The Lure of Soccer Rivalries

It is impossible for the attentive American soccer fan to ignore the unmistakable up-tick in rhetoric regarding the emergence of rivalries in Major League Soccer. To the casual or otherwise less-attuned American observer, it may be natural to question or disingenuously dismiss the persistent drum beat of discussion and debate surrounding the issue. After all, the Big Four sports of North America have rivalries; Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens, Celtics vs. Lakers, Yankees vs. Red Sox, and Packers vs. Bears only begins to scratch the surface of a robust list that includes intra- and inter-city, as well as intra- and inter-regional, and coast-to-coast rivalries. Be that as it may, there is a method, or at least reason, to this seemingly obsessive madness about soccer rivalries.

Prior to addressing the metrics, meaning and value of soccer rivalries, it may be helpful to distinguish, or more specifically define, the nature of the sport’s existing rivalries. The nature and reasoning behind what makes rivalries what they are or have become typically fall into two general categories: Rivalries based on competition for accolades, and rivalries based on geographical proximity – although these two categories are rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive. The more these two factors combine to define a particular rivalry, the more the ripples tend to travel beyond the confines of devoted followers and stakeholders, causing otherwise disassociated observers to stop and watch.

To the English-speaking soccer world, the colloquial term for rivalry is “derby” (phonetically rendered as darby) and England is fertile ground for showcasing the differing derby factors. As the two most successful clubs in England, the Liverpool vs. Manchester United rivalry has often gone a long way to determining the English league champion. Both clubs have won 18 league titles, with Manchester United currently in the hunt for an unprecedented 19th title. As such, the Liverpool-Man U derby is usually fueled with championship implications. Geographically speaking, the close proximities inherent in the Manchester derby (Man U vs. Manchester City) and the Merseyside derby (Liverpool vs. Everton) evoke an impassioned atmosphere regardless of where the respective clubs sit in the standings. In the specific case of the Merseyside derby, for example, Everton has claimed nine league titles and one European trophy to Liverpool’s more robust 18 league titles, five European Champion Clubs’ Cup/Champions league crowns and other European trophies, so the issue of geographical proximity almost always trumps that of championship hardware; yet, it is the longest currently running top-flight derby in England, and since the inception of the English Premier League (EPL) has tallied more red cards than any other game.

Similar to Liverpool vs. Man U, the London derby of Arsenal vs. Chelsea has enjoyed enhanced significance based on inherent championship implications over the last decade with Chelsea’s rise to prominence in the EPL and the two clubs’ subsequent perennial battles for the league title. Whereas, another London derby – the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham – is less about earned accolades and more about the mere four miles separating Emirates Stadium and White Hart Lane.

In terms of sheer deep-seated intensity and, for better or worse, raw aggression, there is perhaps no greater derby in all of England than the one featuring West Ham United and Millwall in London’s East End. While West Ham have claimed three FA Cups and one European Cup Winners Cup, their highest final league position is a 1985-86 third place finish in the old English First Division. Meanwhile, Millwall have no championship hardware to speak of, although they did reach the 2004 FA Cup final and qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup competition. The two clubs have met 97 times since 1897, with 60 of those coming before WWI; since that time, the clubs have often played in different tiers within the English league structure, thus resulting in just 37 meetings in nearly a century. Nevertheless, the intensity and passions of the derby goes well beyond the touchline. Violence among fans and organized supporters at West Ham-Millwall matches has become so intense that voices within English football have called for a moratorium on matches between the two in cup competitions and for all future league matches between the two clubs to be played in empty stadiums. What’s more, this relatively small rivalry in London’s East End has been the impetus for a half-dozen films featuring not only the football aspects, but also its associated violence.

Beyond England, of course, derbies of both kind – with varying degrees of overlap – continue to flourish, including: Ajax vs. Feyenoord (Holland), Inter Milan vs. AC Milan (Italy), Benfica vs. Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid (Spain), Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Schalke (Germany), Bayern Munchen vs. 1860 Munchen (Germany), Dinamo Zagreb vs. Hajduk Split (Croatia), Paris Saint-Germain vs. Olympique de Marseille (France), Olympiacos vs. Panathinaikos (Greece), Red Star Belgrade vs. FK Partizan (Serbia), and FC Basel vs. FC Zurich (Switzerland) to name just a few.

A third, unique, and very exclusive kind of rivalry exists – one that combines the elements of championship accolades and geographical proximity with elements of history, politics, religion and cultural identity. Some of the aforementioned derbies contain some combination or level of these elements; but the derbies or rivalries that encompass most or all of these factors to an elevated degree, are the ones virtually every soccer fan across the world knows and monitors. One prime example is the Old Firm derby between the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers.

The Old Firm is a football match featuring intra-city clubs that have met 395 times since 1888 with a combined 95 Scottish League championships, 67 Scottish Cups and 41 Scottish League Cups, but is also a forum for overtly diametrically opposed religious, political and cultural themes – more often than not accompanied by fan and organized supporter violence. Celtic support traditionally comes from the Irish Catholic community who tend to promote a Republican political stance, while Rangers supporters are largely from the Protestant community and hold British Loyalist political views. One ironic result stemming from the opposing characteristics of the two club’s traditional support bases, is the waving of the Irish tricolor and the UK’s Union Jack flags by opposing supporters at Old Firm matches, in support of Scottish clubs playing in Scotland.

The biggest rivalry in the world is El Clásico, the name given to the FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid derby, consistently viewed by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The rivalry combines the whole palette of derby-esque elements, beginning with Barcelona and Madrid being the two largest cities in Spain and with the two clubs being the richest, most successful and influential clubs in the country – maybe in all of Europe. Beyond the confines of the game itself, the rivalry has long been politically charged, with Real Madrid being widely regarded as representing Spanish nationalism, while FC Barcelona represents Catalan nationalism. What’s more, Spanish political personalities have themselves significantly contributed to the political overtones of the intense rivalry.

In 1936, when Franco initiated his coup d’état against the Second Spanish Republic, FC Barcelona’s president was arrested and executed by Franco’s security police for having visited Republican troops located near Madrid. Furthermore, FC Barcelona topped the list of targeted organizations to be purged by Franco’s forces. Still to this day, El Clásico matches continue to be alluded to in terms of the Spanish Civil War. On the pitch, the Barca-Real derby continues to, more often than not, hold significant meaning for deciding domestic league and cup, as well as European league and cup championship fortunes. The most current version of El Clásico is being played to decide the winner of the UEFA Champions League semifinal, and features two of the world’s best and well-known players: Lionel Messi of Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

With the previously described nature and tenor of soccer’s club-based rivalries in Europe as context, where does the MLS and its hunger for generating its own internal rivalries stand? Current LA Galaxy and former US national coach Bruce Arenas believes they don’t yet exist, but that their arrival is only a matter of time. “I don’t think there’s a rivalry like that [El Clásico], or Milan-Inter,” Arenas stated. “I don’t think we have that yet in our league.” In terms of rivalries founded on consistently successful clubs perpetually playing for the accumulation of domestic and international league championships and cup titles, Bruce Arenas is right.

With MLS in its sixteenth year of existence and having codified an impetus for parity within the league, there simply hasn’t been enough time or opportunity for clubs to accumulate enough hardware or frame their inclination for rivalries in dynastic terms. Apart from DC United’s string of Cup titles in the league’s early years – during which time they won four and finished as runner-up for a fifth, no other club has accumulated more than a couple of league titles. Moreover, no clubs have perpetually contested one another in the Cup final, with consecutive Cup final meetings between the Houston Dynamo and New England Revolution in 2006 and 2007 being the extent of any habitual battle between specific clubs for championship honors.

Most certainly, derbies along the lines of the Old Firm or El Clásico are simply not in the cards for MLS. In fact, across the North American Big Four sports landscape, the only rivalry with enough history and hardware, laced with a mix of cultural, political and/or religious implications is the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens; even then, it is a rivalry that garners thousands or tens-of-thousands of interested viewers, not millions across multiple continents. As for the MLS, short of another civil war, or a coup d’état on Washington DC in which owners of MLS clubs are targeted by political leaders, the underpinnings for transforming domestic soccer matches into forums for issues from outside the sports world, is unlikely. Still, the existence and development of rivalries on other premises resides much closer to present-day reality.

In the case of rivalries being founded on geographical proximity, the prospect for heated MLS derbies appearing in the near-term appears more promising. While Arenas went on to note that it takes more than mere proximity to create the excitement and energy of a derby, success-deprived derbies such as West Ham-Millwall suggest that, in some cases, proximity alone – albeit embittered over time – can sow the seeds of an impassioned rivalry. For MLS, those seeds have already been planted and are ready for harvesting in the Pacific Northwest.

The Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps have a geographically-fueled triumvirate rivalry dating back through various iterations in different leagues to the clubs’ foundings and original tenures in the North American Soccer League. Though the three clubs’ supporters harbor animosities that long pre-date their current iterations, MLS is salivating over the renewal of the rivalry on their watch and is pressing for the emergence of similarly intense rivalries in other markets. Elsewhere, the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls are growing the intensity of their natural, geographic rivalry, as are both Los Angeles-based clubs – Galaxy and Chivas – in the league’s, as of yet, only true intra-city derby.

The promise of a derby based on both elements of geography and success appears to be developing nicely in the Rocky Mountains, with Real Salt Lake having won the 2009 MLS Cup and the Colorado Rapids having responded in-kind by securing it in 2010. In the current 2011 season, Real has parlayed its successful 2009 campaign into a runner-up finish in the CONCACAF Champions League. Surely, Real’s run of regional fortune – overtly backed by MLS – will provide the Rapids with added incentive to dull the luster of their rival and potentially compel them to answer with their own run of success in next year’s regional Champions League. If Colorado can, in fact, continue to answer Real Salt Lake’s success with their own, a true dual-pronged MLS derby could be on the near-term horizon.

In many cases outside the US, soccer’s obsession with rivalries often transcends the game itself. Whatever the basis for a given rivalry, the most obvious results are sold-out stadiums, increased viewership, and a heightened public awareness of both clubs and the league. In the context of pursuing these results, Major League Soccer’s constant drum-beat regarding the formation, development and maturation of internal rivalries makes perfect sense.


“Europe’s Biggest Football Rivalries”. Adam Axon. Soccer Lens. December 24, 2008.

“Mass Violence Mars London Derby”. BBC Mobile. August 25, 2009.

“West Ham and Millwall Should Never Play Again, Says Harry Redknapp”. London Telegraph. August 27, 2009.

“Barca and Real Renew El Clasico Rivalry”. BBC Mobile. December 11, 2008.

“Bruce Arenas Doesn’t Believe MLS Has True Rivalry Yet”. Yahoo! Sports. April 19, 2011.

“Fan Culture in America Finding Hotbeds in Recent MLS Expansion Additions”. Zac Lee Rigg. April 22, 2011.