An American Explains Derbies for Americans without Using “Um,” “Like,” or “You Know”

For the uninitiated, a derby is a game between two neighboring teams. (It’s also pronounced “darby,” unless you’re talking about horses in Kentucky.) Some the most famous derbies take place between teams such as Liverpool and Everton (whose stadiums are less than a mile apart), Rangers and Celtic (two Glasgow teams that embody the spiritual derby between Protestants and Catholics), AC Milan and Inter Milan (where the teams share the same stadium, San Siro, meaning that every derby is both home and away), and Boca Juniors and River Plate (two Buenos Aires teams who duke it out in the so-called “Superclasico”).

Handbags out!
Handbags out!

Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t have a true derby—their stadiums are nearly 400 miles distant—but the intense rivalry between the two cities, and a Catalonia-versus-Spain dynamic that goes back centuries (and reached its nadir during the reign of Franco), certainly make the contest worthy of derby status. Watch an “El Clasico,” and you’ll see so many players rolling around on the ground that you’ll think the war never ended.

Aston Villa is blessed with an abundance of derbies, due to the number of well-supported teams in the Birmingham area. This is convenient, as Villa’s rivals tend to get relegated with some frequency; having more than one to choose from ensures Villa are more likely to have at least one home-and-away Premier League derby—and, in some seasons, as in 2010-11, three.

Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson
Gabby stands up to Jonas Olsson

There’s the fixture they play today, at West Bromwich Albion (West Brom or “The Baggies“—hey, it used to be “The Throstles”). A game against Wolverhampton Wanderers (usually just “Wolves”) would also be a derby—given that Wolves are currently playing in the euphemistically named League One (i.e., the third division of the professional English soccer), that’s unlikely to happen soon. Another derby would take place against what seems to be Villans’ most-hated rival, Birmingham City (“The Blues”) . . . although calling them a “rival” seems to give them a bit more credit than they deserve, as they’re currently plumbing the lower depths of the so-called Championship (i.e., second division).

A derby is instantly recognizable to any American sports fan as a crosstown rivalry, although, because most American cities tend to have only one team in any professional sport, these tend to take place more at the high school level. College sports are probably where rivalries are most intense in America: Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Oregon-Oregon State, and the list goes on and on.

There are, of course, major rivalries in pro sports—Bears-Packers, Cubs-Cardinals, and Blackhawks-Red Wings are the big ones in Chicago, where I live, and Yankees-Red Sox and Cowboys-Redskins come quickly to mind—but the sheer, staggering distance between American cities tends to cool some of the heat.

For the American fan, it’s hard to imagine the intense, generations-old animosity that accompanies these derbies, the hatred and violence that sometimes go along with them. Then again, in places where the fighting is, or has been, real, it’s not hard to see how the teams become surrogates doing battle on behalf of their fans.

MLS has, of course, imported a lot from European soccer to the U.S., starting with the awkward grafting of team names: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, Chivas USA. And while some rivalries have grown organically—L.A. Galaxy-San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders-Portland Timbers—we’re still finding our feet on this whole derby thing. Somehow, the Chicago Fire and F.C. Dallas have been judged to be rivals, annually contesting the “Brimstone Cup.” But, given that more than 900 miles separate the two cities, a game against Dallas is likely to bring only a few dozen stalwart fans to Toyota Park, their presence made more notable by the empty seating around them. Hardly a derby atmosphere. The Fire’s more natural rivals are the Columbus Crew, who are nearer, but it’s certainly no Villa-West Brom.

Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell
Chris Herd gets a leg up on Liam Ridgewell

Historically, Villa have gotten the better of the Baggies, with 4 wins, 2 losses, and 6 draws—although, in the last 5 meetings, it’s not as pretty a picture, with 3 draws and 2 wins for the Baggies. As of this morning, they’re currently level on points, 14 each, although West Brom is 11th, and Villa 12th, having scored one less goal so far this season. On form, West Brom is 8th (W D D L W D) and Villa 11th (W D L L D W). All things being equal, I (and, I suspect, most Villa supporters) would be happy with bringing home a point from the Hawthorns.

And what will the atmosphere be when I watch? I’ll be a long way from the heated derby atmosphere. I’ll be at work, and will turn off my Twitter feed and go off Facebook in hopes of avoiding the result while my DVR whirs silently at home. And, if I succeed in negotiating a complex variety of real-life tasks (kids, shopping, cleaning the bathroom for our Thanksgiving guests who arrive tomorrow), I’ll sneak off to the Globe to watch the delayed game with Simon and another guy or two—instead of watching it much later, alone, wishing I were there in the stands.

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