The enduring appeal of the derby

WATCHING football in a foreign country is a thrill in itself, but when you manage to gatecrash a major event, such as a local derby that captures the passion, emotion and intensity of football at its most engaging, then it is a big bonus.

We have become obsessed with these games to a certain degree. TV broadcasters leverage the power of a derby to crank-up interest in their screenings, hence we always, without fail, get the North London bun fight, the Mersey meeting, City versus United and assorted other London debates pushed to the forefront. And now, in this cosmopolitan era, we also have access to he likes of Real Madrid versus Barcelona, a game that has often been billed as the most glamorous, most captivating in world football.

But wait, we are now being told that the Buenos Aires meeting between Boca Juniors and River Plate is now the most passionate meeting of minds on the planet – it’s not just El Clásico, it is the Superclásico. This is interesting as this football match was largely ignored outside Argentina until the two clubs reached the Copa Libertadores final. The events surrounding this game have given this particular derby a level of infamy that is undoubtedly damaging Argentinian football.

The intensity around this game and the magnitude of the crimes being committed suggests a level of feral hatred between the two clubs. Yet it is a fact that both Boca and River need each other, to provide competition, to spur each other on and to create a level of passion for Argentinian football. Very few local rivals, wherever they may be, will admit to “needing” their hated opponent, but where would Arsenal fans be without the song, “stand up if you hate Tottenham”? It almost defines the Arsenal fans’ love of their own club.

What makes a good derby? Basically, a really heated argument needs more than just locality to drive the rivalry. Boca and River are divided by class to some extent. Both came from the same neighbourhood, but River moved out and now they are the club of the professional classes. Back in my early career, I was deeply involved in Latin American debt trading and my area of speciality was Argentina. Some of my colleagues were from “BA” as they called it and they were, by definition, River fans. They certainly didn’t like Boca as they saw their fans as mere street urchins.

Class, politics, religion, social injustice, disagreement and culture all go towards creating the underlying conditions that make a local derby special. Much depends on the origins of the clubs and when one club is the result of a split from the other, there is extra spice. If you don’t have some form of gripe, then a derby certainly has something missing. Good examples are Chelsea’s games with Fulham and QPR. True, from a geographical perspective, these are true local meetings, but there is not the venom or inherent dislike that you find in a London derby between Chelsea and Tottenham or Arsenal.

It’s also interesting that derbies have become more than just a game between two neighbours. In France, La classique is PSG versus Marseille, in Germany it is all about Dortmund and Bayern, Der Klassiker, and in the Netherlands, it is Ajax against Feyenoord (De Klassieker) Italy is full of romantically-named derbies, such as the Derby della Lanterna (Genoa), Derby della Mole (Turin), Derby d’Italia (Juventus v Inter), the Derby della Capitale (Rome) and the Derby della Maddonina (Milan).

Probably the most rabid dispute in Britain is Glasgow’s “Old Firm” between Celtic and Rangers, which is back on the agenda after a period of hibernation. The roots of this rivalry go beyond sport, it had much to do with Northern Ireland and a series of complex disputes, often centred on religion, politics, national identity and social ideology. All the ingredients, you might say, for an all-consuming domestic. If there is such a thing as a bucket list of football matches, then surely the Old Firm is a must-see for the wandering fan.

Let’s not underestimate the value of these games, not just from an economic point of view (guaranteed full houses), but also as an essential segment in the fixture calendar that elevates them above humdrum matches. It is impossible to have a fixture list that is jammed with blue riband games, but the derby is the derby no matter how the teams are faring in the league. I would wager the first games a Liverpool fan looks for when the schedule is released in pre-season are those with Everton. Likewise, a Real Madrid fan will scan the list to see when Barca are in town.

Above all, these games underscore the importance of healthy competition. That’s why, in this age of antiseptic atmospheres, anodyne messaging from club communication offices and “say nothing” pundits, the raw essence of the local derby has to be preserved. There’s nothing wrong with expressing grudging resentment or shaking your fist at your opponent, but the incidents in Buenos Aires reminded us what happens when passion gets badly out of control.

This article originally appeared in Football Weekends.

Photo: PA


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