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Eduardo Iturralde González could see it coming. “I saw Sergio Ramos running towards Leo Messi and I thought: ‘He’s going to whack him,’” the referee recalled – and he was right. It was late on a Monday night in November 2010, Messi was left on the floor, a fight started and Ramos was sent off. On Saturday afternoon they should have been preparing for the latest chapter in a seemingly never-ending story. Instead, though neither had exactly planned it this way, they found themselves at Camp de Loges, north of Paris. Together.
No one has played more clásicos than Ramos or Messi, who are both on 45. This summer, though, the captains of Real Madrid and Barcelona left Spain. Sunday’s will be the first clásico La Liga has had without either of them on the pitch since April 2005, 16 years ago. The first time they faced each other was the night the Bernabéu applauded Ronaldinho, a footballing generation ago. Now they are teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. They might have been housemates: when Messi landed in Paris, Ramos offered to put up their family in his home.
“Who would have thought it, Leo?” Ramos said when Messi’s move was confirmed in August. Not them, anyway. Both men thought they would reach an agreement to stay at their clubs but found themselves having to depart. Paris offered them a place to go, a shared space in France where Spanish is the common language, although they have not yet played together. Still injured, Ramos will have to watch the French clásico, Marseille-PSG, on television too, four and a half hours after kick-off at the Camp Nou.
It may be hard to look at PSG’s forward line and not think of what might have been. Messi and Neymar were two-thirds of the best attack Barcelona have ever had. Kylian Mbappé, already identified as the star for a new decade, admitted he wanted to join Real Madrid this summer. Madrid’s very public pursuit was resisted, for now, a €160m bid rejected.
The likely result of that is a free transfer, with Mbappé arriving in Madrid next July and maybe not arriving alone, given the money saved by not signing him now. At Barcelona this was not just a summer of departures but of crisis: the only player they paid for was Emerson Royal, who they then sold to Spurs on the final day of the summer transfer window.
“It is what it is,” Gerard Piqué had said, while Ronald Koeman was insisting they could not be expected to win anything. He has rowed back on that message now, but the “reality” he kept repeating remains. Barça’s hope resides in a new generation, teenagers with a growing fan club.
All of which leaves a feeling of this as a hiatus, like we are between clásicos, eras even. Waiting for what might be, for better times. Possibly not just on the pitch but beyond it: the Camp Nou’s doors are open but it is yet to get more than 50% capacity since restrictions were lifted by local health authorities.
Concerns about Covid remain and the huge decline in tourists to the city has had a major impact too. This is not just about disillusionment with the team, or Messi’s absence, but that plays its part.
The night in 2010 was something close to a zenith and feels some way off now. The best managers and players in the world were there then. It is harder to maintain that they are there now, although Karim Benzema is on the campaign trail for the Ballon d’Or. His level right now is surely as good as anyone’s, anywhere.
“The clásico will always be the clásico,” Benzema said, still the biggest club game in the world and of course there are other players: Luka Modric never seems to fade, while Piqué, Toni Kroos, Sergio Busquets and Casemiro will start. Sergio Agüero has arrived, and is fit at last. Thibaut Courtois and Marc-André ter Stegen could be the best goalkeepers in the world. Eden Hazard is fit for his first clásico, three years on. One of the things that seems to define Memphis Depay is that he doesn’t care who was here before.
Yet this is a game, these are clubs, looking for new symbols. A new generation, too. Rodrygo is 20, Vinícius 21. Gavi is 17, Nico 19, Pedri and Ansu Fati are 18 and just renewed their contracts at Barcelona, a future secured with billion-euro buyout clauses and much celebration and relief, something to cling on to. Dream Teen, the slogan ran. Ansu, already wearing Messi’s No 10 shirt, extended his deal on Wednesday night, the announcement carrying an emotional weight as well as a sporting one. The timing, four days before the clásico, didn’t feel entirely coincidental.
It seems there is a need to construct new narratives, new rivalries. It was notable this week how there was a slightly forced, not entirely convincing attempt in Spain to pitch Ansu and Vinícius as competitors for the same crown, though Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta, claimed: “It won’t be like before when it was Cristiano and Messi,” saying the spotlight would be more widely spread, even as it was being trained on Ansu, a talent who genuinely may prove generational.
The captains have gone, others have come, and so it continues. It is expected, possibly even demanded, of Ansu that he swiftly steps up to centre-stage. Hope is heavy. He is apparently fortunate enough not to feel the pressure being loaded upon him, but he did note, and possibly necessarily: “There’s only one Messi.”
Piqué said: “Clubs like Barcelona and Madrid always need that figure, a player who plays up front and is decisive, who scores goals, who is important. The fact that Ansu is so young and that he has come back from injury and scored two goals, people need someone like that, especially when the best player in your history has just left. But you have to be realistic: he’s 18 and you can’t be loading all that responsibility on to him. It has to be the whole team that wins games and then it’s him who scores goals but without piling all the responsibility on him, which isn’t good for him or the club.”
Laporta insisted: “I have a good feeling about the clásico. I’m optimistic I see a goal from Ansu,” turning to the striker. “And you already know how to do that,” he added, to applause.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” Ansu said, but that would be a good place to start.