If you had to describe a derby to someone in three words, you’d probably use words along the lines of “pride”, “passion”, and “emotion”. This might be an outdated perception, however, as in recent years, derbies across the globe have fallen short of expectations. But why?
Earlier in the season, Arsene Wenger rested key players for Arsenal’s League Cup fixture against Chelsea. Then-Arsenal players Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez were left out of the starting line-up, along with Petr Cech, whilst the Blues named almost a full-strength side. Could you imagine the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, and Marc Overmars being ‘rested’ for a game like this when they were at their peak, or when Arsenal were competing for the title?
It shouldn’t matter whether a derby decides the title, if it’s a dead rubber, or if it’s played behind closed doors – these matches matter. Whatever happened to bragging rights? Whatever happened to raw emotion?
Football is emotional, whether out on the pitch or on the stands – it’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. Bill Shankly put it best when he said, “Some say football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you its much more than that”. In recent years, however, showing any kind of emotion on the pitch has been frowned upon, as players and managers alike are expected to remain consummate professionals at all times.
Unless you want to risk a yellow card, you can’t celebrate a goal with your fans. If you disagree with a decision and voice your opinion too strongly, you’ll receive a caution, or even see red. Any sign of ‘unsporting behaviour’ these days will also see your name in the book; rewind 15 years – remember Martin Keown getting away with screaming at Ruud van Nistelrooy when he missed a penalty? Everyone associated with football has a right to enjoy the game and be safe when doing so, but isn’t all this red tape ruining the game when it matters most?
Emphasis on European competition is another culprit. One of the reasons is, naturally, the revenue; this year’s Champions League winners are expected to rake in more than £100 million, whilst a domestic title is normally worth a humble £40 million. The Champions League has done wonders for football, but with so many clubs striving to be the best in Europe, and resting players in derbies as a result, they seem to be forgetting how much it means to get one over on your neighbours.
This lapse in focus on derbies appears to be a European pandemic. Borussia Dortmund didn’t field a full-strength squad for their match-up against rivals Bayern Munich, and they were punished for it, conceding half a dozen goals in 90 minutes. Meanwhile, with only five shots on goal registered all match, the Derby della Madonnina finished 0-0 earlier in the month. As did the Merseyside derby a few weeks back. As did the Basque derby back in December. The 3-2 thriller between Manchesters United and City appears to be an exception.
It appears that in the absence of money, passion thrives. Take ‘El Glosico’, for example – the West Country derby between League 2 sides Forest Green Rovers and Cheltenham Town. Their recent match up ended in a 1-0 victory for Rovers (just their fourth away win this season), and at the final whistle, both sets of players fell to the floor mentally and physically exhausted. Neither side are fighting for promotion, and there was no trophy at the end of it, but the atmosphere within the LCI Rail Stadium was that of a cup final. The London Derby between QPR and Millwall back in September had it all; an early goal, a late equaliser, and even a red card – all this at the beginning of the season when the only thing to play for was pride.
The O Classico was played last weekend between Porto and Benfica – two teams that have tasted European success but have fallen by the wayside in recent years. The crowd were incredible, the players gave their all for the shirt, and just like the derbies of old, the tackles were flying in. In the 90th minute, Hector Herrera put Porto ahead, silencing everyone at the Estadio da Luz but the travelling blue-and-white army.
If the focus of each match is on revenue, players can’t play with passion – so maybe things need shaking up a bit. What if we did the same as Rugby Union and awarded additional points for goals scored per match, as well those given for a win or a draw? What if a derby-day win did the same, encouraging teams to play for the win rather than seeing it out for a draw?
As fans, we also have a responsibility to make sure the atmosphere within stadiums encourages a performance, rather than being dependant on one. It’s been no secret that the atmosphere at Old Trafford has been lacking of late, but it’s arguable that this is an issue that taints the whole of the Premier League. Liverpool fans created an incredible atmosphere at Anfield when they welcomed Manchester City to Merseyside in the Champions League quarter-finals, and that’s how it should be every match – especially when it’s between two sides separated by just a few miles.
We need to bring back the days when a derby was chalked down on the calendar months in advance, when tickets were like gold-dust, and the thought of losing was unbearable. Teams play for titles, but fans want to win rivalries. You can have all the money in the world, but if you haven’t got bragging rights, what’s the point in it all?