The Greatest Rivals

Cristiano Ronaldo - Ballon d'Or (cropped)

Whatever Thierry Henry might say, the Spanish league is the best in the world. It has an exciting present and a fascinating past. In the second part of my preview of the London Sports Writing Festival, I review a biography of Cristiano Ronaldo by Guillem Balague and “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” by Sid Lowe. They will discuss them on 13 November.

Click here for ticket details and information about the other events on the programme.

From Madeira to Meringue

The enmity between Real Madrid and Barcelona was once defined by a pig’s head. The pig’s head has now acquired even less savoury associations, and the clasico has become a symbolic duel between the world’s best players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Guillem Balague’s biography of Ronaldo (above) covers his childhood in Madeira and his time at Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United. But almost half of it is dedicated to his spell at Real Madrid since 2009, with Barcelona and Messi being his main adversaries.

Balague has also written a biography of Messi which caused controversy with its claims about Ronaldo, and he admits that no account of the player is ever likely to be objective.

Instead of objectivity, Balague strives for curiosity, a curiosity which seeks out the facts while avoiding the blinkered partisanship of the fan, for complexity rather than balance.

So, while Balague criticises for Ronaldo for what he sees as his arrogance and his desire to control his image, he also praises him for his hard work and his generosity in donating money to flood relief on Madeira. Both his admirers and detractors will enjoy this book.


Before Ronaldo and Messi, there were many other debates about who was the greatest, such as the one between Alfredo Di Stefano and the Hungarian refugee, Laszlo Kubala (above). These and much more are explored in Sid Lowe’s superior history of the rivalry.

Rather than trying to pack in every moment in the lifetime of the two clubs, and leaving them underanalysed, Lowe makes the wise decision to focus on the key moments which define the rivalry between them. These include a 1943 match won 11-1 by Real Madrid in an intimidatory atmosphere, and the alleged poaching of Di Stefano from Barcelona.

This allows for a forensic approach which shatters some famous myths, particularly about the role of the clubs during the Civil War. Lowe shows that Madrid was just as opposed as Barcelona to Franco, until he decided to retain it as his capital, and Franco intervened to help Barcelona too, when the club wanted to register Kubala as a player.

The Worst Olympic President Ever?

For Olympic fans, Lowe tells an equally nuanced story about Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee during its most troubled period, a bribery scandal surrounding the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. It was the worst case of its kind at the time but it has since been eclipsed by the UCI, FIFA and the IAAF.

Samaranch has rightly been heavily criticised for his support of Franco’s regime, and so it is tempting to portray him as a one dimensional B movie villain, but Lowe adds some arthouse moral complexity. Samaranch took a stand to criticise Real Madrid fans in that infamous 11-1 meeting, and was sacked as a journalist from his pro-Madrid newspaper.

The simplicity of fandom is part of its appeal but it is refreshing to take a break from it.

Next week: The last time Great Britain played Belgium in the Davis Cup final, in 1904


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