Football Rivalry: Know Your Enemy

Ally Moncrieff looks at the importance of rivalries and knowing your enemies in the world of football…

You don’t need much to get a game of football started, a few willing participants, an open area and an object resembling a ball means you can partake in something that could be broadly recognised as the same sport played by Messi, Ronaldo et al. Its glorious simplicity is one of the things that makes football the greatest game in the world. Obviously once you start adding nets, kits, officials and so on that kickabout in the park becomes ever more like the real thing.

One thing is always going to be missing though, one little factor that takes football from great sport to great spectacle and that’s an enemy. Football without an enemy is just another hobby, another distraction from the mundanity of life. It needs the tribal ferocity that only true enemies can produce to elevate it to something grander, something more important. 

All teams have a rival, a side they’d prefer to beat above all others irrespective of how it affects league position or cup progress. Not all though have an enemy.

It’s difficult to quantify what turns a rival into an enemy but it is fair to say that whilst rivalries can be compared to diplomatic incidents having an enemy is more like an all out war. Like the best wars there is often a historical basis to the hate between the best enemies but that is not to say it is always this way. Liverpool and Manchester United are historical enemies and will forever be so, whereas Liverpool and Chelsea became enemies for a brief period during the 00’s when circumstance forced them together but their hatred for each other was no less intense on account of it’s briefness.

Logic would dictate that proximity is a necessity for enemies but again that is not always so. As already outlined Manchester United and Liverpool are enemies but Manchester United and Manchester City are mere rivals, the same is true of Liverpool and Everton. If you look to Spain you will see even clearer proof that geography is not the be all and end all, compare the intensity of Real Madrid vs Barcelona to the relative calm of their respective clashes against more local foes.

Modern football has done many things, both good and bad but there can be no doubt that it has thrown into flux the sureness of who your enemy is. The new money of Chelsea and Manchester City and the undimming desire for victory of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid has created confusion and anger amongst the fans of more traditionally successful clubs. As yet these enhanced rivalries have not yet evolved into historically significant wars but that may yet come. 

One thing that all enemies have in common is that they are in one way or the other defined by those they hate the most. Ignore the protests, Celtic are defined by Rangers, Barcelona are defined by Real Madrid and despite the lull in their battle Manchester United are at least in part defined by Liverpool. Celtic stopped 10 in a row, Real won La Decima and United won it twenty times. All glorious moments enhanced in their significance by what it meant to their sworn enemies.

All victories are sweet, all glories are to be celebrated but none are sweeter and none are celebrated so keenly as those that simultaneously strike at your enemy. 

Of course whilst football would not be the same without enemies it might in a way be better. When the hate spills out beyond the ninety minutes and leads normally decent people to do indecent things it should make us question the price we pay to watch the worlds most arresting spectacle. Football is the best of sports because of the strength of the emotions it engenders and on occasion is the worst of sports for that very same reason. Almost inevitably there will come a time when football is sanitized to such an extent that those that were once enemies will be nothing more than common everyday rivals, where football becomes like any other sport. Maybe that will turn out to be a good day, but I for one am not relishing its arrival.

I’m on twitter where I’m looking for a sworn enemy, maybe it could be you? @AllorNothingMag

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