Pasillo is the Spanish term for “hallway.” However, in the world of La Liga, it has a secondary meaning: guard of honor. After a team wins either La Liga or the Copa del Rey, at the very start of their next game, it’s customary that the opposing players will stand in two lines near the entrance tunnel, forming a hallway, and salute the champions as they enter the field. For example, last season, after Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey, their next opponent, Valencia, formed a pasillo to greet them onto the field.
For various reasons, the pasillos between Barcelona and Real Madrid have been few and far apart. The two teams normally race neck-and-neck until late into the La Liga season, and thus have already played one another twice before the champion is determined mathematically. Thus, their consistent duopoly in accumulating points prevents either one from having to honor the other.
Except, of course, for a few remarkable seasons.
1988: a Fond Farewell to the Quinta del Buitre
In 1988, a glorious era was coming to a close for Real Madrid. The club’s cantera had produced a fine crop of star players. Key players included the Quinta del Buitre (“The Vulture’s Cohort”): Emilio Butragueno, nicknamed el Buitre (“The Vulture”), Manolo Sanchis, Martin Vazquez, Michel, and Miguel Pardeza. Spearheading the attack was Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez. The team played an aggressive and physical game – think Mourinho’s tackling meets Pep’s pressing high up the pitch. The team won five La Ligas, two UEFA Cups, and Hugol won 5 pichichis as the top scorer in the league.
On April 30th, 1988, at the Nou Camp, Barcelona’s players formed a pasillo to greet the La Liga champions onto the field. In terms of the actual game, Buitre didn’t feature in Madrid’s team, Dutchman Leo Beenhakker was Real’s coach, and Barcelona won 2-0 thanks to a goal from Englishman Gary Lineker and an own-goal by Manolo Sanchis. Still, though, it was a bitter taste for Cules – they had won a battle but lost the war.
In the grand scheme of things, though, invisible plates had started to shift. Real’s team dominated domestically, but never managed to win the Champion’s League. The bright and bustling Quinta del Buitre increasingly showed signs of age, while Johan Cruyff would soon return to Barcelona and re-make the roster in his brilliant image. For Real Madrid, the pasillo was a parting wave to a generation adored by blanquillos. Barcelona may have la Masia, but Real also lived a successful period thanks to a fertile cantera (“Youth academy”). In a few years time, though, the tables would turn definitively.
1991: the Dream Team Draws First Blood
It did not take Johan Cruyff long to turn Barcelona into winners. He signed several fantastic foreign players, such as Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup. The Dream Team also featured several star Spanish players, like Josep Guardiola, Jose Mari Bakerao, and Txiki Begiristain. Their first title was a Copa del Rey in 1990, and they then won four consecutive La Ligas from 1991 to 1994. The Dream team’s most famous moment, though, was their European Cup victory in 1992 at Wembley. An iconic image for all Cules is Ronald Koeman’s celebratory hug - shirtless, he jumped into the arms of a nearby assistant, overcome with joy. He had scored the Cup-winning goal with one of his trademark free kicks.
In June 1991, the sky was the limit for Barcelona. The roster brimmed with talent, and the Copa del Rey and recent La Liga had instilled in Cruyff’s side the confidence of a champion. The Dutchman’s trench coat on the sideline was a calming presence. Josep Guardiola was the metronome in midfield. Ronald Koeman, nicknamed the Floquet de Neu after the Barcelona Zoo’s albino gorilla, provided long-range passing from the center back position. Michael Laudrup was a fluid midfielder that created goals almost at will.
Cruyff’s team reflected his cerebral approach to the game – they confidently passed sideways and backwards, snaking the ball around the field. On that hot summer day in June, Real, playing at home, formed a pasillo to greet the Champions onto the Bernabeu field. The merengues, coached by Radomir Antic, played a cautious game, nicked a goal from Adolfo Aldana, and miraculously managed a clean sheet. Still, the writing was on the wall – a new era of Barcelona dominance was merely beginning.
2008: the Second Salvo of the Dutch Dynamos
Many Barcelona fans love to reminisce about Ronaldinho’s smile & Frank Rijkaard’s stylish locks, but gloss over their nasty divorce from the club. After Barcelona’s 4-0 loss to Milan in the 1994 European Cup, the team fell into a bit of a tailspin by their standards. A decade later, Rijkaard righted the ship, Dinho turned on the style points, and the team returned to European glory in 2006. Yet problems arose soon thereafter.
Ronaldinho’s love for the nightlife soon turned into a lack of motivation. On the field, his lengthy dribbling runs turned into extended walk-abouts. He fell out with Rijkaard, but no ready replacement existed. Brazilian play-maker Deco also went on a mysterious and extended injury leave. Many speculated that the departure of iron-fisted Henk Ten Cate had left the laid back Dutchman with no respected enforcer. As the late Gary Speed said, “hard work beats talent that doesn’t work hard.” The Cules oozed talent but lacked dedication. Barcelona soon shipped Dinho to AC Milan and Frank left the club in 2008.
Given the duopoly of La Liga, when one club struggles, the other profits. Real capitalized on Barcelona’s dip to win consecutive La Ligas. For the first title, Real Madrid hired Italian disciplinarian Fabio Capello to bring order to a talented but rowdy roster. He immediately dropped Beckham, and regularly played two holding midfielders: veteran Brazilian Emerson and fiercely combative Mahamadou Diarra. Up front, Ruud and Raul formed a thunder & lightning partnership. Real won La Liga with brutal efficiency, but Capello was sacked for lacking style.
That summer, the club brought in Dutch coach Bernd Schuster, and also Dutch players Arjen Robben and Wesley Schneijder. With a creative play-maker and dynamic winger, they won La Liga handily. On May 7, 2008, Barcelona formed a pasillo to welcome the champions onto the Bernabeu field. Unlike past pasillo-clasicos, the champions actually won the game. Real dominated Barcelona to the tune of 4-1. Still, despite a roster of very good players, uneasiness permeated the blanquillo fan base. Two consecutive La Ligas was a decent run for any team. Except Real Madrid.
Pep Guardiola would soon take over Barcelona, leading them to great success, and that May 7th game probably remains the sweetest taste in a merengue mouth since.