Hello, and welcome to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, I hope to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support Columbus Crew SC.
Ohio State vs. Michigan. The Lakers and the Celtics. Yankees-Red Sox. Regardless of the sport, there are some matchups that carry a little more weight than others. Whether it is a historical rivalry that spans generations, or that thorn in a team’s side in the last couple years of the playoffs, rivalries are crucial to sports. In a world so rife with actual hatred and divisiveness, sometimes a little light-hearted, sports-related loathing is cathartic. It’s real-life comic books, the good guys overcoming the evil villains to win the day.
Soccer is no different, and with the upcoming Hell is Real Derby, let’s examine the history of rivalries in soccer and this rivalry in particular.
Rivalries are not just any game. And no matter how many ad-hoc cups the leaders of MLS try to invent, there are certain natural elements required for a rivalry. Every rivalry is unique, and each fan involved has its own experience, but there are some common denominators.
Something at stake: The Lakers and Celtics have played each other for 12 NBA championships. The OSU-Michigan game became The Game during the 10-Year War because the entire season weighed on the result of this one football game. Undefeated seasons and potential championship glories have been squandered. Conference and sometimes national titles have awaited the victor. But even when championships aren’t at stake for one team, the ability to deny glory can be just as sweet. Rivals are often spoilers.
Proximity: The win in a rivalry game is always sweeter if there’s someone nearby you can gloat about it to. Every Ohio State fan reading this has at least one Michigan fan friend or family member who has suffered the slings and arrows of the last 10 Novembers. And those of us who are a little older know the same suffering from the Novembers of the 1990s. Cities are split: Cubs and White Sox, Jets and Giants. Thy neighbor becomes thy enemy for the span of a game. Not every rivalry shares borders or a zipcode, but keeping your enemies close definitely helps. Rivals are often those closest to you.
History: There’s a shared story between two sides of a rivalry, oftentimes telling the story of an entire sport. The Red Sox and Yankees rivalry is a common thread weaving its way through baseball as far back as 1918 and the sale of Babe Ruth. It has continued through baseball’s history and has involved some of the sport’s biggest heroes. Some rivalries span decades, or even centuries. Regardless of what MLS may try to do, one cannot simply declare a rivalry. There’s a long and complicated saga of wins, losses and near-misses that all add to the legend. Rivals share a story.
Like any other sport, soccer is filled with rivalries that span its history. While they may use a different name, the passion is no less potent. Whether it’s regional (The Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton or the Manchester Derby), based on a storied history of cup-winning efforts (El Classico between Barcelona and Real Madrid or Arsenal and Manchester United), or just two storied clubs seemingly always at odds (Chelsea and Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich), regional pride, team pride and self-worth are all at stake in a derby.
There is no definitive history of the term Derby. It is commonly associated with horse races dating back to England in the 1780s, and one particular founding father, the 12th Earl of Derby. In modern England, the term “derby” frequently refers to any type of sporting rivalry, and since soccer (or football as they call it) is the biggest sport in the United Kingdom, the term has stuck. Today, the term “derby” is synonymous with soccer rivalries worldwide.
In 1892, John Houlding, in a financial dispute with his employer, broke ranks with the Everton Football Club (at that time, the biggest team in Liverpool, England) and decided to form his own club: Liverpool Football Club. Since that fateful meeting over 110 years ago, the Merseyside Derby (named for the River Mersey, the primary source of income for much of Liverpool’s maritime history) has defined the city in regards to sport.
Much like the scarlet and blue that battle here in the midwest, the Merseyside Derby defines not only whether Liverpool is Red or Blue, but who has to pay the tab at the pub and who is the butt of jokes for another year. Rivals share history.
In 1955, Real Madrid won the first UEFA Champions League cup. In the 65 years since, more than half of the titles have gone to the original winners or their rival, FC Barcelona. Originally, El Classico only referred to matches in the Spanish Championship between the two biggest clubs in their country. But as both teams have become soccer global superpowers, it has been played for much more.
History, regional and political differences and common pursuits for glory have personified in a soccer game. This rivalry has roots dating back to 1902. Since the first meeting, the two clubs are almost equal in La Liga matches between each other and have matched total victories in all competitions at 96 (and 52 draws). Although the overall records may be split down the middle, supporters of Real Madrid would be quick to point out that they have out-paced their Catalan rivals in both UEFA Cups (20-13) and La Liga titles (34-26). Rivals always keep score.
A 35-mile drive south on I-71 from MAPFRE Stadium will bring you to a simple, yet poignant roadside proclamation. “Hell is Real” reads the holy heads up, warning those traveling from Columbus to Cincinnati that their sins bear the weight of judgment. While it isn’t quite the halfway marker between the first soccer-specific stadium built in America and the college football stadium dragooned by FC Cincinnati, it serves as the namesake for one of MLS’s newest rivalries: The Hell is Real Derby.
Established in 2016, then a part of the United Soccer League Championship, the Crew’s newest rivals made the jump to MLS in 2018. But even before the teams shared a division, the two teams had established a fairly strong sports hatred. FC Cincy made its Ohio soccer bones by beating the Crew 1-0 in a 2017 U.S. Open Cup match in the Queen City and from that victory, and plenty of social media victory-lapping, the Hell is Real Derby was born.
Since Ohio’s second MLS team was promoted from the USL, the two teams have met three times with plenty of vitriol to jumpstart the rivalry. In their first official MLS meeting, the two teams drew on a hot August evening at MAPFRE Stadium. Just over two weeks later, the Crew traveled south on I-71, past that damning roadside landmark, and encouraged an early departure by most of the home crowd by definitively handling the new rivals, 3-1. The Crew continued its domination this year with a 4-0 dismantling in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament.
With the early-round brashness of a little brother, FC Cincinnati declared open war on the Crew and a rivalry, or derby, was born. And while this derby may be in its relative infancy, it has all of the elements: bragging rights, proximity and a distinct (if not a lengthy) history.
The MLS schedule has given us two more Hell is Real matchups in just the first phase of the regular season restart. With two wins, the Crew could make some serious hay in the pursuit of a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup playoff birth. But FC Cincinnati has a real chance to spoil the party for the Black & Gold, the hallmark of any great rivalry. Something is always at stake in rivalries.