Another reason why I love soccer

Derbies (pronounced darbies). These are not horse races; they are soccer matches between two teams from the same locale — Manchester United vs. Manchester City; Arsenal vs. Tottenham (the North London derby); Celtic vs. Rangers (the Glasgow derby); Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid; Inter Milan vs. A.C. Milan, and so forth. Beyond the college level, we haven’t really had this sort of thing in U.S. sports since the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, who produced the most famous baseball game of all time in their 1951 “derby.”
Instead we have “rivalries,” and precious few that endure with the same intensity decade after decade, regardless of the fortunes of the teams. But the rivalries played out in derbies can be found anywhere there is European football. Years ago I was in Salzburg and people were buzzing about the “North Tirolian derby” between Salzburg and Innsbrook.
Derbies don’t usually produce attractive football. The intensity of the occasion means that the tackles fly in faster than normal, so that players get less time on the ball, which a key ingredient of creative soccer. And when something creative happens, the opposition in a derby is more likely than normal to put a stop to it with a “professional foul.” Derbies also disproportionately result in players being expelled, so that they often end up 11 against 10, or even 10 against 9. Apart from a “white hot” atmosphere, then, derbies don’t offer that much to anyone except for the supporters of the two teams involved.
Which brings me to tomorrow, when my team, Everton, faces Liverpool. This is arguably the purest of the British derbies. The Glasgow derby is tainted by a nasty sectarian angle (Catholic vs. Protestant). The Manchester derby suffered until recently because “City” was not competitive with “United.” The North London derby loses a tiny bit of its luster because there are so many other London rivalries. But Everton vs. Liverpool is magic (again if you ignore the small matter of the dearth, more often than not, of creative play). Fifteen years ago these two clubs, just a twenty minute walk across Stanley Park from one another, were the two best sides in England and among the top five of Europe. Since then, we’ve come down in the world but have always remained competitive in the derby. Last year, we were essentially Liverpool’s equal all year. And despite the fact that they have beefed up their squad with yet more expensive stars, while we were unable to bring in any new faces, we’re ahead of them in the very early going this season.
But, as the cliche goes, you can throw away the “form” once they kick-off the derby. And for 90 minutes tomorrow, I’ll experience as intense a sports-viewing experience as I’m likely to again until January 31, 2004, when we play the next Derby.

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