Karim Benzema and Real Madrid take on Barcelona Sunday at the Camp Nou. (Oscar J. Barroso/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Without Messi and Ronaldo, Does El Clásico Still Matter?

The first Real Madrid-Barcelona match of the year is going to feel a whole lot different than it has for the past decade.

The pandemic has been rough on every soccer club under the sun, but especially so for world football titans Barcelona and Real Madrid, who meet in the first El Clásico of the 2021-22 campaign Sunday.

In July, Los Blancos reported €300 million ($349 million) in lost income since March 2020, including a costly renovation of the Bernabeu at €279 million ($325 million) with an additional €375 million ($436 million) loan. Cristiano Ronaldo has been gone for two full seasons now, ending a dynastic run of four Champions League titles in five years, and Real Madrid has gone out in the round of 16 twice in UCL before a surprise run to the semifinals last season.

The club has won La Liga just three times in the last 10 years, taking the pandemic year championship in 2019-20 before losing out to crosstown rival Atletico last season. Real Madrid had to sell more players than it bought going into this season, with center-back Raphael Varane going to Manchester United for $44 million and young attacking midfielder Martin Odegaard heading to Arsenal for $38.5 million. Longtime star Sergio Ramos left to Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, with only star 18-year-old midfielder Eduardo Camavinga coming over from Stade Rennes for $34.1 million as the lone incoming player that cost anything.

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Real improved its club mainly through free transfers or returning loanees, with defender David Alaba coming on a free from Bayern Munich and Gareth Bale, Luka Jovic, and Dani Ceballos coming back after being sent away. Real currently trails Real Sociedad by three points in the La Liga table, though it has a game in hand. Recent losses to Espanyol and Sheriff have been incredibly embarrassing, but Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior are still carrying the load in the post-Ronaldo era.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s troubles have been vastly worse than their arch-rivals of late.

An official club release reported a massive €481 million ($560 million) loss for the 2020-2021 season, a campaign where a round of 16 loss to PSG in Champions League was their worst UCL result in 14 years. A La Liga title hasn’t come since 2018-2019. The club was a reported €1.4 billion ($1.63 billion) in debt, which led to a change of club management. In the most embarrassing incident of any major club for some time, Barca’s wage bill was so high and its finances so out of whack, the club couldn’t keep the legendary Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer ever, and had to let him leave on a free to PSG.

Not being able to recoup anything for Messi’s departure only compounded their issues, and Barca had to offload Antoine Griezmann on loan to Atletico. Right-back Emerson was sold to Tottenham for $27.5 million and left-back Junior Firpo went to Leeds for $16.5 million, but the club did make shrewd free transfers for Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia from Manchester City and Memphis Depay from Lyon. Having a seemingly in-over-his-head manager in Ronald Koeman doesn’t help either, with Barca languishing in 7th in the current La Liga table.

All those teams’ troubles don’t even take into account the travesty of both teams’ roles in the failed SuperLeague gambit earlier this year.

But why does El Clásico still matter?

Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two most valuable soccer clubs on earth, worth $4.76 billion and $4.75 billion respectively, with Barca topping the list for the first time. They’ve won a combined 18 Champions League titles, 13 from Real Madrid. Real has 105 million Instagram followers and 111 million Facebook likes, more than most sports leagues combined. Barca isn’t far behind, with 101 million IG followers and 103 million FB likes.

The money and popularity these two archrivals generate unrivaled — and it’s called El Clásico for a damn reason. The first match between the clubs was in 1902, with Real winning 98 competitive matches to Barca’s 96 to date. The two teams also exist in a political context, with the Catalonian independence movement, the Madrid-based Francisco Franco dictatorship, and various criminal organizations all involved in this 109-year-old feud.

There’s is perhaps no bigger or more important soccer rivalry in the world even now, with hundreds of millions of supporters around the world and plenty of star power still on hand for both clubs. Though they may be struggling right now in comparison to their recent runs of global dominance, the singular nature of El Clásico will live on forever.

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