps they aren’t always trying to con the referee; maybe they’re just wimps. But still, it is so ridiculous. If you were really hurt, you wouldn’t roll around like that. I’ve broken my leg before, and I can tell you, the last thing I wanted to to was move anything.

  3. Reality television at its best!

    Also, UEFA and FIFA really are to blame for most of this. The Respect campaign is an absolute joke. And for people who don’t generally watch football (soccer in the states) to watch these past two games would turn anyone away from the game.

  4. Most engaging piece I’ve read in a long time, excellent stuff.

    One could argue that the endless back and forth surrounding the game, was the game, whether that speaks more to the changing nature of sport in the modern/post-modern/current world, or to the change in nature of how a contest is perceived or if anything has changed at all is debatable.

    The fact (Rafa) remains that the ‘winner’ of the tie did move on, did collect trophies and prizes, and none of the hysteria superfluous to the ball-and-net functional aspect of the drama really played a role in determining the winner, though, perhaps it did.

    I think that overall goal of ‘winning’ was lost in our perception of this series because it is unusual to have three competitions tied into a string of results, each more or less independent, other than the two semi final legs of course, that were wound together by their implied relation to each other. Compare to hockey playoffs where there is a direct string of encounters, each building into the next, which makes sense to a linear mind. Imagine this; somebody sent off in game 2 could have played in game 3, destroying consequence, distorting our pattern recognition ability, adding mysticism to the affair. Unsure of how to classify such an occurrence, to compensate for our own confusion, were we reduced to that extraneous discussion of smoke and mirrors? Lightning strikes, Zeus is angry. We don’t know what is there, here be dragons.

    Taking an inanimate object such as a game, and instilling in it an aspect of our humanity, will always offer a sense of the surreal. In the context of hyperreality, it is not the game itself that has changed, but it is our perception of it, and how we relay that information to each other. The game remains the same, whether it please aesthetically, emotionally or not, it’s still football; perhaps it is our sense of entertainment that has altered most drastically; perhaps that is football being assimilated into a larger consciousness that cares not for facts and figures, runs and passes, but for summation and symbol. How we have discussed this series has very much ascended (or descended) into the hyperreal, but the outcome itself was very much real.

    Barcelona will be at Wembley not Real Madrid, and a team will win the Premier League, not a chosen story line… even if Kevin Keegan’s “I would love it” rant did deserve a trophy of some sort.

  5. Diving is part of the sport, and the best referees suss it out. Unfortunately, forwards in every league fall down regularly inside the box, because they want to get to the penalty spot. It seems to be most prevalent in Italy, which makes Serie A unwatchable, but it is becoming more prevalent in Premier and Liga, which is bad for the sport.

    Barcelona has a lot of small players, and they get knocked down easily. At the same time, you don’t often see Pique or Puyol on the pitch, writhing in agony, because what would be the point? As soon as the ref signals “play on,” the agonizing pain and gruesome facial expressions miraculously vanish. Ironically, defenders take the most physical abuse, but complain the least. A free kick from 80 meters is not exactly a scoring opportunity.

    Real used a physical, fouling defensive strategy in the second-leg UEFA game against Barcelona, which in my opinion was counter-productive. It is easy to foul Barca’s front line and midfield, since they are all small, but that is not a winning strategy. Real is a taller, more physical team, and they should have used that to their advantage by employing a 6 or 7 man press against the Barca defense, including Sergio Ramos and Xavi Alonso. Pique and Puyol are strong and intimidating, but they lack speed. Barca can be overwhelmed with numbers.

    I agree with chrsfrsn. Messi is not a player who dives. He is the ideal small, shifty forward. He has incredible speed on the dribble with both feet, and he has the ability to turn and burn past multiple defenders. When he dribbles directly into a crowded area, he somehow emerges with the ball, against all odds. Liga football is more about tripping than hard fouling- unlike the Premier or the Bundesliga – and Messi has an uncanny ability to avoid being tripped, even where the tackle comes from behind. With his speed and flow, he makes the impossible look easy.

    The smallest man on the pitch is usually the last man to resort to acting in order to get an easy strike from the penalty spot. Messi has scored from the penalty spot – when his teammates go down.

  6. Messi doesn’t regularly dive but he was guilty recently.

    The philosophical musings are so unnecessary. Did not add anything to your point.

    Jordon, I hope your request that the media start a discussion on “where the game is at” with respect to simulation is taken up. Last year I felt there was progress being made. There was good discussion, and some consequences were handed out for simulation. This year it is back to same old. (Or maybe I’ve just watched too much of Barcalona and Real Madrid this year.)

  7. Wow! Too many sheeps leaving comments! Barca is the last hope for beautiful football! If it weren’t for Barca, the world would be run by antifootball clubs like Chelksi, Franco Madrid etc. Its time some of you open you’re eyes!

  8. I never once said i didnt like the way they play football, infact i stated i love the way xavi, iniesta, and messi PLAY football i.e passing, possesion the vision its the other non sense that im complaining about, and of course it goes on in every other league by every team but im just using this game as an example because it has been the most high profile series of games in sometime, thats all im saying.

  9. I hate the diving also. But no one here seems to have commented on the violent play. Which is worse, diving or violent play? Barça players dive (though no more than any other players – particularly if you keep in mind how much they have possession of the ball and how often they are pursued and fouled by the other team), but Madrid players use violent tactics (at least when playing Barça) – kicks, stepping on players, elbowing players, etc. For me, the violent play is worse than the diving.

  10. There is irony here, these comments.

    Excellent piece, Richard.

  11. this my new blog for all things in Classico but this blog is in arabic

  12. this is arabic blog for all thins about el Classico

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