23 October 2014 13:13
On Saturday, the sight of Luis Suarez in a Barcelona shirt will add extra spice to one of football’s most captivating rivalries.
A global television audience in the hundreds of millions will tune in as Real Madrid host Barcelona in El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Not one of them needs a special reason to fix their gaze upon a contest that sells itself.
Barcelona head into the weekend meeting with a four-point lead over their opponents at the Liga summit. As usual, the game carries sizeable weight in the Spanish title race.
Both sides have three UEFA Champions League titles to their name this century and, in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they boast a generation-defining superstar apiece.
But for all the modern excellence and supremacy, their rivalry is one rooted in historical passions that bubble to this day – Barcelona as the symbol of Catalan identity and pride, while Real stand proud as representatives of the Spanish capital.
They are divisions that were stained beyond football during the country’s civil war of the 1930s.
Passions forged on and off the pitch over the decades mean that both clubs are easily labelled as polar opposites, despite their usually common goals.
Barcelona are the team for the romantics, where dazzling youth products from their famed La Masia academy are allowed to flourish alongside global superstars who once walked the same path. Where tiki-taka style is held dear over still considerable substance.
The modern Madrid, meanwhile, smash transfer records as regularly as they do points hauls. They are the club of the Galactico, a brilliant and brutal winning machine set against Barca’s perceived artisan disposition.
Such wide-sweeping labels and stereotypes are inherently brittle and Suarez certainly causes them to crack.
Barca’s reported €94million swoop to bring the Uruguay forward to the Camp Nou during the close-season came under a cloud following Suarez’s exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in disgrace.
Here is a player who bites people – the sort of man Barcelona fans would have revelled in relentlessly barracking had he turned out in the famous white of Madrid.
A seemingly inevitable quirk of the fixture list means that, at the end of a global football ban for sinking his teeth into Italy defender Giorgio Chellini, he has the chance to become the toast of Catalonia and an instant hero when he pulls on his new club’s shirt for the first time in a competitive fixture.
A fiercely driven player defined by his will-to-win, one imagines that Suarez would have relished writing such a script himself.
Zinedine Zidane, one of the original Galacticos and now a coach at Real, fired an early shot across the bows this week.
“There are always reports linking the big players with Real Madrid, but we had no contact with Liverpool regarding Suarez in the summer – he is not a player that we felt we needed,” the French great was quoted as saying by Voetbal Primeur.
Barcelona, without a major trophy in 2013-14, certainly felt they did need him, regardless of whether Suarez flies in the face of elements of the club’s traditional image.
Despite all-star forward lines seldom looking as impressive on grass as they do on paper, it is not hard to imagine Suarez slotting in seamlessly at Barca.
He collected a host of individual awards as he netted 31 goals in 33 Premier League games last season, while fellow forward Daniel Sturridge also enjoyed his most productive season to date at Liverpool as Suarez often operated from the left of a fluid front three, allowing the England international to flourish.
New team-mates Messi and Neymar’s current purple patches in front of goal will not phase Suarez, whose tireless and intelligent running should quickly find favour with a scheming Barca midfield marshalled by Andres Iniesta.
Such link-ups may take some time to develop, even if football’s modern day Jekyll-and-Hyde character is immediately to the fore on his introduction to El Clasico this weekend.