The eyeball to eyeball clubs

As two prized gladiators make the greatest fights, worthy adversaries draw the best out of each other, in football too the biggest and the passionate games in history are between clubs that share not only a seething animosity but also a sense of equality in terms of power and pride, writes Ayon Sengupta.

My first experience of a derby clash was not a game between the high and mighty of Europe or Latin America but between two rather rag-tag outfits playing in the soccer capital of the 163rd ranked country in the FIFA list, India. But what a game it was…

More than a hundred thousand people at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata saw a rather mediocre game between India's traditional rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. But immune to the quality, the whole hustle of the contest got me hooked to football, a good two decades back. Passions ran high, abuses flew by and for a while it was difficult to grasp whether we were in the gladiatorial pits of Rome or still present in reality. Reliving those moments in hindsight I do agree with the famous Liverpool manager Bill Shanky's words, “Football isn't a matter of life or death, it's much more important than that.”

Without a doubt, it is.

My fellow spectators on that wintry evening would have agreed to it, short of any hesitation, as will many more at the citadel gates of Merseyside, Catalunya, Buenos Aires or Milan.

As two prized gladiators make the greatest fights, worthy adversaries draw the best out of each other, in football too the biggest and the passionate games in history are between clubs that share not only a seething animosity but also a sense of equality in terms of power and pride.

Matches between these sides capture the raw emotion and passion that football evokes and they indeed hold greater weight than just a normal game played between 22 professionals. Epic rivalries are built over time and always come with some historical, geographical or even political and religious connotations.

The ‘El Clasico' in Spain has undeniably in the past few years grown to become ‘the' clash. A game between the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid never fails to live up to its top billing.

Household names like Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka take the field to make it the most exhilarating of contests. But it's not just the names, for the seeds of this rivalry are sown deeper. It draws fire from the political resentment between the Spanish ruling classes of Madrid against the fiercely independent gentry from the north-west Catalunya region. Not keen to toe the line of the Madrid bureaucrats, the Catalunyans have always resisted every attempt at centralisation and the recent unprecedented success of Barcelona, despite Madrid spending several millions on stars, would have lightened the mood notwithstanding the economic turmoil in Europe. We can't follow the emotional distress of the Madrid dwellers, but can nonetheless empathise with them.

The acrimony is such that crossing the Barca-Madrid divide is never recommended, and Luis Figo notoriously found this out after his record-breaking move from the Nou Camp to Santiago Bernabeu in 2000. A dejected fan welcomed him with a pig's head on his return to the Camp.

Former Real player Michael Salgado sums up the mood surrounding the game best. “El Clasico is the biggest game in the world and I think it's the most important game in the world. The week before is special and you know it as soon as you get to the training ground because all the fans are focused on that game,” he says. “The pressure surrounding it is massive. The press put pressure on you and it is the game you have to win. If you win that game you are going to be happy for one or two months so it's a great game, even playing in Barcelona. It's difficult to explain with words because it's more than a feeling.”

But usually the most common soccer rivalries are based on the geographical proximity of the two parties involved. Fights for the local bragging rights can be very intense as the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton and the Manchester clash between City and United show.

The most pre-eminent local derby, though, is the ‘El Superclasico' of Argentina. Like many other fiercely contested same-city fixtures, social resentment is as much the catalyst as proximity here. From humble beginnings in the La Boca neighbourhood, River Plate detracted to the patrician suburb of Nunez, earning the moniker ‘Los Millonarios'. Boca Juniors, meanwhile, remained in the deprived suburb, still representing the masses. The tension is palpable at every street corner and the whole country comes under its grip. So infuriating and charged up is the occasion that The Guardian recently listed it as one of the 50 sporting events to attend before you die.

The Old Firm derby in Scotland, one of the fiercest battles in football, draws its poison from a very unlikely source — religion. The traditional Scottish giants Rangers and Celtic have locked horns 396 times in a history dating back to 1888. The Catholic Celtics followers make this clash against the Protestant Rangers a day to remember both on and off the field.

Politics too, like in the Madrid-Catalunya clash, plays a part as the Rangers' fans are traditionally loyalists, while Celtic supporters are usually Republicans.

Racial and class divides also at times craft a ridge between opposing clubs making matches somewhat more than mere grudge encounters. The derby of the eternal enemies in Athens, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, is one of the best examples. Olympiakos traditionally gather their support from the port of Piraeus, home to Athens' working class. While for Panathinaikos, the fans are the old upper class of Athens society. History favours the workers here, as Olympiakos have won eight of the last 10 domestic League titles. In an echo of almost every other European league, political forces are present in the clubs' respective corridors of power, which simply adds to the tension. Clashes between these Greek greats, then, are always furiously contested and historically violent.

In Italy the fight between Inter Milan and Juventus results in high drama and spontaneous emotional outbursts. Record books put the two at the top in terms of Serie A success and despite many a new pretender, clashes between the two perpetual giants is still the most awaited fixture in the Italian League.

Likewise in England, clashes between Manchester United and Liverpool are arguably the biggest games of the season. A struggle for the Best of British title has kept these two adversaries engaged in battle for over a half a century. United's dominance of the Premier League era has hauled it past Merseyside's 18 domestic titles but Liverpool still trumps its rival on the Continent with five European Cups to three.

Culturally, too, an industrial rivalry exists between the two beacons of England's north-west and often a win against the other is considered even more important than winning the League itself.

“I have always considered this (Liverpool v Manchester United) to be the game of the season in English football. It's never going to change. Both clubs need each other,” Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson said ahead of the latest ‘big' match, which ended with honours even. “Things may change in the next two or three years with Manchester City and whether or not the derby can equal a Manchester United game against Liverpool. But at the moment it remains the biggest.”

Not everybody might agree with Fergie. And to several thousand fanatics in the eastern part of India, East Bengal against Mohun Bagan will remain the biggest fixture ever. In football loyalty or enmity doesn't die easily.