The Derby: An eternal treat for the fan, a weighty test for the footballer

Blog by: Anand

Rangers v Celtic

Derby matches bring out the best (or worst) in fans

The lasting allure of a derby is one of the many captivating treasures in the overflowing soul of a football fan. Burdened by expectation and a bout of nerves, it is a captious game for the men on the field. A duel between crosstown rivals, somehow, has a magical aura that often transcends the actual context of the game being contested. It is a word that arouses passion, even if it were just two men squabbling over a little etymological detail.

Depending on your source, it could have come from horse racing or from that chaotic annual tussle between two sides in the village of Ashbourne in Derbyshire. Either ways, the association of it is never more intense than where it is about a much awaited football game. Legends have been built and told around cities, scripted on the heroics of players toiling for one part of a town against the other.

The passion around a derby is brewed on the strength of several powerful ingredients – culture, religion, class, the weight of history and a myriad other narrow considerations that serve to spice up the excitement around a game. Often, the clubs involved might only be fighting out a lower level league game. The fans though live in anticipation of the two games – home and away – as if their universe of aspirations and happiness were to be determined by how their team performs in the derby.

The gravity of a derby is best exemplified by the rivalry between the Celtics and the Rangers. The residents of Glasgow indulge in a bout of caustic jingoism every season, surrounding the acerbic contests between the two Old Firm teams. The rivalry is so intense, a recent paper published by researchers of the University of St. Andrews suggests that there is “compelling evidence” of a “statistically significant” spike in domestic violence following games between the two big rivals.

The team of four researchers studied 21 games between 2008 and 2011 and found evidence that suggested a link between the games and reports of domestic violence. The intensity of the rivalry between the two clubs even inspired a legislation in Scotland – the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act was instituted in March 2012, primarily to address unruly behaviour by football fans. The act empowers the police to take measures to counter sectarian acts fueled by fanatic spectators, who can lose perspective under the mixed influence of alcohol and the heady thrill of watching top flight football.

The sociological differences between fans of Celtics and Rangers – one club supported primarily by Protestant Ulster Scots waving the Union Jack and another by Catholic Irish Scots holding aloft the Irish flag – helps explain the fascination for the derby as an avenue for proxy expression of deep seated dislike.

Manchester City v Manchester United

Fans make the derby, and not otherwise.

However, not all derbies are between teams with as diverse a fan base as is seen in Glasgow. For instance, the two Milan teams – AC Milan and Inter even share the same stadium, a unique fact that does not rob their derby of any intensity.

Most often it is the importance of these games and the weight of their results on the final outcome of the season that draws fans and footballers alike to these iconic encounters. Especially in the case of Celtics and Rangers, the net result of their two games proved to be a defining influence in determining the winners of the Scottish Premier League. It is this element of positive statistical significance and almost theatrical drama that makes a derby such an alluring experience.

The Manchester derby is another example of sport enmeshing itself into the milieu of the city hosting the battle. However, the rivalry between the two teams from the erstwhile industrial town has less to do with sociological overtones and more to do with just footballing heritage.

The Mancunian feud has assumed girth decade after decade thanks to the success of the clubs at the top flight of English football. Unpleasant incidents involving players such as Denis Law, George Best, Roy Keane  and Rio Ferdinand have created animosity and added edge to the games between these two teams.

The one outlier to derbies marked by pronounced animosity is probably the Merseyside derby, involving Liverpool and Everton. The two clubs from Liverpool have a history of fans coming from same families. This fact alone has helped fans to sit together during derbies, happily supporting their team. If there is an air of pleasantness that surrounds a derby, Liverpool is the only city that might offer such a spectacle.

But while fans continue to proliferate their ties, the rivalry between the two teams on the pitch has been anything but friendly. The battle on the ground has intensified so much that it is typically the Merseyside games that result in more red cards than any other game in the Premier League. Most importantly though, the game between Liverpool and Everton has the distinction of the longest running top flight derby, with the two teams contesting in the Premier League in every season since 1962-63.

The musically titled Derby della Madonnina refers to the Milan derby between two clubs that owe their rivalry antecedents to the divisiveness between the rich and the working class. Inter was once believed to symbolise the expansive aspirations of the bourgeoisie while AC Milan represented the spirit of the blue collar worker.

Those distinctions have melted long since but that has done nothing to blunt the edge off their keenly contested games. The rivalry, if anything, has intensified over the years despite both teams sharing the same home.

Irrespective of where the game is played, each encounter brings the best out of the players providing for a thrilling game of football that is only outdone by the reverse leg. The derby is an exhilarating opportunity for the fans to experience thrill a minute footballing spectacle even as they examine the true character of their sporting heroes.

The result is an overwhelming cocktail that excites both connoisseur and the vacuous fan in equal measure. It might just be a game, but the derby shall enthrall each of us to eternity irrespective of its significance to the season or the outcome of the event.


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