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The Greatest Rivalry in Sports

on Sunday, 11 March 2012. Posted in Soccer, Rivalries

The Greatest Rivalry in Sports

Picture this: you are sitting in Yankee Stadium watching the Red Sox come to town and take on the Yanks. This is the stuff of legend. The greatest figure in the history of baseball has history with both of these clubs, and I am not talking about Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, or the juiced up arm of The Rocket himself. The new Yankee Stadium, the very hallowed grounds in which you now sit, narrowly escaped the clutch of “The Curse” when a Sox Jersey placed in the stadium foundation was unearthed at zero hour. Yes, this is the stuff of legend. Yes, both of the teams are duking it out for first place in the AL East. Yes, both rosters are bursting at the seams with bona-fide superstars with bona-fide superstar salaries. Yes the tickets, program, hot dog and beer have cost you roughly $1,000 in total. And, yes, this is one of 17 times the Sox will face the Yankees this season alone, not including playoffs. The greatest rivalry in sports, right?

Or perhaps you are in the sovereign state of Alabama one fine November afternoon, seeing the mighty Auburn Tigers face the Crimson Tide of Alabama for bragging rights of the Yellowhammer State. This is the stuff of legend. You and 100,000 of you closest friends have come to get hammered in the parking lot, look bleary-eyed into Jordan-Hare Stadium or Bryant-Denny Stadium, or some other stadium that sounds like your mom’s new name since she married your stepdad, and watch two of the countries greatest football factories parade out their current crop of merchandise. Names like Bear Bryant, Bo Jackson, and Shaun Alexander hang in the air like the smell of Magnolia. This surely is the stuff of legend. Yes, these schools are routinely atop arguably the best football conference in the known universe. Yes, the guys on the field each season represent the greatest athletes the NCAA’s have to offer. Yes, less than 45% of the athletes on the field will graduate. And, yes, these two schools have been on probation more times than the Delta House. These guys have been sanctioned more times than the entire history of every team in the Ivy League. Okay, so I made that up that statistic about the Ivy League, but I am betting I am right. Could this be the rivalry we have been looking for?

The sad answer is that neither of these rivalries is the best. Sorry, America, your two darlings of sports rivalry are nowhere near the most tantalizing match-up for us to watch. I wish they were. I wish there was enough honesty and passion in the Iron Bowl (Auburn vs, Alabama) to capture not only the hearts of the gibberish speaking yokels in Alabama, but the rest of the world. I wish Boston vs. New York wasn’t such a marketing prostitute that it pillaged what could very well be the greatest game in history into a trinket shop with a 7th inning stretch thrown in. Oh sport! Where must we go to find truth, passion, and a little drunken violence mixed in with sweaty men or women running around wearing numbers? Rivalry is not dead, faithful reader, it is alive and well on the island of Scotland.

The greatest rivalry in all of sport takes place each Scottish League season when the football club of Celtic takes on the Rangers, both of Glasgow. Now, I am doing my best to stereotype as many people groups as I can in the space of 750-1000 words, and this match-up is no exception. What is it about drunken soccer hooligans that make for such great rivalry? If a drunk at a soccer match were currency, then Celtic vs. Rangers would be Warren Buffet. At least it would have been before 1980. That was the year that things got so out of hand at the match, known affectionately as The Old Firm, that a riot spilled onto the field, forcing officials to ban alcohol at soccer matches forever. Imagine that, a place in Scotland without alcohol? That’s like trying to imagine a place in Wisconsin without cheese or childhood obesity. It’s not just the booze that makes this rivalry float; The Old Firm scratches all the itches of a phenomenal rivalry.

The first attribute that endears us to this rivalry is its age. The Old Firm has been going strong since 1888, with each team playing each other each season thereafter. The two clubs have squared off nearly 400 times, each contest so heated that referees aren’t even exempt from violence. At one contest in 1999, the match’s referee, Hugh Dallas, was struck by projectiles from the stands and had to receive medical treatment. Later in the match, Dallas was angrily confronted on the field by multiple Celtic fans. This prompted more action, that event ensuring that most Old Firm matches are played in the early afternoon. A rivalry that is so fierce that it has banned alcohol and has to be played when the sun is shining is my kind of sporting event.

The second reason we love Celtic vs. Rangers as the best rivalry in sports is its not just a soccer game, it’s a holy war. The bulk of Celtic supporters are Catholic, while most of the Rangers are Protestant. Feel like your games aren’t intense enough? Throw a little religious persecution in the mix and sit back and watch the fireworks. Statistics have shown that on Old Firm match days the sectarian violence is nine times that of any other day of the year.

Thirdly, the reason this is the best rivalry in sports is half of the supporters are loyal to the British throne, while the other half are Irish loyalists, drawing lines along the UK/Northern Ireland conflict. Luckily, these two groups don’t have too much history of hating each other’s guts; the Brits vs. Northern Ireland dispute has only been raging since the 1600’s. I mean, its not like U2 has written songs about the violence as a result of this conflict, have they? Oh, wait. My mistake. You wont see many Scottish flags at The Old Firm, rather fans wear their hearts on their sleeves and the stands are divided heavily between the Irish flag and the Union Jack. Delicious!

And the main reason we love to love this rivalry is it represents all the things we have lost in American sports. I am sure each team has their contract disputes in the off-season. But I am also sure that no amount of money, no lucrative marketing deals will ever sway the players of the Old Firm to take this match any less seriously than life and death itself, because for the fans of this match-up, that is precisely what this game represents. Players are as intensely loyal to the rivalry as the fans are. There have only been five players since 1922 that have player for both clubs. In a country as small as Scotland, that few switchovers chisels in stone the fierceness of what it means to be Celtic or a Ranger. We love to act like sports mean a big deal, and that sport is a depiction of the seriousness of life, but in the Old Firm it’s evident. From the sweat on the player’s faces to the blood on the brows of those crazy hooligans in the stands, everyone knows that they are playing for something bigger, and not just a bigger paycheck.

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