The last time FC Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other outside of an official competition was some 26 years ago – in 1991, when they met twice in friendlies in the span of a few months. Before that, the most recent friendlies between the arch-rivals in the most famous feud in the game happened in 1982, 1968 and 1959, the latter two in pre-season tournaments. It was back in the 1940s that they last played regular exhibitions games.
On July 29, they will meet again. In Miami Gardens, at the Hard Rock Stadium. It will be just the second time that they play a friendly on foreign soil – the 1982 game took place in the third-place match of a postseason tournament in Venezuela.
You can quite safely assume that the clubs will be richly rewarded for monetizing their legendary rivalry during the International Champions Cup, which remains very much not a real thing. A seven-figure participation fee for each club seems a certainty; an eight-figure one a real possibility.
And Relevent Sports, which puts on the tournament in a futile attempt to rebrand lucrative summer friendlies as a real trophy, is going all out. In a recent press release, it announced a “Casa Clasico,” the better to mark this “momentous occasion” made up of “concerts, brand partnerships, team pep rallies, art installations and more.”
The thing starts three days before the game at Miami’s Bayfront Park, where this Clasico house will run endless events, hyping the game and trotting out former players and other celebrities. The press release actually references “unique activations.” Marc Anthony will perform at halftime of the game, which will be broadcast in virtual reality. There’s even a Clasico-branded MMA event in the run-up to the game, for some reason.
Relevent is plainly doing it all it can to recoup what must be a considerable financial commitment. Indeed, at the time of writing, the cheapest tickets for sale were priced at $250. For a friendly. La Liga appears complicit in this, partnering on many of the events in its ongoing attempts to make the Spanish league more popular stateside. (To center that push on the Clasico is an odd choice, since it’s the only Spanish game that actually is well watched in the United States. It’s all the other matches that are the problem.)
The whole thing seems fairly contrived. This isn’t the Clasico. It’s an offseason facsimile that’s supposed to look and feel like the real thing.
It underscores sacredness of absolutely nothing in modern soccer.
We already knew this. And it’s okay. This is the way the sports world works now. You can lament it, or you can accept it and adjust your expectations.
But it nevertheless remains disappointing that even the premier game across any European club season could be put up for auction to the highest bidder. There’s something deeply cynical about it, while, counterintuitively, you also have to grant them that there’s too much money to be made to expect the clubs to leave it on the table. After all, they too must keep up in the perpetual arms race that is the unfettered player market.
So now, for the first time in more than a quarter century, we will have a Clasico that isn’t sanctioned by any official competition. A match between blood rivals, that has served as a proxy for decades of strife and tension between the Spanish capital and a secessionist region that was at times suppressed and always yearned for independence. Played in Miami because a lot of entities stand to make a lot of money. And because that’s probably where they calculated that they can make the most money.
You’ll have to make your peace with this. Such is soccer now. And, again, it’s hard to blame the clubs themselves for what purists might consider a crime against the game’s traditions.
But here’s the thing to remember. Barcelona just reached an agreement on a new contract for Lionel Messi, who surely got a raise on what was already one of the highest salaries in the sport. This invariably means that, soon enough, its other stars, Neymar and Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta and all the rest, will come knocking on the executive office doors for a pay bump as well. And if Messi is taking home a bigger paycheck, Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo will hear about it too. Whereupon his own teammates will want some kind of parity. At the Messi-Ronaldo level, earnings become less about spending power than validation.
The reason a stateside preseason Clasico is a valuable and highly marketable asset is that the protagonist clubs have assembled fabulous collections of talent that we want to see in person. That talent is expensive. And it has to be paid for by cheapening some hallowed institutions like the Clasico itself.
It’s a necessary cycle. What makes the Clasico great is the tension of the game. And also the clubs’ ability to monetize it.