Saturday, July 9, 2011

Today’s Greatest Footballing Rivalries

The world of sport has created some amazing rivalries for us to watch, enjoy and be infuriated by. Think India against Pakistan at cricket, Formula One’s epic races between Prost and Senna, or even a whole continent uniting as Europe battle America in the Ryder Cup. But for me, nothing quite matches the passion that football can create, and so here are my top 4 football rivalries of today:

4 – Liverpool - Manchester United (England)

Probably the biggest footballing rivalry in England, many people may wonder why it hasn’t reached higher on this list. The truth is though, that while the hunger and commitment of both players and fans is clear for all to see, this isn’t truly one of the “greatest” rivalries, but instead simply the most commercialised. There is of course a lot of hatred between the two clubs - listen to the songs of both sets of supporters for proof of that, but a mutual dislike isn’t enough to turn a rivalry into one of the greats.
The rivalry lives on through the two teams being the most successful in English history, United leading Liverpool 19-18 on top flight trophies. But in recent years Liverpool have been largely dominated by their fellow reds. While Liverpool can occasionally pull off a good result in single matches against United, it in truth matters very little as they have finished above them only once on points in the last 20 years.
The meetings between these two are always two of the biggest games of the season, and will quite rightly remain this way forever. However, when you see pictures of United and Liverpool players away on holiday together, you begin to realise that this rivalry is far stronger among the fans and media than the clubs themselves.

3 – Boca Juniors - River Plate (Argentina)

According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, over 70% of all football fans in Argentina support either Boca Juniors or River Plate. The general stereotype is that Boca Juniors represent the working class, common citizens, while River Plate (nicknamed Los Milionarios) are the team for the upper-class weathly fans. In reality though, other than the locations of their stadiums, there are few class differences remaining between the two teams. This is echoed by the fact that because tickets are so highly sought after, many sell for upwards of £150, a price which both sets of fans queue for days to pay.
With such a high proportion of fans following just two teams, it’s fair to say that the city of Buenos Aires, and even the whole country, grinds to a steady halt on match day. Local TV stations start the build-up shows over 3 weeks before the actual match, and by the time the day actually arrives, the tension in the city is at fever pitch.
Watching this short clip from about 0.15 onwards should give some idea of the atmosphere (and the massive clean-up job)  that these teams create when they meet:
This season incredibly saw River Plate relegated from Argentina’s Primera Division, and so the 2012 season will be the first in history without a guaranteed Superclasico. Will this weaken the rivalry? Of course not – it’ll only make it even more intense when the clubs more than likely face each-other  in one of the other cup competitions that they’ll both be involved with.

2 – Barcelona - Real Madrid (Spain)

Just as with Manchester United and Liverpool, much of this rivalry stems from the long histories of successes between the two clubs. They are the two most successful sides in Spain with a stunning 149 trophies between them, Real Madrid narrowly leading Barcelona 79 – 76.
As with many sporting rivalries, politics lies at its heart. Barcelona are seen by many to represent Catalan nationalism, an ever-growing movement aiming to gain full independence from the rest of Spain. Madrid, as the country’s capital, represents to many Catalans the very thing they want independence from. In a 2009 referendum 96% of Catalans agreed they would like Catalonia to be christened as a country of its own that would recognise their culture, history and language as separate to that of Spain’s.
Of course the politics off the pitch only make the action on the pitch even more intense, with games never goalless and players inevitably seeing red cards at some point. At the moment, Barcelona and Real Madrid can lay fairly good claims at being the two best club teams in the world, and with both looking to spend big this summer, this doesn’t look set to change. Barcelona have supposedly spent in the region of £40million on Alexis Sanchez and it looks possible they could spend a similar amount taking Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas away from London too. Similarly, Madrid have already signed five players this summer, including Fabio Coentrao, Hamit Altintop and Nuri Sahin.
This much big spending demands results, from owners and fans alike, and tensions are sure to be at an all-time high as the rivalry renews for the start of the 2012 season.

1 – Celtic - Rangers (Scotland)

When there are only two truly world class teams residing within a country, tension between them is inevitable. The Old Firm’s dominance over their fellow clubs is such that no other team has ever won the Scottish Premier League, and in fact only once has either of them ever finished outside the top two. This total supremacy above the other Scottish teams is, however, just one tiny part of an enthralling rivalry.
There is no other sporting rivalry in the world which has the same number of political, ethnic and religious undertones as the Old Firm Derby in Glasgow. The match is very rarely seen only as a 90 minute contest between two teams, but embodies so much more: Protestants against Catholics, Republicans against Loyalists and the rich against the poor. The history of the rivalry is rooted deep into 200 years of British and Irish conflict, and while the wars in Northern Ireland are over, the ferocity of passion and anger lives on within the Glasgow derby. In the past year bullets, parcel bombs, death threats and public assaults have plagued the staff and players of both teams, and a recent police report suggested that over Old Firm weekends, violence and domestic abuse in Glasgow increases by up to 900%.
This match is one of the few times where sport truly transcends itself and symbolises hundreds of years of historical, political and religious feuding. Often the football isn’t even of a very high quality – matches are often cagey affairs – but the raw passion, the frayed tempers and the clear emotion make it un-missable, every time.

In truth, this article could have been ten times the length, there are just so many fantastic football clashes around the world. Honourable mentions must go to the Milan derby, Olympiakos vs Panathinaikos, Galatasaray vs Penerbahce and of course the great East-Anglian derby which is Norwich City against Ipswich Town.
Maybe the final one less so.

By David Astley