El clasico: When the beautiful game gets ugly

Andy Mitten examines the polarised nature of the Spanish media ahead of the Primera Liga game between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Spanish newspapers, such as Marca, are considered subjective.
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The two Catalan daily sports newspapers screamed injustice on their front pages last month. How, Sport and Mundo Deportivo wondered, across several pages of prominent headlines and editorials, had Valencia not been awarded a penalty? They preached to the converted readers by offering conclusive "proof" through photos and graphics and backed them up with quotes from "experts".

Anyone unfamiliar with the way the Spanish media work may have wondered why two publications, who are self-styled Barca cheerleaders, were so concerned about Valencia not being awarded a penalty. The answer was not about Valencia, but their opponents, Real Madrid. An enemy of Real is a friend of Barca, and if the Catalan newspapers get a whiff of perceived injustice they won't hesitate to go to town on it.

Six hundred kilometres away in Spain's capital, the two newspapers that support Real Madrid, Marca and AS, saw the alleged penalty incident very differently. They championed the fact that Real beat a very good Valencia side 3-2 away as proof Madrid were now better than Barca. They had photos to "prove" that there was no penalty and "expert" opinion to back it up. The whining of the jealous Catalans was dismissed.

Hyperbole, selective editing and subjectivity are prominent when it comes to sport coverage in Spain, with statistics engineered to suit agendas and bad news filed in a cabinet with "don't go there" on the door.

When Barca and Madrid meet in a clasico, as they will tonight, the accusations of bias and envy increase and the coverage becomes ugly. The media even look into the background of referees and their families.

Gemma Herrero is the Barca correspondent for the Madrid-supporting newspaper Marca. A Madrilena, she has lived in Barcelona for eight years and covered the Catalans' triumphs, yet the club shows little magnanimity towards her newspaper.

"We've not been given an exclusive interview with a Barca player since I spoke to Xavi three years ago," she said. "He was excellent as he always is, but politics mean that my newspaper doesn't get special access to Barca players. I don't take it personally and my relationship with the players, the other journalists and the people at Barca is fine, but the whole coverage can get very unpleasant around a clasico."

When the two giants met in four ill-tempered matches earlier this year, the media coverage went into overdrive.

"There was a lot of tension about and much of the coverage was very unpleasant," Herrero said. "Football is supposed to be enjoyed, but I didn't enjoy those games, nor the media coverage around them."

As for bias, Herrero defends the papers' stance. "It's only the same as political reporting," she said. "Some newspapers are right wing, others left. Some newspapers are Madrid, others Barca."

So how does the rest of Spain see it?

"We don't like it," Alex Heras Lorente, a journalist who covers Valencia, said. "Barcelona and Madrid take up 95 per cent of the stories, and clubs like Valencia feel that no matter how well they do, they never get the credit they deserve.

"David Silva and Juan Mata were brilliant for Valencia, but they didn't get the credit they deserved in Spain because they didn't play for the big two. David Villa got more because he was a star of the national side, but Roberto Soldado is the Valencia captain and has been scoring lots of goals. He'd be front page all the time if he played for one of the big two."

There are other worries.

"When the other teams do get publicity, it usually comes from one of two ways," Lorente said. "The first way is because of a negative story. So you read a lot more about Valencia's financial problems than you do about the debts which Barcelona or Madrid have. Or you read about bad owners at places like Racing Santander.

"The second is [when] one of the lesser clubs actually plays Barca or Madrid. The leading newspapers will send journalists to interview a player who is about to play at Bernabéu or Camp Nou, maybe a player who has to try and mark [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo. The story is always about them."

The frustration of the smaller clubs in understandable. When Alaves reached the final of the 2001 Uefa Cup, their glorious run didn't make a single front page. In 1988, Espanyol reached the Uefa Cup final, beating three former European champions en route, including the AC Milan of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. In the first leg of the final they beat Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 at home.

The following day, Sport, which is based in Barcelona, the same city as Espanyol, printed a picture of Johan Cruyff, the Barcelona coach, on their front page, with Espanyol's achievements relegated to a small box in the corner. When a team can't make the front page of a sports paper in their home city after taking a 3-0 lead in a European final, the fears of Espanyol fans seem justified.

"You become paranoid as an Espanyol fan," Guillem Balague, a Spanish football specialist in the UK, said. "You think that everyone is conspiring against you, especially the media with their blanket coverage of all things Barca and their false claims that if you are not Barca then you are anti-Catalan.

"When Espanyol won the cups in the 2000s there was hardly any coverage of the wins. It was like nothing had happened. If that had been Barca it would have been everywhere."

Johanna Franden is a Swedish journalist who covers Barcelona and Spanish football for Aftonbladet. She was initially sent to report on the fortunes of her compatriot Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer caused a surge of interest in Barcelona in Sweden. Such was the interest even after he returned to Milan, it was sufficient to sustain her job covering Spanish football.

"We don't have club specific papers in Sweden," she said. "It wouldn't work because journalists have to be seen to be impartial and neutral. In Spain, the journalists are like fans. They write what is best for their club. There might be a story that Lionel Messi and David Villa don't get on, but the Barca supporting newspapers don't write it because they don't want to upset the balance of the team or bring attention to a problem."

Barcelona and Real Madrid appreciate the support of the newspapers, but they are in a dominant position and they like to control the media. The clubs pick and choose when they give interviews, if at all. Pep Guardiola is a student of the Marcelo Biesla school of not granting one-on-one interviews and has barred his players from doing them since the start of the season.

"Most of the players are not kids, but sensible adults who are used to speaking to the media," Herrero said. "They are happy to talk to us, but they are banned. I can't understand why. Barcelona won six cups in 2009 with the players regularly speaking to the media."

The Spanish clubs' relationship with the media is unique. "No Swedish club is bigger than the newspapers either, like Barca are," Franden said. "A club couldn't ban a newspaper, because they need the publicity. It's different in Barcelona because the club enjoys the balance of power."

Barcelona also have their own media machine that they hope could be profitable in the future, so they are inclined to look after their own first. Football reporting in Spain looks set to continue to be more club propaganda than journalism.

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