When it comes to world soccer, there's arguably no game or rivalry bigger than Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. The sides renew acquaintances on Sunday (10:15 a.m. ET; stream LIVE on ESPN+) in the 247th official edition of El Clasico (excluding friendlies), and it might even be one of the biggest clashes in all of sports, rivaling the Super Bowl or World Series when it comes to global viewing power. These days, fans in over 180 countries can watch these two battle -- a population of over 650 million, though realistic estimates for viewing figures are in the 75-100m range -- and while both sides look vulnerable this season, the century-old feud will bring out the best in both.
It's a game that has given us some unforgettable moments -- like Barca winning 6-2 in Madrid in 2009 -- and has been defined by the dizzying star power in both teams. We've had Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos also broke the career appearances mark by playing in his 45th Clasico before leaving for Paris Saint-Germain last summer. Three Barcelona players -- Andres Iniesta (2015), Ronaldinho (2009) and Diego Maradona (1983) -- even received standing ovations at Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium for brilliant single-game performances.
Though there have been countless figures who have participated in or had an impact since the two sides first met on May 13, 1902, there are a few who have made an indelible mark on what the sport's biggest rivalry has become, either in how they transformed each club or in how they turned this rivalry into the biggest in all of sport. ESPN interviewed players, coaches and executives, past and present, about the magic of this rivalry, as well as what makes these characters so vital to El Clasico lore.
Reporting by Moises Llorens, Sam Marsden, Alex Kirkland, Rodrigo Faez, Graham Hunter, Sid Lowe, Julien Laurens, Martin Ainstein and Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal
What's it like to play in a Clasico?
Iker Casillas, Real Madrid goalkeeper (1999-2015): I think the Clasico is the most intense rivalry on earth. The Clasicos we played in brought maximum rivalry, friendship, competition, enmity; but in the end I think that rivalry, and that type of competition, make every player grow and improve. In the Clasicos, we had to show 'fight,' more than just in football but also in psychological battles -- the battles before the matches, battles after the matches and during the matches!
Carles Puyol, Barcelona defender (1999-2014): [Reflecting on Madrid's 4-1 Clasico win in 2008] It was not only the worst match I can remember but the worst night I had in football. It wasn't only the defeat, or the scoreline, but the feeling of absolute impotence. We formed a guard of honour for them -- they were confirmed as LaLiga champions before the match -- but that's no problem, that's how I understand sport should be. But it was how we lost that night.
Xavi, Barcelona midfielder (1998-2015) and veteran of 42 Clasicos, on that same 2008 defeat: Madrid scored four that night, but believe me, it could have been six or seven...
Andres Iniesta, Barcelona midfielder (2002-2018), 38 Clasicos: It's not about just the day of the game. It's the whole week, plus the days before the game and after. It's different. There is a lot of tension; there's a desire for the game to arrive, and then the match itself is spectacular to be part of. I don't know how many I played, but always with a lot of excitement and tension.
Aitor Karanka, Real Madrid defender (1997-2002), Real Madrid assistant manager (2010-13): People always talk about childhood dreams of playing for a big club, with the national team or winning trophies. Playing in a Clasico was always a dream for any player, and it still is. Now it gets much more attention. At that time, you even often had a week to prepare for the game and the fans could go to the training ground to see the training sessions and support the team; it's different now [with so many games on the schedule]. That's the biggest change.
As a player, it's the game that everyone would like to play in.
Aureli Altimira, Barcelona conditioning coach (2008-14): The week of a Clasico is always special for everyone. We faced it with bravery, especially when we were playing at the Bernabeu. We knew you had to go toe-to-toe, be brave and not hold back on anything against Madrid. If you had any doubts, they would crush you. At home, the same. We wanted to have the ball, press as one and find space.
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Joan Gaspart, Barcelona vice president (1978-2000), Barcelona president (2000-03): I've been a huge Barca fan since I was born, and I've always experienced the Clasico with a huge amount of passion. It's three points, like any other game, but Madrid have always been our big sporting rival and that means there's a mutual desire to win in addition to the pride, honour and prestige that comes with the fixture. I've experienced big wins and big losses. The rivalry is historic; it will last forever.
Andoni Zubizarreta, Barcelona goalkeeper (1986-94), Barcelona director of football (2010-15): A Clasico is always a special game, different. It's a league within LaLiga. It's vital to win at home, given what it means and to make the fans proud of the players. The supporters give everything in the stands, and you notice that on the pitch.
Obviously, things have changed a lot from a few years ago until now, but for a player who understands what the Clasico means, that doesn't matter. The competition with your biggest rival is always huge, and winning this game is one of the aims of the season.
Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho
Pep Guardiola, the man who turned Barcelona into a juggernaut of the modern era, began his coaching career in charge of the reserves; taking on the first team was his first senior coaching job, but he immediately proved worthy. Having been part of the team that won six LaLiga titles in the 1990s, he would win 14 trophies in four seasons as manager -- a club record -- including a "sextuple" of trophies in 2009 (the first club to do so) and made history as the youngest manager to win the Champions League.
Against Real Madrid, he was almost flawless, winning nine of 15 games and drawing four. He'd lose just once in charge of Barcelona.
Gaspart: When we appointed Bobby Robson [in 1996], a young Jose was his assistant. He came as his translator because Bobby only spoke English. In any case, he was at Barcelona for a while and years later went to Madrid. Now he's a great manager, known all around the world.
Mourinho's not remembered [at Barcelona] with much affection. At the end of the day, Mourinho left Barca and later ended up at Madrid. He's a professional, and you can't hold it against him. He did a good job at both and wouldn't be mistreated if he came to Camp Nou one day.
Joan Laporta, Barcelona president (2003-10, 2021-): To tell you the truth... I wanted to surprise people [by appointing] a person that thoroughly knew and had participated in Cruyff's philosophy, which incorporates the genuine style of football which our model is based on. Straight away, Mourinho's people called me and were saying "I suppose all this about you wanting Guardiola is not true and that you want Mourinho." I told them: "Look, Mourinho's a great professional, but I've decided on Guardiola."
The battles between Guardiola and Mourinho would be the stuff of legend: their first Clasico meeting ended 5-0 to Barcelona, and while Mourinho would win only one game against Barcelona during the four years that the two managers went head-to-head in Spain -- a 1-0 victory in the 2011 Copa del Rey final -- their battles would be legend.
Laporta: The only question [about Guardiola] was his lack of experience, but I wasn't worried about that. I consulted with Johan [Cruyff] and Txiki [Begiristain], telling them that I was thinking Pep could be the new Barca coach. They told me he was absolutely ready, so I had a meeting with Pep and told him I wanted him to be manager of the first team. Do you know what he said to me? "You haven't got the balls."
Iniesta: My idols were Michael Laudrup and Pep Guardiola, and [being managed by Guardiola] added motivation. The experiences I had with him were really awesome because of what he meant to me. He had a brutal conviction and confidence in our possibilities, both in what we were doing and how we did it. He's a coach that knows how to get 200% out of every player and has very clear ideas. That made us believe from the first minute, and we were able to carry out what he wanted.
Altimira: Guardiola's great virtue was that he listened to everyone and later he would decide himself, but from the start he would listen.
Zubizarreta: A clear example of [Guardiola's approach] was playing with a false nine. Before going to the Bernabeu in 2009, he decided to play without a fixed forward, which rendered obsolete all the systems Madrid had prepared to win the game. The plan worked amazingly, Barcelona won 6-2 and that game will be remembered forever.
Zubizarreta: The Clasicos with Mourinho generated a lot of tension. Madrid appointed him to try and put a stop to the way Barcelona were playing and winning after he'd knocked them out of the Champions League in 2010 at the semifinal stage [as Inter Milan manager]. After the 5-0 Barca win at the end of November 2010, things changed. It was as if Madrid had understood that the difference [between the teams] was massive and they started to plan for the games in their own way. It generated a lot of tension, and there were some unpleasant moments.
Sergio Ramos holds the unfortunate LaLiga record of most red cards for a single player (26), and five of those were picked up in matches against Barcelona, making him even more of a Real Madrid legend. In a particularly nasty Clasico in 2009, with Real losing 5-0 in injury time, he went in hard on Messi to at least get something for his team that day. He then fought with two Barca players on his way to the dressing room.
Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez, LaLiga referee (1995-2012) that sent off Sergio Ramos: It was one of those you can "smell." I saw him running towards Messi, and I thought "he's going to whack him." You can't just know the rules, you have to know the game. If I hadn't "smelt" that, I wouldn't have been in the right place. Then there was this melee. Ramos confronts Puyol, Xavi is there, the two goalkeepers come over. Everyone's confronting each other. I tried to get in the middle of it, tried to break it all up, but it was impossible: there were arms everywhere.
The only one that's not in the middle of it all is Iniesta. I say to him "bloody hell, what are you lot like?" And he says: "'ah, you love it."
Xavi, on the 2011 Champions League Clasico: Mourinho was provoking us so much, over and over again, that finally we senior players really wanted a response from Guardiola. When we watched his prematch press conference [Guardiola gave an explosive diatribe against Mourinho], we loved it and applauded him to his seat in the restaurant when he came back to the team hotel. Pep told us to "sit down and stop all that."
Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
It's impossible to discuss the Clasico, or the two teams, without mentioning Messi and Ronaldo. Their head-to-head rivalry for nearly a decade in LaLiga was energizing not just for the Clasico but for all of football. Between them, they won 11 of the past 12 Ballons d'Or and when one was up and winning awards, the other had to be down. Messi scored more (26 in 44 Clasicos, compared with Ronaldo's 18 in 29) and the number of LaLiga titles during Ronaldo's time in Madrid (Messi had six, Ronaldo just two), but Ronaldo and Real did claim four Champions League crowns in five years. Regardless of your preference, the duo were equally dominant in this feud.
Ramon Calderon, Real Madrid president (2006-09): Without doubt Messi is an exceptional player. As football fans we've been lucky to live in the era of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo together, even more so when the two of them were playing in Spain... [When Messi met Real Madrid in March 2007] it was a frenetic match, with constant changes on the scoreboard. That game gave us the boost to win the league. It was something of a miracle because we were nine or 10 points behind with eight games left and little by little we fought back.
That game was key. When I arrived as president, we had changed 18 players to change the feeling around the club, which hadn't won anything for three years. That game showed the players that they were capable of winning, of coming back, of competing with Barcelona. Messi, though, was sensational. The whole stadium, and the presidential box, was vibrating. It's one of those games you remember forever... Obviously when Real Madrid play, I've always wanted my club to win, but as a fan I've always admired great players. Messi has been one of them.
Josep Maria Minguella, soccer agent: We brought Messi to Barcelona after some sensational scouting work from some of my collaborators in Rosario [Argentina]. The story is well known, how everything happened, the problems we had closing the move to Barcelona, how in the final moment Carles Rexach saved the deal by famously signing the napkin at the Pompeia tennis club in the city.
The first time I saw Cristiano Ronaldo was when I was travelling with Javier Subirats, who was working for Valencia at the time, to watch an U18 or U19 game between Portugal and England. I went because Portugal have always brought through really good players, but without knowing anyone properly. It wasn't like these days back then. Now you know everything before you even travel.
We watched the game and a few players stood out, although none of them were well known. After the game, we went to the Portugal hotel and were dining with their travelling party. There were a lot of players there who weren't known at the time but would become very popular, among them Thiago, Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo. We were introduced and we talked, but we left it there.
As the weeks passed, with the focus now back on club football, I learned that Sporting Lisbon were going to play a friendly against Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson was quicker than anyone else and ended up signing Cristiano.
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Iniesta: For me, Messi is a guarantee of success, or of getting close to success just by having him on the pitch. He makes the difference in every game. For me, he is the No.1.
Calderon: It was really hard to sign Ronaldo at Real Madrid, because obviously United didn't want to let him go. He's a unique player. Together with Messi at the time he was the best, and as president I couldn't miss the opportunity to sign him. We did it, and at the time the figure looked very high. At that time nobody had paid 94 million euros for a player. But we had the money... I always said money has to be on the pitch, not in the bank. I managed to double the TV rights contract, increase revenues, and we were able to do it.
Signing him was extraordinary, and he gave us everything. He gave us trophies for nine years. He won individual awards, Ballons d'Or... and Madrid won four Champions Leagues. He managed to show that he's an exceptional player and in Clasicos he didn't miss the opportunity to do it. Great players always show it in big games. He did it in the ones he played in, as Messi did, and many others have.
When Cristiano arrived, he was already a No. 1. It wasn't easy [to imagine what he would achieve] because the football world is very competitive nowadays. We have to compete with clubs that belong to big companies, millionaires... The hope when we signed him was that he would respond to expectations, and he did that and then some. It was much more than what we hoped for. His career, in the nine years he was here, it will be very difficult for that to be matched again.
Minguella: [Messi and Ronaldo] have left the bar sky high. It's almost unreachable for the rest. They have given, and continue to give, everything for football. They love the sport so much, and that's made their teammates and their rivals better, too.
LaLiga, and the rest of the world, has been lucky to share this era with them. It's difficult to imagine another rivalry between two players at the very top of the game lasting over 15 years. Messi has become a player that creates, assists and also scores a lot of goals, something which is not normal, while Cristiano, I must say, participates less in the game now, but is still a top-class finisher and an insatiable goal scorer.
Karim Benzema, Real Madrid forward (2009- ): When you play with a guy [like Ronaldo] who scored 50 or 60 goals a season, of course, you are at the service of the team, but you are at the service of the player too because he is someone who scored a lot. I had to adapt, I adapted. [It feels strange that neither are involved in the Clasico anymore] but before them, there was Zidane, there was Ronaldinho, there was Ronaldo, there was Samuel Eto'o.
The names change, but Real Madrid vs. Barcelona is still Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, regardless of the players.
Santiago Bernabeu: The man who made Real Madrid
It's fair to say that without Santiago Bernabeu, there is no Real Madrid. Not only do they play in the stadium he built and that bears his name, but his remarkable success both as a player (68 goals over 12 seasons, after making his first-team debut aged 17) and as team president (over 70 major titles in 35 years) is unprecedented.
He turned Real Madrid into a global force through conviction and courage, building a stadium that could hold over 100,000 (the club averaged barely 15% of that at the time), establishing state-of-the-art training facilities as well as fostering an atmosphere of success and hard work. He also played a key role in the formation of the European Cup -- now known as the Champions League -- and oversaw his side's early domination as they won it six times, including five in a row, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Amancio "Amaro" Varela, Real Madrid defender (1962-76), Real Madrid manager (1984-85): He always insisted on how important it was to be humble, simple. We couldn't go round saying we were the best, chests all puffed out, even if we were. Humility, humility, humility. He was someone you had so much respect for.
Ignacio Zoco, Real Madrid midfielder (1962-74): He would look after you and your family. You weren't just a footballer.
Jose "Pirri" Martinez Sanchez, Real Madrid midfielder (1964-80): If I was in hospital, he would come with me and talk for hours and hours. He was a father figure. When he'd turn up at the team hotel, players would say: "Don Santiago is here..." and you'd run to the bathroom to make sure you were clean shaven. He wanted Real Madrid to be exemplary in every way. He kept everyone in line.
Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid forward (1984-87), Real Madrid manager (1994-96): He was ahead of his time, taking risks that were truly historic. In an economically depressed Spain, he constructed a stadium for 120,000 people and then filled it by seducing the greatest stars of the era. Real Madrid is as big as the titles it has won and the stars it has seduced into joining.
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Vicente del Bosque, Real Madrid midfielder (1968-84), Real Madrid manager (1999-2003): Bernabeu was the moral and spiritual leader of the club. He came in as an errand boy and he left almost six decades later as the director. He was close to us, patriarchal, paternalist. He knew everyone.
Calderon: I think he was a pioneer in everything. He was a visionary. He helped found the European Cup together with L'Equipe. He was the first to bring in foreign players... he had a clear vision of what football was going to be and how football should be... he put the foundations in place for the team to be what it is today.
Jose Santamaria, Real Madrid defender (1957-66): He didn't allow any scandal. When we won the fifth European Cup, the next day we arrived in Madrid and we had to arrive in a 'normal' condition. The night before, we couldn't have a party. We were only allowed to drink orange juice and eat some biscuits!
Johan Cruyff: The iconoclast who got Barcelona to the top (at Real Madrid's expense)
When the Dutch forward arrived at Barcelona in 1973, he found a club in disarray and notably lagging their rivals. With no money to spend and few ways to organically close the gap to Real Madrid, who had won eight of the last 10 LaLiga titles at the time, Cruyff arrived for a record fee (approximately $2 million) and led Barcelona to LaLiga glory in his first season, breaking their 13-year drought. But it was as Barcelona manager that he made the biggest impact, tilting the Clasico rivalry back in their favor.
The club -- mirroring their current plight -- was in debt and full of rot when Cruyff took the manager's job in 1988, but he quickly established the club's "Dream Team," era, which yielded four straight LaLiga titles and four straight European finals, including a Champions League title (1991).
"The influence of Johan Cruyff was huge," Guardiola once said. "He changed the mentality of Barcelona. His influence is not comparable. He is the most influential person in the world of football in the past 50, 60 years. Nobody can compare with him."
Txiki Begiristain, Barcelona forward (1988-95), Barcelona director of football (2003-10): We all felt the pressure and the need to win, but when you saw Cruyff, you felt like he could overcome everything. He took it all in his stride. We thought that his ideas were fine in Holland but would be impossible to impose in Spain. But he had no doubts. He convinced us that with his style we could win titles.
When things are difficult, you tend to become defensive, but he didn't have that mentality: his first option was always to attack more... He wasn't scared of anything. Who knows if he was worried beneath the surface, but he never, ever transmitted panic.
Eusebio Sacristan, Barcelona midfielder (1988-95), Barcelona assistant manager (2003-08): Players [want to] run everywhere and Johan would be like: no, stop. Don't invade the space your teammate is occupying, don't let a defender mark both of you -- separate. His idea was 'I have technical players, let's put them in positions in where the opponent can't take the ball off them. Let's always have a line of passes open, let's open up the wingers so that the defenders who want to stop them have to spread right across the pitch. It was different, vanguard, revolutionary, exciting... what can I say? For me, I found my religion and I am faithful to it. It was my football, it suited me. My faith was unshakeable.
Carles Rexach, Barcelona forward (1965-81), Barcelona assistant coach (1987-96): It was a revolution in football, and people didn't know how to deal with it. Back then it was all: run, jump, fight. With him, it was: no, we have to play better.
Michael Laudrup, Barcelona forward (1989-94), Real Madrid forward (1994-96): Cruyff is the only coach that when he told you things tactically, you thought "oh, of course." Of course, but... 90% of coaches didn't say that. He saw it clearly, the logic. He was a revolution.
Zubizarreta: The managers have their ideas and work on counteracting everything they think the opposition coach has in their head. Cruyff -- like Pep Guardiola now, for example -- devised specific things for games they considered important, things that, if they went well, could be used in the future.
Cruyff, of course, also tried things that went well, but also other things that did not go quite as planned. But that's something that can happen. The important thing is believing in what you do and following through on it.
Sacristan: I've seen Messi and Maradona, but someone who had the vision and analysis like Johan, and has been able to communicate it like Johan? No... I don't know everyone, but of the people I have met -- his ideas, concepts, details, nuance, idea of the game -- I have had the privilege and honour to have been very close to someone who could communicate it like him.
Players who crossed the Clasico divide
Over 30 players have represented both teams of the Clasico divide, but few have made their mark like this select group.
Alfredo Di Stefano was the star of Real's best era despite that he was "meant" to play for Barcelona. They believed they'd agreed a deal to bring the striker over from Colombian side Millonarios, but the Spanish FA refused to recognize the deal, which opened the door for Real Madrid to swoop in and agree a deal of their own. Eventually, and despite cries of conspiracy, he would represent Real Madrid.
Eight LaLiga titles, five European Cups and two Ballons d'Or later, it's tempting to wonder what could have been.
Gaspart: Di Stefano signed for Barca, and Madrid took him away. There was a contract that wasn't very clear and Madrid were opportunists at that moment, so he went there. And Madrid won the European Cups and did what they did with Di Stefano... That was also a very dirty operation, more political than anything else in that moment. I remember it even as a young kid.
Darcy "Canario" Silveira dos Santos, Real Madrid forward (1959-62): I coincided with both Pele and Di Stefano [as a player], and they were the best. But Alfredo was more complete. He was the No. 1.
Juan Santisteban, Real Madrid midfielder (1955-61, 1963-64), Real Madrid assistant manager (1979-81, 1982-84): I don't think there is a player who has been born or will be born who can match him. Physically, he was incredible. I saw him save a goal inside his own penalty area once -- against Real Sociedad, I think -- and in the same move, end up at the other end and score. ... No one could stop him. You've never seen anyone like him, and you never will either.
Calderon: Di Stefano used to say something that I always repeat when I hear players, coaches or presidents complaining. "A great team -- and Madrid are greater than anyone -- can never complain about referees, injuries or bad luck." It's a very important principle in football, and in sport in general. A small team or a medium-sized team can complain, but Real Madrid never can.
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Then there was Michael Laudrup, who played for both teams in the 1990s. He's the only player to have won 5-0 in a Clasico both for Barcelona and Madrid, and he did it within the space of a calendar year. The 5-0 scoreline became infamous with fans and players of either side, who'd taunt the others with an upheld hand, fingers and thumb splayed to signify a five-goal win: "la Manita."
Laudrup: I never used the "Manita," I don't like it. Because, without being arrogant, I've lost 5-0 and I don't like it because it's humiliating. I like to win, but it's like when you make a nutmeg, I only ever used it to go past my opponent -- never to humiliate him. So I didn't like the 5-0 for what it became.
The only sweet story was a few years later, as manager of Getafe, I was in an airport and a man was there with his 10-year-old son -- meaning the kid was born pretty much when I left football -- and the dad asks me for a picture before he turns to his son and says: "This man was a very good footballer". And the boy just says to his dad: "Cinco-cero, cinco-cero!" ("five-nil, five-nil!")
The ensuing decade was filled with players who crossed the divide in either direction, from Brazilian star Ronaldo (Barcelona 1996-97, Real Madrid 2002-07) to Spain manager Luis Enrique (Real Madrid 1991-96, Barcelona 1996-2004), but the move of Portuguese playmaker Luis Figo from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 was the one that left a mark.
Gaspart: What happened with Figo was an illegal and dirty act on Madrid's part. Florentino Perez, who is a friend of mine and someone I respect, played a dirty trick on me; it was a really dirty move. I've explained it many times, there's no need to explain it more.
The first game Madrid played at Camp Nou with Figo, it all boiled over -- they had to suspend the game for 15 minutes to calm the supporters down. I was president then. That's normal here and there. Also Luis Enrique, a Real Madrid player who signed for Barca, was considered a "traitor" for coming here. But Enrique was very different to Figo because he moved in a normal way. His contract ended [with one club] and he signed [with the other].
Figo was very different. Everything that winds up Madrid, or that Madrid can do to wind up Barca, is welcome as long as it's legal. And in the Figo case, that legality did not exist. But now it's in the past, it's forgotten. I can't keep remembering it forever.
In his first game back at Barcelona after making the move, on Nov. 23, 2002, the fans couldn't hide their disgust, booing him throughout the game and hurling objects onto the pitch every time he went over to take a corner. The most memorable image involved a pig's head that emerged from the stands late in the first half. Figo's move added an extra layer of bile to the rivalry.
Michel Salgado, Real Madrid defender (1999-2009): By the second or third corner I turned to Luis Figo and said "Forget it, mate. You're on your own". I used to offer Luis the chance to take the short corner, drawing up close to him near the touchline, but not this time. Missiles were raining down from the stands: coins, a knife, a glass whiskey bottle. Best to keep away. Short corners? No thanks.
Gaspart: They had to suspend the game with the possibility of even calling it off completely. I went down to tell the referee to be careful because if he suspends the game, maybe it makes things worse. Let the fans calm down a bit and then restart the match. It was suspended for around 15 minutes. It restarted and ended in a draw, but they had to suspend it not for the atmosphere but for the objects that were thrown onto the pitch. The referee felt they couldn't carry on playing and that it could lead to more problems.
I can't applaud it because I don't agree with throwing things onto the pitch, but the fans were riled up because they felt this player had betrayed us. The way he did it, especially to go to our biggest rival, Real Madrid. But there have also been cases in history of players from Real Madrid ending up at Barcelona and similar atmospheres at their ground.