Global football’s epic derbies and simmering rivalries

Boca Juniors vs River Plate
This rivalry must rank as the bloodiest in the history of football. The bad blood between the two goes back decades and the derby of 1968 is one of the saddest. The disaster, known in Spanish as “la tragedia de la puerta 12” (“the tragedy of gate 12”), resulted in the death of 71 people, who perished while trying to leave the stadium using the ill-fated gate 12 at the El Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires. In the past decade close to 200 people have died in incidents related to football violence and crowd trouble.

When the two rivals met in 2004, in the Copa Libertadores de América — Latin America’s club competition — Conmebol, the continent’s football mother body, did not want anyone’s blood on its hands. It ordered that both games be played only in the presence of the home team’s fans, which means River Plate’s home match allowed only its supporters into the stadium and vice versa.

Glasgow Rangers vs Celtic
Scotland’s two biggest teams are collectively known as the Old Firm. In Scotland the rivalry is so fractious that police have considered forcing the teams to play their games during the week or earlier in the day to ensure fans have not had all day to consume alcohol. The drinking (Celtic’s shirt sponsor is beer company Carling) that goes on before, during and after the match must contribute a lot to the derby’s cash generation. According to a 2005 report, the derby generated £120-million from wages, salaries, hospitality and sponsorship. If the Old Firm were to die, it would be equivalent to a factory that employs 3 000 people closing down.

Orlando Pirates vs Kaizer Chiefs
An Orlando Pirates player, Elias “Shuffle” Mokopane, a footballer for whom the moniker “dribbling wizard” seems to have been specially created, foolishly moved across the great Soweto divide a few weeks before a derby date in the 1970s. This was well before the professionalisation — or sanitisation — of the football league. In one of those incredible stories, in which it is difficult to sift fact from legend and apocrypha, it is said that Mokopane dribbled past Pirates’s entire backline, including goalkeeper Patson “Kamuzu” Banda. But Mokopane was so scared of scoring that he parked the ball by the goal line. He was apparently afraid that if the ball crossed the line into the net, one of the Pirates fans would beat him up — or worse.

Al-Ahly vs Zamalek
The Cairo derby is one of football’s fiercest contests. In 2005, 120 000 fans squeezed into the Cairo International Stadium to watch a match between Al-Ahly and Zamalek. The matches are so hotly contested that the Egyptian football association cannot trust any of the local referees to handle them, preferring instead to “import” match officials from abroad.

Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur
The North London derby, in which Arsenal play Spurs, is one of the biggest rivalries in English football. A few weeks ago, in a league match, Spurs were leading 2-0 before Arsenal overturned the result to win 5-2. It is a result that still hurts Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, one of Spurs’s celebrity supporters. In a case of “if you can’t beat them on the football field, take the war to less familiar, literary turf”, the novelist casts the baddies in his new book, Phantom, as Arsenal fans. It is reminiscent of a story told about the late Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera, according to which he would tell a woman who turned down his advances that “in my novel, I will kill you on page two”.

In a recent interview with the Observer to promote Phantom, Nesbø said: “They keep asking: Why couldn’t the drug dealers wear Tottenham shirts? I try to tell them, it’s because Arsenal shirts are red. It’s just because they’re more easily spotted in the streets.”

Red Star Belgrade vs FK Partizan
Manchester United’s injured captain, Nemanja Vidic, used to play for Red Star Belgrade. Red Star, winners of the European Cup in 1991, are Serbia’s most successful team; their hated city rivals are FK Partizan. In a moment of bonhomie immediately punished by the Delije (Red Star’s hooligan element), Vidic appeared in a photo shoot with the captain of Partizan. To teach him how to behave with the decorum expected of the captain of Belgrade, a fan grouping promptly vandalised Vidic’s car. A Red Star hooligan, explaining the role of football in the breakup of Yugoslavia, told the Guardian in 2004: “Most Red Star supporters were already very nationalist. What we did at the end of the 1970s was to take the choreography from Italian football and the hooliganism from England and mix it together to create our own style of football anti-communism.

Hooliganism became a way of showing that we were free; of resisting the communist regime.”

AC Milan vs Inter Milan
If we were to trace the genealogy of superstar players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham, we would likely find their DNA in the loins — metaphorically speaking — of Giuseppe Meazza, Inter Milan’s star player of the 1930s.

Meazza had sponsors long before it was common practice. The prodigiously talented player, who made his debut when he was 17, loved women and was a frequent visitor to brothels, even on the eve of matches. In the puritan era we now live in, presided over by calorie-watching sports science nerds, Meazza would not have been allowed near any training ground. The Italian cult hero loved champagne and was the only player at Inter allowed to smoke. Anyway, that is not the point of this entry. San Siro, the stadium shared by AC Milan and Inter Milan, is officially known as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, to honour his memory. But AC Milan’s fans, to slight their city rivals, simply call it the San Siro.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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