Rivalries really are the essence of sports. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is simply deluding themselves. From a very young age, we have probably all been told to treat all games equally, that the opponent isn't relevant. Now while that is admirable, no matter how hard we may try to get into that mindset, rivalry matches will always mean that little bit more. To be quite honest, they absolutely should be more significant: There are wins, and then there are bragging rights. Wins come and go in a flash but bragging rights have a much greater lifespan. Actually it can be a frustratingly long time to wait if you are on the wrong end of the result!
There are however a distinct variety of rivalries. Many logically start geographically based on of course proximity to the team you face. This was my first memory of a rivalry. We played another local team when I was growing up, and I could sense the tone of my coach’s voice was a little more serious than normal. The location I later realized is so crucial because chances are fairly high that you will come across your opponent or fans of your opponent on a daily basis, which of course is less likely to occur if the rival is a further distance away.
Then you have developed rivalries which are increasingly popular in professional sports. Teams that do not have any particular geographical reason to want to get one over on each other sometimes develop a bitter feud because of recent encounters between the two sides. These are rivalries based on recent history rather than the long standing ones have been around forever. These rivalries can be sustainable but it is less likely to be the case.
Individual player rivalries are always an interesting concept especially when they develop within the boundaries of team sports. One of the most fascinating aspect of a team sport is that there can be a large number of mini battles going on within the one overarching war which is of course the final score. It is a coach’s nightmare trying to develop a strategy to emerge victorious from as many of these sub-battles as they can because the more small battles they win, the more likely the end result will go in their favour.
If I’m being honest, certain rivalries don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Especially those between quarterbacks in American football. I mean I can fully comprehend why the media would be trying to sell Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for example. I understand too that both players were always in arguably the best position to influence any given game for their team. I cannot fully consider it a true rivalry though if they never actually take the field at the same time... which I don’t believe ever happened. Even so as far as their accomplishments go, Brady vs. Manning was definitely a rivalry.
More fitting rivalries in team sports would include the nasty feud between Manchester United’s Roy Keane and Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira back in the early 2000’s, or the ongoing competition between two future NHL Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. The two have been in constant comparison since making almost simultaneous debuts back in 2005. Crosby leads the duo with two Stanley Cups to none, but Ovechkin has more individual hardware for the time being. I’ll let you be the judge of what you deem to be more pivotal in a team orientated sport! No doubt though, both are true greats of the sport.
On the other hand, you have more media fabricated rivalries such as Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, and Lionel Messi of Barcelona (more about the team rivalry later!). These two have been basically in a world of their own in the sport of soccer for the best part of ten years. Like Ovechkin and Crosby they are constantly being compared and evaluated by any measure you can think of. Some say Cristiano now has the edge due to his international success with Portugal at the European Championships this past summer though many still remain adamant that Messi has had the better career overall. Once again, not an easy decision. What is most significant about this particular “rivalry” is that there doesn’t appear to be any true animosity between the two players involved. This is somewhat similar to the supposed Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard rivalry that existed when the two still played for Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.
Individual sports are naturally perfect breeding grounds for proper old school rivalries. The individuals may not always dislike each other but they are forced to compete against their rivals to win the ultimate prize which always makes the competition that much more interesting. The greatest example of the past 15 years is probably in tennis where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer exchanged grand slam victories for a while like no other players even existed. Between them, they currently have 31 major titles. Only Pete Sampras can match the overall haul of Nadal, and Federer currently sits alone on top although Novak Djokovic currently with 12 slams is making a strong run at the crown. Whenever Federer and Nadal met in a major though, it was must see television. What perhaps made their match ups even more brilliant was that while the games were as intense, skillful, and as exciting as perhaps anything tennis has ever seen, they still clearly had massive respect for each other and never crossed any disrespectful lines. I mean we all love good controversy at times but this was a pure performance rivalry at its finest.
The beauty of team sport rivalries is that if the rivalry is a true one, then the participants really don’t make any difference. They are effectively a means to an end. These are the contests that the fans of teams wait patiently for each year. When I say the players don’t matter, they obviously still decide who ultimately wins the game but the rivalry has been around long before they played, and it will remain long after they retire no matter who it is. It is near impossible to properly condense all the great rivalries into a few paragraphs but I will attempt to highlight a few of the ones I feel are particularly fierce all around the world.
I may be a little biased here but Liverpool vs. Manchester United is about as big as it gets. I know that weeks before that fixture arrives, I am starting to think about it. How is the form looking? What key players might miss that game through injury? How might the league table look before and after? If you are even slightly invested in either team, you can’t help but feel this way. Many soccer rivalries share similar traits to this one. The North London derby of Arsenal vs. Tottenham, the Glasgow derby of Celtic vs. Rangers, Ajax vs. Feyenoord in Holland, and finally arguably the biggest of all is El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona. At the end of the day though, all you have to do is go to any city in Europe and you’ll come across a massive soccer rivalry in no time at all. There are plenty to go around!
North American team sports have some huge rivalries of their own. The Red Sox and Yankees rivalry is world famous. Up until fairly recently it was only enhanced by the curse of the Bambino which the Red Sox finally emphatically shattered in 2004 (although the wait to that point must have been tortuous!). Now the playing field is a bit more even, the stakes seem to have grown even higher. Every year, each team only really cares whether or not their rival wins the World Series no matter how off the pace they may be.
In the NHL, the rivalries tend to go bone deep especially with regards to more northern based teams. The Montreal Canadiens seem to be the most hated club with devastating rivalries in place with both the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Boston Bruins. In-state rivals tend to be fairly heated as well with great examples being the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Philadelphia Flyers, and the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders. Hockey rivalries are unquestionably intense, especially when it comes playoff time. It is hard to beat playoff hockey for pure intensity.
Perhaps the greatest source of rivalries in North American sports though comes in the many forms of NCAA competition. Never underestimate the phenomenon of school pride. College Football alone is littered with top class rivalries all over the country. When you know you may only face a team once a year, that severely amps up the intensity of any contest between two rivals. You only get one chance, you do not want to lose that game. Remember how I talked about how important bragging rights are? A year can go by very slowly after a defeat to a rival.
Therefore, it is clear to see that rivalries can take on many forms and be defined in a variety of different ways. Whatever way you decide to view them, I feel strongly that few can deny that they make sport what it is. Without rivalries we would just have a series of comparatively meaningless encounters, and the media would have a lot less to talk about if they couldn’t compare the attributes of two great athletes or teams. We all circle the big games on our team’s fixture list for a very good reason each year. Those games mean just that little bit more, and nobody will ever convince me otherwise despite all the overwhelming logical evidence to the contrary. A win is a win, but a win in a rivalry game may just go down in history. I know which I'd prefer to win...