There was an advert on the telly last night for the upcoming Rugby League State of Origin between New South Wales and Queensland which is being held at ANZ Stadium (wherever that is) and there was a cracking piece of hyperbole during the advert which called it "the greatest rivalry in sport". I thought to myself that that was utterly laughable as I've been to State of Origin matches and I can tell you that I've seen more passionate crowds at an Under-12s sporting match.
What is "the greatest rivalry in sport" I wonder?
Derby of the Eternal Enemies - Panathinaikos and Olympiacos (1925)
When Panathinaikos and Olympiacos meet each other, security forces, police forces and even the military have to be put on notice. Panathinaikos is from the centre of the city of Athens and sort of represents the upper class or aspirational of Athenian society, whereas Olympiacos is based 25km in the port of Piraeus and has distinctly working class roots.
The Derby of the Eternal Enemies is in some respects, a mirror of the class struggle in Greek society; especially in the recent past as the country lurches from one financial crisis to the next. This is the derby of the rich and poor; played out twice yearly in two very different stadia.
El Clásico - Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona (1929)
Madrid Football Club, just plain old Madrid, had the Real (Royal) title bestowed upon it by King Alfonso XIII in 1920. It boasts an asset sheet €2.5bn and yearly revenues of €549m making it both the most valuable and richest sporting team in the world; surpassing even that of Scuderia Ferrari. The side has 32 La Ligas, 19 Copas del Rey but more importantly in 2014 it won La Decima, its tenth European Cup.
The other side of El Clásico is FC Barcelona which although plays in Spain, is defiantly not Spanish but Catalan. At virtually every single Barcelona match; when the clock gets to 17:14, the crowd will usually start chanting "in-inde-independencia", for 11th Sep 1714 was when the forces of Philip V of Spain finally broke the Army of Catalonia after a 14 month siege.
El Clásico is less about a football match and more about a 300 year old grudge, with two nations which were a de facto united kingdom, becoming a je dure single kingdom; being ruled from Madrid.
Merseyside Derby - Liverpool and Everton (1894)
Everton was the original football club and started in 1878, playing at Anfield. Following a dispute between the Everton board and club president John Houlding (who also owned the land). Everton moved less than half a mile away to Goodison Park and Houlding hired 11 Scotsmen to play for the newly formed club.
The Merseyside Derby is known as the "friendly derby" because the two colours blue and red permeate through every facet of the the city; with families often having supporters of both clubs living under the same roof. The rivalry also shows up in workplaces and never gets too heated because people know that they have to go back to work on Monday.
Because this fixture is between clubs who live so close to each other, it is often ill-disciplined and explosive and produces more than an average share of yellow and red cards.
The Old Firm Derby - Rangers and Celtic (1890)
Perhaps the term "Old Firm" stems from the suggestion that Rangers and Celtic are "like two old, firm friends" but nothing could be further away from the truth. The Old Firm Derby is deeply rooted in Catholic and Protestant sectarianism with Rangers' supporters typically being Protestant and Celtic's supporters typically being Catholic. On top of this, a wave of nationalism is also woven into the hatred and it is not uncommon to see the Ulster Banner at the Rangers end of the field and the Irish tricolour of green, white and orange at the Celtic end.
Riots broke out after the 1980 Scottish Cup Final which involved both sets of fans and resulted in the sale of alcohol being banned at sporting events in Scotland. At the time, the BBC's commentator Archie MacPherson described what he saw going on in front of him:
This is like a scene now out of Apocalypse Now... We've got the equivalent of Passchendaele and that says nothing for Scottish football. At the end of the day, let's not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other.
Bledisloe Cup - Australian and New Zealand (1932)
Charles Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe, who was the Governor-General of New Zealand, donated the trophy to the NZRU, to be played for whenever the All Blacks and Wallabies played each other. New Zealand has won the Bledisloe Cup at least as many as three times the number that Australia has and the current streak has been going since 2002.
The two nations have been tied together at the Olympic Games as the Australasian team in 1908 & 1912, militarily as the ANZAC corps from 1915-16 and formally through the ANZUS treaty in 1951. Australia and New Zealand have often been described as "first best enemies" and as "worst best friends" with the two nations acting as sort of cousins on the world stage.
The Ashes - England and Australia (1892)
In 1877 a professional first-class cricket tour of the colonies by the English cricket team and was drawn 1-1. In 1882 an Australian team toured England and the United States and after winning the one off Test at The Oval, the English team were savaged in the press. The term "The Ashes" comes from an obitiaty which appeared in The Sporting Times:
In Affectionate Remembrance of ENGLISH CRICKET,
which died at the Oval on 29 August 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
N.B.—The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.
English captain Ivo Bligh promised that on the return tour of 1882-3 that he would recover the ashes and the name has stuck.
The Ashes is probably the most written about sporting series in history. With matches that can last five days, sometimes causing international incidents which appeared in the pages of Hansard and a tradition which extends through more summers than everyone watching has memory. It is the third oldest continuously run sporting series behind the English FA Cup (1872) and the America's Cup (1851).
The State of Origin Rugby League series dates from 1980; which is within my lifetime. It isn't held between two nations, nor things that think they're nations, not between two sets of fans who should be in different nations. I think that "the greatest rivalry in sport" is probably between England and Australia for The Ashes, though equally the others that I've mentioned here are all fine examples of passion, rivarly and even outright hatred, sometimes resulting in loss of life. Granted, State of Origin probably is the pinnacle of Rugby League but even then, the Big Blue between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC or any Australian Rules match at the G makes more noise than a State of Origin match.
To call it "the greatest rivalry in sport" is to draw far too long a bow. I don't think that it's even the the greatest rivalry in Australian sport. I suspect that the greatest rivalry in sport is actually El Clásico because it does represent a 300 year old grudge and holds within it, the hopes of nationhood. All you get from State of Origin is a bunch of beer adverts and a belch.