/ 23 November 2007

More than just a game

The Soweto derby, between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, has captured the imagination of football lovers since 1970. The fixture has become the showstopper of the South African football calendar. This weekend’s match in Durban will export the passions of South African fans to Europe and those parts of Africa where it will be televised live, entrenching its place among the world’s top 10 football rivalries.

River Plate vs Boca Juniors

The Argentinian derby is at the top of the list of 50 sporting events that sports enthusiasts want to watch before they die. Locally known as the Superclásico, the matches are marked by rival fans’ loud and boisterous singing and colourful displays of flags, confetti and fireworks. Sometimes the games flare into violence.

The two teams’ followers make up 70% of Argentina’s football-mad public. To some extent their rivalry is fuelled by class. When it was formed late in the 19th century, River Plate was modelled on an English football club at a time when the English influence was pervasive in Buenos Aires. This explains the club name’s anglicisation of ”Rio de la Plata”. Because supporters are well to do the club is known also as los millionarios — the millionaires.

Boca Juniors — Diego Maradona’s first club — has always been the poor man’s team. It is named after La Boca, an area south of the city centre that has a reputation for being a tough neighbourhood.

Glasgow Rangers vs Celtics

Rangers fans are mostly sympathetic to Britain (Protestant) while Celtics fans identify with the Irish (Catholic) cause. The Scottish teams are referred to as the ”Old Firm”. Their rivalry is so intense that sectarian violence has sometimes resulted in death. They are the most successful teams in their league and it is estimated that if they leave to join the English league, it would cost the Scottish economy £120-million.

Liverpool vs Everton

The famous English derby is sometimes dubbed the ”friendly derby” because a single family might have members with Liverpool red blood and Everton blue blood. The rivalry between these two goes back to 1892 when a rift within Everton FC over rent saw a core of Everton’s players leave to look elsewhere for a stadium.

For some time Liverpool was known as Everton Athletic Grounds Ltd, until the league forced the club to change its name to Liverpool Football Club because two teams couldn’t both be named Everton. In 1948 Everton’s home ground, Goodison Park, hosted 79 000 fans, the largest audience to watch a derby at Everton.

After Madrid and AC Milan, Liverpool, with five European cups, is the most successful team in Europe. Locally it has won the league a record 18 times. This success has meant that Everton — winner of nine titles — has lived in the shadow of its more illustrious red neighbours.

Barcelona vs Real Madrid

Barcelona football club’s slogan is ”more than a club”. No one playing for the club encapsulates this more than Oleguer Presas, its Catalan right back. He has written a book in which he posits that ”when Barcelona win the league, we become the Army of Joy finally able to face up to [Franco’s] troops. We imagine ourselves halting that pack of tanks, responding to their bullets with song; laughing in the face of the fascist ire … For me, Barcelona is genuinely special. It is the invocation of a country, representing Catalan identity and culture.”

Madrid, from the Castille region, happened to be Spanish dictator Franscisco Franco’s favourite team. In fact Franco’s soldiers assassinated Barcelona’s team president, Josep Suñol, in 1936 and bombed the team headquarters. Barcelona consequently became the Catalans only outlet for pride and resistance.

AC Milan vs Inter Milan

The San Siro, AC Milan’s and Inter Milan’s home ground, is not the stadium’s official name. It is, in fact, called Giuseppe Meazza, in honour of Inter’s star player during the 1930s. Not surprisingly, Milan fans refer to the world-famous stadium simply as the San Siro.

The rivalry is stoked by the fact that AC has been the more successful of the two Milan sides and has produced legendary teams in the 1980s and the 1990s.

Matches between the two clubs have been abandoned following crowd trouble.

Highlanders vs Dynamos

Dubbed the ”Battle of Zimbabwe”, matches between these two sides are anything but just football. Dynamos draws its support mostly from the Shona people, while Highlanders traditionally has been supported by the Ndebele. In the 1980s, before the merger of Zanu and Zapu, both teams represented the simmering tribal divisions that threatened to cut the country apart.

Dynamos is the country’s most popular team. In the 1980s, when the country’s population was less than eight million, they called themselves ”the seven million club”. Rufaro, the club’s spiritual home, is in Mbare, a township in Harare, which explains its nickname, De Mbare. Highlanders, in the second city of Bulawayo, is where Mamelodi Sundowns’ Peter Ndlovu first honed his skill.

Vasco da Gama vs Flamengo

Played since 1923, the derby is called the ”Clássico dos Milhões” (The Millions’ Derby) and is considered by most Brazilian fans as the match to watch. The rivalry between the fans sometimes results in extreme violence.

Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) vs Partizan Belgrade

The Serbian contest is known as ”the eternal derby” and, when played, the atmosphere is so sulphurous that an unloaded firearm in the stands could go off and kill someone. This is to be expected of supporters who are likely to go down as the most disruptive football hooligans in history. Red Star hardcore supporters routinely taunt Partizan fans as ”faggots, Turks, Muslims, blacks and communists”.

The Belgrade derby of March 22 1992 is more famous for its display of nationalism than for its football. On this day the Serbian fans united for once and hung up the names of Croatian towns that had fallen to the Serbian army.

Al-Ahly vs Al-Zamalek

These Egyptian teams are the most successful football clubs on the continent and the rivalry between the two Cairo neighbours is so intense that foreign referees are flown in to officiate. Zamalek is the second-largest club in Egypt after Al-Ahly.