The Changing Face of Rivalries

Posted on August 2, 2011 by


Traditionally, rivalries in football are based on location, religion, or a history of political stigma. These clashes between clubs that ‘despise’ each other punctuate the football season, adding to the multifaceted soap opera that is professional football. They seem to draw on primal instincts as fans hurl abuse at a man they’ve never known, two-footed challenges steam above the ankle and red cards are whipped out of referees’ pockets. These rivalries can be manic, dangerous and exhilarating but often they’re completely absurd.

Rangers v Celtic, or the Old Firm derby, is renowned worldwide for its ferocity. This rivalry is firmly entrenched in the history books as Catholic/Protestant issues collided, along with loyalist and republican affairs based around Northern Irish politics. Aside from political and religious tensions, the clubs are in a battle for footballing achievement every season, being the two most successful Scottish sides of all time.

As we enter the 2011/12 season, we can start to see more of these rivalries flourishing (though not on the same level as the old firm). These games are no longer based on religious tensions, they are no longer centred around a political storm which tore a town, city or nation apart, and no longer do they solely revolve around land and proximity. Modern day rivalries are in tune with the changing face of football and so, focus on money and pride. They focus on winning, and because only one team can win, these rivalries extend themselves and multiply.

Moving into the England, Manchester Utd v Arsenal has become one of the most heated affairs in the EPL. Not based on traditional matters though, no, the Utd v Arsenal rivalry has arisen over the past two decades, and has been explained by a feud between two of the Premier League’s longest-serving managers; Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. The two clubs finish in the much-coveted top 4 positions year after year, and fight for league and cup honours season after season. Most famously, the clashes between Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira have caused debate, and without fail, entertainment to us spectators. These rivalries almost seem to stem from pure pride and hatred – hatred of the other team winning, pure delight at the other team losing, even pure ecstasy when a rival misses a penalty, as demonstrated by the usually laid back and well spoken Martin Keown in Arsenals’ unbeaten season of 2003/4.

As the theory goes, Manchester Utd should be the club with the most rivals in the EPL, as they are the most successful club. This rings true, as you can count Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City amongst their most heated enemies. Apart from the obvious tensions between City and Utd, both vying to be the biggest club in Manchester, and the inter city issues between Utd and Liverpool, the recent manifestations in the hatred shared between these clubs is a hunger for success, the pride of winning, and the money that comes with it.

Moving into the Capital, where Spurs v Arsenal, Chelsea v Fulham and Millwall v Crystal Palace represent the more traditional derby day menu,  Chelsea v Tottenham or Chelsea v Arsenal have usurped the historical footballing enemies to provide a modern day rivalry based on the recent success of the West and North London clubs. Not to anyone’s detriment though, apart form the extra man-power required on match day to quell crowd trouble, the extra incentive to beat their London rivals has added another dimension to match days for the fans. Chelsea v Tottenham can be said to go back to the 1967 FA Cup Final, but the rivalry has been reignited of late and continuous with the laborious ‘Modric to Chelsea’ rumours.

With the top 4 positions in the EPL granting entry to Europe’s most prestigious competition, the fight for the latter spot has become famous. Recent rivals for the slot have been a dogfight between the latterly endowed Manchester City and North London’s Tottenham Hotspur. The two teams seem to be forming a new rivalry which was most prominent when Peter Crouch scored the winner in the game which would decided the destiny of the following seasons Champions League. This bitterness was felt especially by Harry Redknapp when he finally came to terms with Manchester City’s spending power and conceded rather oddly that it was “impossible” to finish above them in 4th spot again. The way in which these teams, and their fans interact with each other is changing over time due to the influx of money and prestige procured by winning.

These rivalries have even crossed international borders, for instance Chelsea v Barcelona. The 2000s have seen the Catalan and West London clubs embroiled in a Champions League battle that has culminated in some memorable encounters. Throw in some managerial disputesplayers throwing their toys right out the pram and a refereeing controversy and you can see this isn’t a weak rivalry, but it has no historical roots, it is born simply from the prize of winning the biggest competition in European club football.

The Champions League is a big bully. Not content with setting Chelsea and Barcelona on each other, it whispered in Liverpool’s ear until they too had a problem with Abramovich’s men. Now, whenever Chelsea play Liverpool in the league, there is a heightened sense of animosity felt between the fans. I felt it to, when I was sent to interview Chelsea fans after their 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in 2011. I was handed two death threats on that occasion, and I was wearing blue. The fans haven’t forgotten some controversial meetings in the Champions League and it’s left a bitter taste in their mouths.

You can also see the Champions League excitedly  jumping and pointing in the crowd whilst chanting “Fight! Fight!” as Arsenal v Barcelona take each other on (or “Arselona” as it has been affectionately coined, making it the football geeks version of Brad and Angelina). This sparkling rivalry represents some excellent viewing and over the past few meetings it has delivered some unforgettable moments. Again, controversial decisions and inter player transfer rumours make this a footballing tussle which is sure to manifest itself in the coming years. Manchester Utd v Barcelona will likely follow as it appears these rivalries drift in and out of ferocity depending on the relative success of the clubs involved.

Manchester City v Anyone Else seems to be a trending rivalry. Be it jealousy or resentment, the Sky Blues recent investment has made them the team to beat. Fans just love getting one over on the big spenders. They have however formed a special bond with Arsenal over recent months, mainly due to their emergence as genuine title rivals, but Adebayor helped ruffled some feathers, playing villain in his own pantomime for a few enjoyable months. Chelsea and Liverpool will almost certainly grow in their roles as arch rivals to City as their spending power becomes that much more annoying and they start to win. These games have already displayed glimpses of being enjoyable clashes.

The rate of which rivalries are born seems to be an English phenomenon. In Europe and South America footballing enemies are still based on more traditional reasoning. However, with both Malaga and Paris Saint Germain being remodelled into trophy competitors we may just see a few more footballing rivalries work their way across western Europe, as they seem to sniff around wherever the money is.

If you can think of a rivalry which has come about recently, or due to some non-traditional reasons, please comment below.

Posted in: Football