Barça Femení Barcelona Featured Femení, English Opinion

Why the women’s clásico is a rivalry – for now.

“Those who don’t follow women’s football might think it’s a clásico; those that do, know it’s not.” is how eternal Barça Femení captain Vicky Losada described the so-called rivalry between her team and Real Madrid Femenino in 2021. While El Clásico is one of the paramount matches in the men’s game, a century-old event that is fundamentally underscored by contrasting principles in politics as much as football, in the women’s game it can generously be called a forced rivalry. A flagship, borrowed from men’s football and artificially imposed into the women’s.

Vicky Losada/ UEFA

By definition, it can’t really be a clásico – there’s nothing classic about a rivalry that’s four years old and born of media hype. But can it still be a rivalry? Certainly, differences in socio-political ideals is becoming ever more prevalent in Spanish women’s football, and argued in the media to be split down Barça-Real Madrid lines: Barça made up the largest contingent of las 15, with none from Real Madrid, while the main madridista presences in the national team of Athenea del Castillo and Olga Carmona seem to speak against their blaugrana Spain teammates any chance they get.

And while the vastly different histories of the teams is what prevents the match being a clásico, it may be a reason why the two teams seem to have perspectives on football ideology different enough to be rivals. Barça are on the side of preserving the memory of the historic fight for women’s football from the last century, to be the best, to commit to a football identity. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have reportedly sued the much-older and independent women’s club Madrid CFF over the name (the latter club being known generally as “Madrid”, something Real Madrid Femenino appear to want exclusively), and only came to be through a mixture of sponsor pressure (the last major club without a women’s team was a bad PR look) and fan pressure (Barça Femení were taking over Europe with the madridistas having no way to fight about that success). Barça prefers to use La Masia or, at least, players so stylistically aligned with the club they might as well be made in La Masia; Real Madrid seems to buy a whole new XI each season to plaster over the cracks of the last formation.

In short, Barça Femení plays for the glory of football; Real Madrid Femenino for the glory of Real Madrid. Is that, and being divided in their overarching attitudes towards the Spanish Football Federation, enough to sustain a rivalry?

Women’s tifo during the world record clásico/ SportsPro Media

Perhaps not. But marketing certainly is. You ask Barcelona staff and players (even Losada) about the women’s “clásico”, and they’ll likely mention how they are culers and obviously need to beat Real Madrid for personal pride – but they’ll definitely mention how borrowing the tribalism of the event from men’s football, being able to promote the match-up, however uneven, is incredibly useful in maintaining the track of professionalism of the women’s game in Spain. Barça Femení has no trouble attracting a crowd anymore, but their first (official) homeground world record attendance was a clásico, the match regularly being one of their best-attended every time it comes around.

There is value in maintaining this façade of rivalry, if just for ensuring healthy economic growth and continued media attention. How long this will be necessary, though, with Spanish women’s football gaining momentum in those areas outside of the clásico, is questionable, and suggests a rather short lifespan to the idea that there’s depth in this rivalry.

Was Barça’s other eternal captain, Alèxia Putellas, then wrong when she said women’s football doesn’t need Real Madrid? Honestly, probably not. Real Madrid Femenino appeared right when the pre-existing rivalry between Barça Femení and Atlético Madrid Feminas was moving up a few gears – both making their mark in the Champions League and combining for a world record attendance at a women’s club football match: part of what has made the manufactured Barça Femení/Real Madrid Femenino rivalry so lucrative is the foundational work that this laid, with Atleti being left in the dust rather than becoming the media-friendly nega-Barça they could’ve been.

And the future prospect of leaving the women’s clásico behind, too, could be for the better: Barça Femení have not needed to borrow fans of the men’s team and, though all support is appreciated, borrowing culture from the men’s team over a sustained period runs the risk of it replacing the culture the women’s team has slowly but surely developed on its own. People who appreciate not even the history of Spanish women’s football, but even just the culebrón of the Liga F over the last few years, are more likely to prefer a Barça rivalry game against either of the other Madrid teams than against Real Madrid. Attracting growth is positive, but not sustainable if it’s only focused on one match, especially one match that holds little weight within its own culture.