The homage to Catalonia turned into a homage to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They say that sport and politics should not mix but sport and politics do mix, especially when it comes to Real Madrid versus Barcelona. The myths matter, even when they are myths, and symbolism seeps through the sport. There may be no more political match on the planet and this Sunday was billed as the most political match of them all, certainly since 1975. Madrid-Barcelona, Gerard Piqué admitted this week, has come to be seen as Spain-Catalonia, even if it shouldn't. And this time more than ever. In the end, though, it was another match that captured the imagination: Messi versus Ronaldo.
On the day that Franco died, Joan Granados and Jaume Rosell picked up the bust of the dictator in an office at Camp Nou and began to throw it to each other across the room, laughing. The bust fell and smashed into tiny pieces. Soon after, Barcelona faced Madrid and Camp Nou filled with hastily stitched senyeras – Catalan flags, still officially banned.
If the name Rosell sounds familiar, that is because it is. Jaume Rosell is the father of Sandro, the current president of Barcelona, the same man who recently attended a march on Catalonia's national day, 11 September. Rosell insisted that he did so in a personal capacity. But, to a backdrop of economic crisis, failed negotiations over the fiscal pact between Barcelona and Madrid, the calling of elections and talk of a referendum on independence, this was set to be more then a game and the traditional pre-match mosaic, organised by the club, would be a senyera: 98,000 people holding up yellow and red cards.
Others, outside the club, went further. There was a call for fans to carry the Catalan pro-independence flag, adorned with a star. Joan Laporta, the former president, was among those that said he was going to take his. On Sunday morning, the newspaper Las Razón dedicated 27 pages to politics in order to decry the fact that game was being politicised, while El Mundo solved a millennia-old mystery to reveal that Jesus Christ was in fact killed by Catalans. On Monday morning, one article insisted that in essence there is no difference between Catalan nationalism and nazism. El Mundo's editor already responded to calls for a Catalan demonstration by tweeting: "Seig Heil! A Catalan mosaic."
It was going to be explosive in the stands. It was, as it turned out, much more explosive on the pitch. Before the game, Barcelona's hymn was sung acapella. The Catalan national ('national', if you prefer) anthem wasn't sung. And while there were independence flags all around and two gigantic ones unfurled at either end of the ground, plus a banner that declared, in English, that Catalonia was set to be Europe's next state, there was something strikingly calm, strikingly sedate, controlled, about it all. There was little tension and little anger. The focus was soon drawn elsewhere. To Adriano playing at centre-back, for a start.
They were still waiting, though. When the stadium clock ticked up to 17 minutes and 14 seconds, it began. The year 1714 was the end of the siege of Barcelona, when the city was defeated. Up went the chant from a large number of the fans in the stadium: "Independence! Independence!" The game hadn't really got going yet; it was as if everyone was waiting to get that out of the way first. But then it did. And when it did, it turned into something special, unique, historic. This clásico was, cheered the front cover of AS, "MEMORABLE!"
Sure, there were complaints: José Mourinho said that he could not talk about penalties that weren't given, conveniently talking about penalties not given, and Pepe talked about Barcelona's players "acting", prompting Tito Vilanova to scoff: "Pepe? What can he say? We could do a video with all his kicks." But that did not take away from a match that the paper's editor insisted on Monday "filled us with pride". One that, for its political symbolism, for all the backlash that caused, lacked the edge and the aggression of previous encounters. And which came to be defined by the football. By the brilliance before them.
Not so much because of the game as a whole but because of two men. It finished level. Ten shots each, three on target each, one post each, one save each and a final score of 2-2. The gap between the two teams remained eight points and the gap between Barcelona and Atlético in second is now just goal difference. (and the gap between Barcelona and Atlético in second is now just goal difference) yet it also felt like it had closed. While Barcelona's papers cheered "+8", Madrid's were convinced that the league title race had come alive again. "They used to be here," Mourinho said, gesturing with his hands. "And we were down here. Now, they're still up here but so are we."
There were some impressive performances – from Sergio Busquets, Martín Montoya, and Pedro, Mesut Ozil, Pepe and Sami Khedira – and yet the final score and the sense of excitement concealed a game that created relatively few clear chances, no truly outstanding saves and occasionally, a strange sloppiness in the play.
It also disguised the fact that Barcelona have not reached their level, for a side that builds its moves with patience and precision it is striking that one goal came from a mistake by Pepe and the other from a 25-yard free-kick. Real constructed both their goals, Barcelona did not. There was a sense on Sunday night of Madrid drawing close to Barcelona's level.
a strange sloppiness in the play. It also disguised the fact that Barcelona have not found their level: for the ultimate in elaborate teams, a side that builds its moves with patience and precision, it is striking that one goal came from a mistake by Pepe and the other from a 25-yard free-kick. Madrid, the supposedly individualistic team, constructed both their goals; Barcelona did not. It was there that the sense of Madrid drawing up to Barcelona's level, or beyond it, was born.
But that was eclipsed by Messi and Ronaldo. It was about them. Everything was about them. Ronaldo scored. Messi scored back. Messi scored. Ronaldo scored back. The two best players in the world, matching each other stride for stride again. Two shots off target each, two shots on target each. Two goals each. Eight each in the league.
The statistics are insane. Between them they have scored 100 club goals in 2012. Ronaldo became the first player in history to score in six consecutive clásicos. Messi moved to within one goal of Alfredo Di Stéfano's all-time record for clásico goals, at the age of 25. Messi scored his 150th goal at Camp Nou, his 100th goal in the league. Ronaldo took his total to 160 goals in 155 games for Real.
"Talking about who the best player in the world is should be banned because they're so good," José Mourinho said. "Ronaldo would probably have had greater recognition if it had not been for Messi," Vilanova noted. For the first time, AS gave its crack award to two men: Messi and Ronaldo. Sport called them "stars". "From another planet," said the cover of Marca. "Monsters, Inc," it said inside. No one can keep up with them, except each other. By the end it was impossible not to be wrapped up in it all. In their brilliance, in the way that just when you think they can't do anything more, they do. Every time.
They strode across this game too; the biggest players on the biggest stage. It was billed as the biggest yet and there they were yet again. Not so much Madrid-Barcelona as Spain-Catalonia, more Madrid-Barcelona as Ronaldo-Messi. And when the clock ticked up to 17 minutes and 14 seconds in the second half, they almost missed it. They were busy celebrating Messi's second.
• The tiger roars again, even if when he scored Atlético's first they were still playing at Camp Nou. When he forced the second, an own goal by Weligton, people had been able to tune in though. Tune in to watch Atlético get a 90th-minute winner that takes them level with Barcelona at the top of the table and Falcao level on eight goals with Messi and Ronaldo. Or ahead of them on nine, if you believe Marca who have given him the second goal too. And as many of you will remember with a heavy sigh, Marca's word is the word. They're the ones that hand out the Pichichi trophy at the end of the season. That late goal also condemned Málaga to their first defeat of the season.
• Obafemi Martins is going to do himself a mischief one of these days, but try telling him that. Boing! Boing! Boing! Another goal, another summersault. This time he scored the winner against Valencia in the city derby. This is the worst away start Valencia have had in more than 20 years. They're 14th.
• Diego Castro scored again as Getafe beat Zaragoza in a game that had three red cards and just one goal, from the spot. No midfielder anywhere in Spain has scored as many goals as him over the last four years.
• Those electrically-literate sabotage mice struck again. This time the lights went out at Betis. The lights went out at Betis.
• It's all kicking off at Athletic Bilbao, with the release this season of a recording of Marcelo Bielsa addressing his players in the dressing room at the end of last season. The issue is not so much the content of the conversation – Bielsa actually comes out of it very well – but the fact that it has come out. Why was anyone recording? Why would they then leak it? And why now? The good news is that their season may be about to kick off too: they produced their best performance so far to defeat Osasuna. Even if Osasuna did hit the post three times.
Results: Celta 0-2 Sevilla, Rayo 2-1 Deportivo, Zaragoza 0-1 Getafe, Valladolid 1-1 Espanyol, Betis 2-0 Real Sociedad, Levante 1-0 Valencia, Mallorca 1-2 Granada, Athletic 1-0 Osasuna, Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid, Atlético 2-1 Málaga.