Shanghai was abuzz with the passion of one of soccer’s greatest rivalries on Saturday as fans flocked to an El Clasico viewing party in the heart of the city.

Close to 1,000 supporters of Real Madrid and Barcelona attended the La Liga-hosted event at an e-sports venue at the Bund and were treated to a thrilling and controversial encounter.

Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid side laid down an early marker in the title race as a man-of-the-match display from Sergio Ramos, a questionable VAR decision and a late Luka Modric stunner helped the defending champion to a 3-1 victory over Ronald Koeman’s Barca.

Billed by organizers as the “first large-scale La Liga viewing party in China since the outbreak of the epidemic”, the event was the fifth of its kind since 2016 as Spain’s top-flight league strives to maintain its “long-term commitment to its Chinese fans”.

“Although there is the impact of the pandemic, life in China is going back, step by step, to its normal path, and La Liga has come back successfully through our continuous effort in establishing and implementing a safety protocol for our league, allowing all our fans to enjoy this fabulous El Clasico match,” said Sergi Torrents, managing director of La Liga China.

“La Liga is the first overseas football league to hold such a large-scale viewing party in China in the midst of the pandemic, and we are happy to be sharing this moment with our Chinese fans.”

Both clubs used the party as an opportunity to connect with their Chinese fan bases.

Legendary Madrid striker Emilio Butragueno, now the club’s institutional relations director, sent greetings via a video message; Barca launched an exclusive social media campaign that offers its culers the chance to win special prizes, while the Real Madrid Foundation encouraged fans to bid in its “solidarity auction”, which features items donated by Madrid greats David Beckham and Iker Casillas.

Before kickoff, La Liga and EA announced the launch of the eLaLiga Santander FanCup-an international e-sports tournament which will search for the best amateur ‘FIFA’ player in the world. China will play a vital role as La Liga is in the process of selecting a Chinese city to host the Asian regional final.

Ramos rules

On the real-life Camp Nou pitch, Madrid captain Ramos showed again why he is the heart of Real, creating and scoring the game’s decisive third goal.

Ramos was knocked out of the loss to Cadiz at halftime with a knee injury earlier this month that also sidelined him for the midweek Champions League defeat. But with the 34-year-old back in the center of its defense, Madrid was the aggressive, compact side that won La Liga from Barcelona last season.

After Ansu Fati had canceled out Fede Valverder’s opener for Madrid, Ramos proved key when he used his wiles to grapple with Clement Lenglet. With Lenglet tugging his shirt, Ramos fell to the turf and complained vehemently. After consulting the video screen on the touchline, referee Juan Martinez ruled Lenglet was at fault to send to Ramos to the penalty spot where he drove a low shot past Neto to restore Madrid’s lead for good in the 63rd minute.

“Both Lenglet and I take our defending to the limit, and in this case it was very clear,” Ramos said. “He grabbed me as I was jumping. The VAR is there to help and I think it was a penalty. We then went looking for a third goal after they had suffered that blow to their morale instead of just sitting back.”

Barcelona coach Koeman did not agree.

“The decision of the penalty had a final influence in the score,” said Koeman after losing his first Clasico. “It is first a foul by Ramos on Lenglet. Lenglet grabbed his shirt, but not enough to bring the player down. At least not enough to make the player fall away from you, but rather to pull the player toward you. So, for me, it is not a penalty.”

Madrid leads La Liga on 13 points. Barca is on seven points with a game in hand-and extra pressure when it travels to Juventus in the Champions League on Wednesday.

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