December 26, 2013 by brettdgale
It’s not often that the stars align so well in the world of sports as they did for one week in July this year.
At almost exactly the same time, three of the world’s great greatest sporting rivalries took place. The Rugby League State of Origin, Cricket’s The Ashes, and Yankees v Red Sox were all playing out on the big stage. Literally in fact, with at least two of the games taking place in two of the most cherished venues in all of sport – Lords and Fenway Park, and the third taking place in the venue for the greatest ever Olympics – Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
What a week that was – a veritable cliché fest -mate versus mate, state versus state, convicts versus gaolers, English (or at least South African) toffs vs versus Aussie battlers, Athens v Sparta, the Hub of the Nation versus the Evil Empire.
For those of us who relish the contest that was a good week. A week to celebrate what makes us love sport in the first place, what drives us to cheer the sporting contest but also to wallow in the joyful pleasure of hating a rival team.
In a world of too many empty sporting events, rivalries give a deeper feel to sporting competition. They add an extra dimension for both the fans and the players. They give you somebody to root for and more importantly somebody to root against.
For a rivalry to be truly known as such, each team’s fans need to be able to categorize the opposing side in a very binary way – my team good, opposing team bad. If you can’t do this, if you somehow have soft and squishy feelings for the opponents you can’t really call it a rivalry. The other team needs to inspire as much hatred in you as exists in a Labor party caucus room.
Like this: Aussies equal good, Poms equal bad, Blues equal good, Maroons equal bad, Sox equal god (oops good) Yankees equal EVIL. You get the picture I’m sure. Indeed, to truly savor a rivalry you need to enjoy the other team’s losses equally as much as you enjoy your own team’s victories.
If the first question you ask after “did the Red Sox win?” isn’t “did the Yankees lose?” you aren’t really into the rivalry.
For a rivalry to be real it needs time to fester it can’t just be something dreamed up by a marketing chump like the AFL’s “Rivalry Round”. Let’s face it the Sydney Swans playing the GWS (or should that be Manuka) Giants will never be a rivalry. For a start, GWS has no fans.
No, a rivalry has to develop over time. But just as importantly it needs enough constant friction to really make it meaningful. The Wallabies playing the British Lions every 12 years may be great Rugby but it can’t be a true rivalry. Teams need to play each other often, so often that they are sick of the sight of each other and want to beat the other side simply to get off the field and stop looking at them, familiarity breeds contempt as they say.
On the other side of the ledger, it’s not true that the contest has to be particularly equal in its results to legitimately qualify as rivalry. This is often the excuse used by sneering Yankees fans (particularly before 2004) to claim that Boston v New York was more in the minds of Bostonians than an actual contest. Yet, oftentimes what makes a rivalry great is the overwhelming passion of one side’s fans to even the ledger at least a little bit. Is State of Origin any less intense because the Banana benders have won 9 series on the trot? No I’d say it’s even more intense than ever, with an ever more passionate desperation by New South Welshmen to win.
And how sweet was the Australian cricket victory in Perth in November this year? Wrapping up an Ashes series win in three straight tests – taking revenge for the fact that we hadn’t held the coveted urn since 2009.
But it’s not just the winning that makes a rivalry so good.
The exquisite pain of loss is after all one of the compelling reasons we watch sport in the first place.
The pain of such a defeat is magnified when it comes at the hands of your team’s mortal enemies.
I will never forget the feeling of being absolutely gutted after the 2003 American League Championship Series. Aaron Boone’s home run left me in a catatonic state for days, and, the feeling of impotent rage about Australia losing the Ashes to the Poms in 2005 after not having lost The Ashes for 18 years still remains vivid.
These are feelings that make you know you are alive – in many ways they are more stirring than the joy that victory brings.
Not to say I wouldn’t take my 2013 World Series happy dance any day as well.
Where do books come in to all this? Well see up the top of this blog where it says “with forays into culture and politics”? This is one of those forays. Not to say there haven’t been libraries worth of books written about sporting rivalries. Indeed the tomes on The Ashes alone could probably fill the entirety of Lords many times over, and the Red Sox, Yankees contests have inspired a host of literary greats to put pen to paper. Indeed as John Cheever wrote, “All literary men are Red Sox Fans. To be a Yankee fan in literary society is to endanger your life”.
Take but one example as a starter, Simon Hughes’ recently released cricket history, “Cricket’s Greatest Rivalry: A History of The Ashes in 10 Matches”. And to prime myself up for this article I re-read Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime’s Blood Feud: The Red Sox, the Yankees & the Struggle of Good versus Evil”. But today is only tangentially about the books (though Malcolm Knox’s Bradman’s War is well worth a read for an historical insight into The Ashes, as is the great sports historian Peter Golenbock’s “Cowboys Have Always Been my Heroes” to understand the roots of the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins proving that Cowboys versus Redskins is not just a game played by non PC kids with sticks and toy guns).
Although I’ve listed my preconditions as to what qualifies as a great sporting rivalry, that still leaves literally dozens of worthy rivalries across all sports. Auburn v Alabama, Ali v Frazier, Hulk Hogan v Andre the Giant all these and many more have added much to our sporting enjoyment but today I’ll concentrate on a couple of my faves.
Dodgers v Giants – This is a rivalry that has extended over 125 years and across the width of a continent. Not content to leave enmities behind when they moved their teams from New York in the 50’s Walter O’Malley and Horace Stoneham decided that a dose of California sunshine would be the perfect additive to the ongoing feud and it has been. Having a natural romantic affinity for the working class Brooklyn Dodgers (dem bums) yet a preference for the Bay area vibe compared to the LA glitz I have a hard time choosing a side in this dog fight.
State of Origin: New South Wales v Queensland – State of Origin football was invented to let Queenslanders win occasionally. Unfortunately, they took the injunction too seriously and from its first match with Artie Beetson thumping all in sight Origin has been a rivalry equal to the best of them. It has the unique twist of allowing regular team mates to form deep hatreds three times a year earliest Whilst Sydney and Melbourne are rivals in most things there is no greater rivalry in all of Australian sport to compare.
Celtic v Rangers – A battle for the soul of god. Whereas most rivalries just feel like a religious war this one truly lays claim to a sectarian contest. And how good is a contest that actually sent one side broke in trying to compete?
El Clasico: Real Madrid v Barcelona – This is much more than two super clubs doing battle this is a battle for national identity. Long suppressed under Franco, Barca represents a spirit of Republican nationalism, Catalan autonomy and worker’s rights up against Spanish centralism, and aristocratic autocracy.
But the big two in my mind are clearly The Ashes and Red Sox v Yankees. Which one is the greatest rivalry in sports – let each stake their claim.
The Ashes: England V Australia – The oldest continuous rivalry in sport. This is the one that gets Australian cricketers of all stripes out of bed, from kids in the backyard to park side duffers, all in their mind’s eye picturing themselves as Dennis Lillee running in to bowl or Don Bradman smashing hapless Englishmen all around the park. International cricket started as a contest between the new antipodean colony of Australia and its colonial masters and overlords and the scars from Australia’s convict stained birth run deep. Without a doubt the great cricketing moments that come easily to mind are those involving England and Australia – Bodyline, WG Grace refusing to walk, Lillee and Thomson, Warne and McGrath – this has always been the best of cricket even when it hasn’t.
And while Douglas Jardine may be a reviled figure in Australia I do admire his attitude to his great foe “They don’t seem to like you over here Mr Jardine”, Patsy Hendren said. “The feeling is fucking mutual”, Jardine replied.
The series was falling a bit flat for a while as Australia won series after series but once the English renaissance led by Flintoff startled the cricketing world by winning a series in 2005 the passion has returned, just witness the fury with which Mitchell Johnson has been steaming into bowl, mouth twisted in anger beneath his cartoon Mexican moustache .
And what better way to slough off the post-Christmas food hangover than a Boxing Day test between these two ancient foes. It might be the 4th Test of this series but its Round 9 of a year-long dogfight.
This would be my favourite rivalry but what’s with the Aussie team drinking Peroni beer, and then there’s Shane Watson.
Sox v Yankees – Two dates are all you need to know to understand this rivalry – 1918 and 2004. In those 86 years the Red Sox didn’t win a World Series whereas the Yankees won 24. The chant “Nineteen Eighteen” became a derisory laugh track for Yankees fans to throw at supporters of the often hapless Boston Nine. During that time the Yankees also perfected a tradition of stealing Boston’s superstar players dating back to the original sin of Babe Ruth heading to the Big Apple from Beantown.
Yet like the Ashes, the toxicity of the rivalry feels as if it’s waning recently. When Jonny Damon the long haired bearded Jesus of the 2004 Boston Red Sox signed with the hated Yankees straight after 2004 World Series victory he went overnight from a savior to a crew cut Judas Escariot in the blink of an eye. Yet, when Red Sox Centrefielder Jacoby Ellsbury did the same in November of this year the outrage was more muted. Sure there are those of us trying to maintain the rage but three championships in 10 years may have dulled the fire for Sox fans. A few close calls in 2014 may bring back the hate, after all to quoth former Sox pitcher Bill Lee – “Why do I hate the Yankees so much? As Shakespeare said, ‘Let me count the ways’”.