National Teams & Redefining Rivalries

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They're often a touch on the negative side. They can make people think and do some ugly things. They can generate blind resentments and bitter arguments with unknown passersby. Rivalries can bring a lot of baggage to the table of an average sporting event. They also bring with them the highest of highs and the lowest of lows to fans on either side. Victory over a rival can live longer in the mind than ten over other opponents. They draw increased interest from supporters involved, neutral parties, and casual fans. Rivalries are an essential part of sport ... almost all of the time.    

Rivalries grow organically. Leagues often try to manufacture them, but it never quite works. They develop from intense and sustained competition. When two teams continue to face each other over an extended period of time, the outcome begins to take on a greater importance. A rivalry requires more than just that baseline to really take off. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals play each other twice every year. The Cardinals used to be St. Louis's team until they left town. But no one would consider the two teams to have a true rivalry.

Normally the most common way one forms is having something bigger on the line. The rivalry that has grown between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers dates back to when the Ravens were still the Browns. Yet, it has grown so much more intense lately due to the strength of both squads and stakes of victory. When both teams are competing for championships and standing in each other's way, rivalries tend to blossom. Setting aside the politics, the Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona continues to be a massive rivalry because they are normally in a two-horse race for hardware. For years on end, the winner of Ohio State and Michigan would be the Big Ten champion. When so much has classically been at stake, even after the benefits wear out, the rivalry often continues.

Proximity also plays a huge role in the growth of rivalries. Iowa and Iowa State will always be a rivalry even if they aren't competing for the same glory. They are competing for the hearts of the same group of people. When fan bases are living amongst each other the aftereffects can carry a lot of weight. Being surrounded by gloating supporters of the "other team" would probably be enough to secure your lifelong rancor toward their colors.

When all of these facets come together, we get the all-time great rivalries (Duke-UNC, AC Milan-Inter, Dodgers-Giants). These rivalries enable increased attention to the sport and serve as defining characteristics of each side's supporters. Their place in sport is clear and on the whole, largely beneficial. 

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Rivalries clearly have an important place in amateur and professional athletics. However, their place in international football is more murky. Club football dominates the calendar for the majority of the year. National teams occupy the tiny cracks left behind: summers, fixed international weekends, and the occasional dalliance over the top of club weekends. Despite the relatively tiny amount of time national teams actually spend competing, nothing garners more attention than major international competition. World Cups, despite the commonly recognized dip in play level from the greatest club competitions, are still the measuring stick of a country's soccer success. Continental cups, youth tournaments, friendlies and weird cups named after dairy products ... as long as the national team is competing, they're the biggest events on the football calendar. It's crazy and yet completely understandable. Club teams are supported to what most rational (non-sport loving) people would label insane levels, but as soon as players suit up in the nation's colors it becomes something much bigger. Love of country rather love of group of jerseys is now in play. Those players are now representing a nation in the world's most popular sport. The stakes don't get any higher.

An important aspect of rivalries is to not only support your team and hope for their victories, but for the losses of their rivals. Often the only thing that offers a consolation for a bad loss from your favorite team is a loss for your team's rival as well. Is it sad? Yes, of course it is. But it's also natural. When you spend so much time hoping for one team to lose, it just kind of sticks. You always want them to lose whether they are playing your team or not.

I have no qualms about revealing the fact that as a Red Sox fan, I am fully supporting a complete and utter Yankees collapse this postseason. It's all I have left. I always want the Yankees to lose. Ideally, they would lose every game they played. I'm sure I'm not the only Red Sox supporter with these sentiments. It is almost expected of Red Sox fans to feel this way. Yet, saying something to the effect of, "I always want Honduras to lose" or "I hope Italy gets embarrassed tonight" gives off a different vibe all together. Openly hoping for the failure of a nation's team, beyond the relevance and betterment of your team is something more suited to the hooligan than the average national team supporter.

The largest international soccer rivalries generally have a touch of something more than just the sport behind them. I would argue that anytime this is the case, it is to be avoided. The many national rivalries in Europe can be rooted back to wars. Yet, current national team players are not soldiers and are not invading their neighboring countries. They are not fighting a battle for their people. In fact, there's a good chance that some the players are playing professionally in that other country. Past resentments should not be reflected upon the current game. We need to look no further than the Euros this past summer to see a grotesque example of where this kind of thinking can take us. Even modern day political issues come to the pitch. Germany's match against Greece, referred to as the 'Bailout Game', featured plenty of unnecessary exchanges.  

The simple fact is that rivalries between nations can never simply be just average rivalries. Teams don't play each other enough for natural rivalries to develop. National teams aren't so dependent upon the failure of just one other nation to secure success for theirs. Other things need to bring on the rivalry. Generally, those other things aren't so positive.    

Rarely does one national team have a significant negative impact on the successes of another. One of the classic international rivalries in world football is the one between Argentina and Brazil. Being the class of a region for the better part of seventy years, has led to many high-stakes encounters between the two national teams. Yet, it would be difficult to argue that either is really keeping the other down. Between the two countries they have amassed seven World Cup victories and two Olympic gold medals. They are regularly regarded as two of the strongest sides in the world. Even when one team is suffering through a minor slump, it is generally not because the other club is exceedingly powerful at the time. Brazil has slipped a bit recently in the FIFA world rankings. I doubt this has Argentina thinking the door is wide open for them now (not to mention the rise of Colombia). At the World Cup in 2014, thirty-one other nations will be present. How one other nation is playing will likely not matter.

Few national team rivalries are more poignant currently than that between the United States and Mexico (There's even a recent film that focuses on aspects of the rivalry). Mexico and the United States are the two strongest teams in the CONCACAF region. Similar to the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina, being the class of the region often means the nations will need to face each other a few more times than the average. Meeting in the later stages of regional cups can feel like an inevitability. More friendlies are scheduled because they will draw greater interest and in turn, more revenue. Yes, Mexico and the United States will play each other more than most pairs of nations. Certainly, due to proximity and standing in each other's way in the Gold Cup competition some animosity between the teams and fan bases can grow. Yet, Mexico and the United States are (and ought to be) more allies than foes, on and off the playing field.

The economic and cultural ties between the United States and Mexico are immense and continue to grow with each passing year. With all of the connections and complexities faced, government cooperation is needed more than ever. On the pitch, Mexico and United States are two national team's that are headed (more or less) in the same direction. Mexico has grown stronger through great successes at the youth levels, while the US continues to fight up from soccer obscurity just thirty years ago. The irony is that the growth of soccer power in each country continues to benefit the other.

The United States benefits from a stronger El Tri. Mexico benefits from the growth of US soccer. Yes, Mexico and the United States are in competition for one of the same World Cup qualifying spots, but one would expect both nations to advance. If either falls short, it won't be attributed to a failure to overcome their rival alone. Playing stronger opponents can help push a team to become better. When you constantly measure yourself against lesser opponents (no offense to Antigua or Barbuda) the perception of your strengths and weaknesses can become skewed. Tough competition forces each side to raise their game, or at the very least, to search for solutions. If Mexico were to go on to win the World Cup, the CONCACAF region suddenly looks much stronger. The recent win for the US at the Azteca, gave the team a huge boost because it hadn't been done but also because of the perceived strength of the Mexican side. Mexico benefits from tough competition inside CONCACAF before venturing out to face other opponents. The rivalry between the United States and Mexico is largely irrelevant to the success of each. They aren't standing in each other's way as much as they are walking the same path.

When Mexico and the US face off against each other, it should be fully expected for each side of supporters to want to not only be victorious but to humiliate their opponent. That's part of supporting your national team. Proving superiority over other nations on the playing field can carry with it pride by the trainload. It's also perfectly reasonable to hope for the other to lose to avoid facing them in a local elimination tournament (a la Gold Cup or Olympic Qualifying tournament), and in effect admit to their strength. Otherwise, there aren't many sporting reasons to wish for the demise of the other. 

 

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