Eduardo Iturralde GonzÃ¡lez could see it coming. “I saw Sergio Ramos running towards Leo Messi and I thought, ‘He’s going to hit him’,” recalled the referee – and he was right. It was late on a Monday night in November 2010, Messi was left on the ground, a fight started and Ramos was sent off. On Saturday afternoon, they should have prepared for the final chapter of a seemingly endless story. Instead, although neither exactly planned it that way, they ended up at Camp de Loges, north of Paris. Together.
Nobody played anymore classics than Ramos or Messi, both at 45. This summer, however, the captains of Real Madrid and Barcelona left Spain. Sunday will be the first classic La Liga have neither on the pitch since April 2005, 16 years ago. The first time they faced each other was the night the BernabÃ©u applauded Ronaldinho, a generation of footballers ago. They are now teammates at Paris Saint-Germain. They could have been roommates: when Messi landed in Paris, Ramos offered to host their family at his place.
“Who would have thought that, Leo?” Ramos said when Messi’s decision was confirmed in August. Not them, anyway. The pair believed they would come to an agreement to stay at their clubs but found themselves forced to leave. 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 classic, Marseille-PSG, also on television, four and a half hours after kick-off at Camp Nou.
It can be difficult to look at PSG’s forward line and not think about what could have been. Messi and Neymar were two-thirds of the best attack Barcelona have ever had. Kylian MbappÃ©, already identified as the star for a new decade, admitted he wanted to join Real Madrid this summer. Madrid’s very public lawsuit has been postponed, so far an offer of 160 million euros has been rejected.
The likely outcome is a free transfer, with MbappÃ© arriving in Madrid next July and possibly not arriving alone, given the money saved by not signing him now. At Barcelona, ââit was not just a summer of departures but of crisis: the only player they paid for was Emerson Royal, whom they then sold to Spurs on the last day of the summer transfer window.
“It is what it is,” said Gerard Pique, while Ronald Koeman insisted that he could not be expected to win anything. He’s come back to that message now, but the ârealityâ he kept repeating remains. Barca’s hope lies in a new generation, teenagers with a growing fan club.
It all leaves an impression of a hiatus, as if we were between classics, eras even. Until what could be better times. Maybe not just on the ground but beyond: the doors of Camp Nou are open but it has not yet reached more than 50% of its capacity since the restrictions were lifted by the local health authorities.
Concerns about Covid remain and the huge drop in the number of tourists to the city has also had a major impact. It’s not just about disillusionment with the squad or Messi’s absence, but it plays its part.
The night of 2010 was near zenith and seems far away now. The best managers and players in the world were there then. It’s harder to say they’re here now, even though Karim Benzema is campaigning for the Ballon d’Or. His level right now is surely as good as anyone, anywhere.
“The classic will always be the classic“said Benzema, still the biggest club game in the world and of course there are other players: Luka Modric never seems to falter, while Pique, Toni Kroos, Sergio Busquets and Casemiro will start. Sergio AgÃ¼ero has arrived. and is finally in good form. Thibaut Courtois and Marc-AndrÃ© ter Stegen could be the best goalkeepers in the world. Eden Hazard is in good shape for his first classic, three years later. One of the things that seems to define Memphis Depay is that he doesn’t care who was here before.
Yet it is a game, they are clubs, in search of new symbols. A new generation too. Rodrygo is 20, VinÃcius 21. Gavi is 17, Nico 19, Pedri and Ansu Fati are 18 and have just renewed their contracts in Barcelona, ââa secure future with buyout clauses of one billion euros and lots of celebrations and relief, something to hold onto. Dream Teen, the slogan was running. Ansu, already wearing Messi’s No.10 shirt, extended his contract on Wednesday night, with the announcement carrying emotional and sporting weight. The timing, four days before the classic, didn’t seem like quite a coincidence to me.
It seems that there is a need to build new narratives, new rivalries. It is noteworthy this week how there was a slightly forced, not entirely convincing attempt in Spain to present Ansu and VinÃcius as contenders for the same crown, although Barcelona president Joan Laporta said: âIt will not be. more like before when it was Cristiano and Messi, âclaiming that the spotlight would be more widely diffused, even if they were trained on Ansu, a talent that can truly prove generational.
The captains have left, others have come, and so on. Ansu is expected, perhaps even demanded, for him to quickly take center stage. Hope is heavy. He is apparently fortunate not to feel the pressure on him, but he noted, and perhaps necessarily: “There is only one Messi.”
Pique said: âClubs like Barcelona and Madrid always need that number, a player who plays in front and who is decisive, who scores goals, who is important. The fact that Ansu is so young and came 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 is 18 years old and you cannot make him take on all this responsibility. The whole team has to win the matches and then it is he who scores goals but without putting all the responsibility on him, which is not good for him or for the club.
Laporta insisted: âI have a good feeling about the classic. I’m optimistic, I see an Ansu goal, âturning to the striker. âAnd you already know how to do that,â he added, to applause.
âI haven’t done anything yet,â Ansu said, but it would be a good place to start.