by Robert Ferringo - 06/05/2006
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On the United States Sports Scene we think we know a little something about rivalries. Yankees-Red Sox. Duke-North Carolina. Michigan-Ohio State. These conflicts may be regional scuffles, but they define their respective sports and are ingrained in our national psyche as the personification of animosity. Fans of the opposition are constantly bickering, and there's always the risk of a heated shouting match or some chest bumping when supporters cross paths.
But let's put soccer rivalries in perspective: in July of 1969 the governments of Honduras and El Salvador went to war after riots broke out during a World Cup qualifying match between their national teams. That's right - a four-day War that essentially started over a soccer match. Several thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands of people were displaced as a result.
Now that's a rivalry. And the next time that the Yankees sweep the Sox in Fenway and there isn't an ensuing bloodbath, I'm going to be supremely disappointed.
There is nothing like a match on the pitch to stir the World's pot of nationalism, jingoism and xenophobia. Remember, it's OK to not like things and people that are different from you. In fact, you should fear and hate them. And if someone doesn't speak your language, worship your religion, or have your skin color it is your National Duty to crave their total destruction and utter humiliation at the hands of your national soccer team.
"Soccer allows for symbolically limited confrontations, with no major political risks," said Pascal Boniface, the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "Its impact is broad, but not deep."
Boniface is renowned for his analysis of the geopolitical implications of soccer rivalries. In his writings he makes many astute points in his discussions of how hostility in soccer matches merely reflects tense relations between nations, and isn't the cause or effect of them.
But I want to see him try to tell Honduran war veterans how shallow the nationalistic soccer waters are.
Our foil on the international soccer stage is Mexico. Few people know this, but that's our true motivation behind building a wall on our Southern border and sending in the National Guard. But that's another tale for another time.
Instead, here's a look at the four most intense and interesting rivalries in soccer that don't involve the U.S. This will be a good reference if these countries square off during the World Cup because it should influence not only the odds, but also the level of play in the match:
Argentina and Brazil
These two South American nations are quite salty when it comes to their clashing national clubs, which just happen to be World Powers. Their matches have endured bloody riots, declarations of martial law, insensitive racial epithets in the press and intentionally broken bones on the pitch. Good times all around.
The rivalry also entails a running feud over which nation can claim the Greatest Player Ever: Pele of Brazil or Maradona of Argentina? This is the equivalent of the Magic vs. Bird conundrum in the mid-80s. Except in Brazil an unacceptable answer may get your throat slit.
In 87 matches played between these countries they are a symmetrical 33-33-21. Brazil has dominated Argentina in World Cup play, posting a 5-2 record. However, the Argentines own a 14-7 mark in the Copa America, the continental championship.
England and Germany
Nothing raises the level of acrimony in a classic soccer rivalry like some good, old-fashioned armed conflict. But when it includes a pair of World Wars, in which each nation tried to wipe the other off the map, now we're getting Serious.
Throw in some all-time great players and teams, as well as some outstanding matches and overzealous fans and we have a full-fledged rancor. The hostility began in the 1966 final in which England captured its last World Cup championship. They won 4-2 in overtime on the strength of Geoff Hurst's hat trick. But the Germans have seized the last two distinguished matches, topping the Brits 3-2 in the 1970 quarters and winning on penalty kicks in the 1990 semifinals.
However, this isn't the most intense rivalry for either country. England's battles with Argentina and Ireland can be considered more fervid, characterized by long-standing military and political confrontations. Germany is despised much more by the Netherlands than they are by the English. So they have that going for them, which is nice.
France and Italy
In the same way that the geographic proximity of Tobacco Road fuels the acrimony in the Duke-UNC dispute, the fact that the French and Italians are famous neighbors adds some pop to this match-up.
Italy leads the all-time series 17-8-7, but France has dominated lately. Since 1982 they are 5-0-1 in their last six meetings - including two World Cup victories and the 2000 European Championship. The 1998 World Cup quarterfinals was a classic, defining moment in the series. France won 4-3 in penalty kicks en route to seizing the Cup on their home soil.
Argentina and England
An intercontinental rivalry is pretty rare, and the zeal of this one is surprising. But again, there's nothing like a bloody and unjust war to add fuel to blazing hatred. For these nations it was the Falklands War in 1982, a battle over a set of islands off the Argentine coast.
The residue of that clash was still fresh when the teams met in Mexico City during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals. Argentina defeated its imperialist foe 1-0 on Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal. In later recollections of that moment, Maradona admitted that cheating the Brits out of the win actually made it even sweeter.
There was more controversy surrounding these clubs in their 1998 second stage match in France. That was the game in which Beckham was red-carded, forcing the Brits to play man-down. England appeared to score a late second-half goal that would have won it but the referee disallowed it. Eventually, Argentina won 4-3 on penalty kicks.
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