ENGLAND might have the more competitive league, but Spain arguably is home to the biggest club rivalry, that between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Their rivalry extends beyond stadiums’ borders. Each time the two clubs meet, the game becomes bigger than football, turning into political statements between the separatist Catalans and the ruling class in the Spanish capital.

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Wherever the club plays, FC Barcelona fans chant in their beloved Catalan language, the use of which was once suppressed and punishable during a dictatorship half a century ago.

On the other hand, Real Madrid is Spain’s prized pedigree club, whose players the Madrileños revere more than royalty: Los Galacticos are the vestiges of a once mighty country.

When the La Liga opens the new season this weekend, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid won’t be meeting on the pitch just yet. Their El Classico will have to wait 12 more weeks until Nov. 11 as the two teams deal with 18 other domestic clubs.

But to football fans outside of Spain, the only two La Liga teams that matter are FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Even this early, the result of the 2010-2011 season is almost a foregone conclusion: a tossup between the two football giants.

In the publicity department, Real Madrid has gained the upper hand this early by signing up Jose Mourinho as manager from Champions League winners Inter Milan. Not only that, it has given Real the psychological edge over the Blaugrana.

Aside from Real Madrid, FC Barcelona has a couple of rivalries worth noting. Outside of Spain, Barca has developed a little but no less intense rivalry with Chelsea, a club that has found a potent way of getting into the Catalans’ heads. How? Thanks to Mourinho, who taught the Blues everything they need to know about football, the same man who ended Barca’s run in last season’s Champions League with his mind games and tactical acumen.

So what the football community is seeing now are not just rivalries between Barcelona and Madrid, or between Barcelona and Chelsea, but one between Barcelona and Mourinho, which had its genesis in the Champions League seasons of 2004 to 2007 when The Special One desperately tried but failed to steer Chelsea into European glory.

Where Mourinho failed with Chelsea, he succeeded with Inter Milan. He now wants to repeat the task with Real Madrid.

Beyond the two El Classicos in the La Liga season, surely Barcelona is keeping an eye on how Mourinho does with Real in Europe.

Everything points to a Mourinho success in Spain and, well, perhaps in Europe.

But why the reservation? In the Champions League, Mourinho has a problem handling a team that is regarded as favorites.

In 2004, he succeeded with underdogs FC Porto, a Portuguese side manned by unknowns.

For several seasons, he repeatedly failed with Chelsea, an expensive, star-studded squad built overnight by Russian oil money. In Italy, he succeeded with lightly regarded Italian champions Inter Milan, which had a roster of aging but still potent footballers such as Eto’o and Milito.

Now, Mourinho has at his disposal the most individually talented —and expensive players—a club can assemble.

At the domestic front, the level of competition does not drastically increase as the season progresses, so adjustments and recoveries are much easier. But in the Champions League, the knockout matches become extremely difficult at every turn, fatigue from dozens of games takes its toll, and every player’s head becomes a pressure cooker nearing its limits.

The question is this: Can The Special One handle the volatile egos of Real Madrid superstars when crunch time arrives?

This time, it might just be Barcelona’s turn to pick someone’s brains apart.

(nsvillaflor@gmail.com)