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El Clásico is as ridiculous as it is brilliant

Everything that's excessive and repellent and weird about modern football, hidden behind the greatest players in the world.

You can tell it's coming when the universe starts acting oddly. Football fans find their eyes glazing over and their attention wandering. Birds fly backwards, horses eat one another and editors send round emails earlier in the week. In parts of Europe, the sun was briefly devoured by the moon, though since most of Europe is perpetually consumed by clouds nobody really noticed anyway.

Yes, the Clásico is coming. Everybody's very excited.

That this is the biggest ordinary-season game in football isn't really a matter for debate. According to the BBC, between 400 and 500 million people around the world were expected to watch the last one, back in October. Meanwhile, ESPN, before the same game, totted up various numbers and proclaimed this the richest game in the world by almost every measure. The most expensive and well-paid players, the largest revenues, the biggest debts: this is where the money is, so this is where the eyeballs go.

Perhaps it began when Florentino Perez rejected Ronaldinho as too ugly for the Asian market, or when Barcelona succumbed to the lure of shirt sponsorship. Either way, this game now feels like both more and less than just a big game. More, because this is an era of transcontinental super teams, footballing city-states with tentacles that reach well beyond their traditional borders, and this game sits at the apogee.

And less for pretty much the same reasons. Real Madrid vs. Barcelona and the attendant circus is modern football at it's most unrestrained, and so it's most dispiriting: an ultra shiny, superpowered off-brand -- two vast megacorps clashing before the eyes of the world. Have a break, have a Beko. A Qatar Foundation a day helps you work, rest and play. I'm an Adidas baby. Nike adds life. A great footballing rivalry, stemming from and informed by a great cultural and political animosity, all being used as much as celebrated. Yet the event retains its allure. Why?

Because it's brilliant.

Consider the cast. Sunday's game will likely feature, among others, the best player in the world (and perhaps ever), the second-best player in the world and current Ballon d'Or holder -- a player so good that he justified (allegedly) the committing of gargantuan tax fraud. Also featured are the 2013-14 PFA Player of the Year, the 2010-11 and 2012-13 PFA Player of the Year, Karim Benzema, the current and former holders of the award for Best Croatian Footballing Haircut, and a player who tore his anus to get to the 2014 World Cup final. The breakout star of the World Cup would also be there, but for injury.

Or consider the precedents. There hasn't been a nil-nil for 13 years, and recent games have served us up Bale's Road Runner impression, Cristiano Ronaldo telling the Barcelona crowd to simmer the hell down and a seven-goal thriller featuring a record-breaking Messi hat-trick. Along with that there have been plenty of red cards, bile, spite, and that time José Mourinho completely lost the run of himself and poked Tito Vilanova in the eye like he was some kind of rugby player. All the good things about football, and all the bad things about football that nobody is allowed to admit to enjoying. (Okay, the eye-poke was probably a step too far.)

It's always important, too, even when it probably shouldn't be. The preeminence of the Spanish Old Firm in recent years -- Atlético's wonderful party pooping notwithstanding -- has imbued this game with bellwether status. Yes it's three points in the race for the title, but it's also decides who's going to be in crisis next. And one of these two clubs is always in crisis, simply by virtue of the fact that the other one isn't.

When Madrid beat Barcelona 3-1 earlier in the season, they didn't just cut the gap at the top to one point, notching up the sixth in a run of 12 league games. They also kicked Barcelona firmly into crisis, sparking a couple of months of sizzling rumors. First, Luis Enrique hated Leo Messi, then the feeling was mutual. First, the former was getting sacked, then the latter was joining Chelsea. Meanwhile, Luis Suárez was lacking bite, Ivan Rakitic was lacking class, all the defenders were bobbins, everybody was getting old and the Nou Camp was crumbling into the ground.

But just a few short months later, it's Barcelona that are trotting along pleasantly and Real Madrid who are stuck in the middle of a thumping crisis. Bale is being whistled by his own fans, Ronaldo isn't talking to anybody and Iker Casillas is keeping goal like a man who can feel David de Gea's hot breath on his neck. And, of course, Barcelona are back on top of the league. Lose here, and the meringues will be four points behind, the title will be gone and Carlo Ancelotti might well be doomed. Despite the fact there are 30 more points to play for.

In short, the Clásico sits on the footballing universe like a black hole, heavy and distorting, pulling everything into its orbit. We passed the event horizon some time ago. At this point there is no escape. Presumably, the whole edifice of modern football is going to collapse in on itself at some point, and we're all going to be sucked into nothingness and smeared across the fabric of the universe, metaphorically, hopefully. But while we wait for that day, we might as well pass the time watching as fine a game of football as the Earth has to offer.