Rival football giants in explosive clash

Crunch time: Wayne Rooney evades two Liverpool players during yesterday’s grudge match © PA

Man United have vanquished their century-old rivals Liverpool in one of the season’s most anticipated matches. Why do local rivalries still heighten passions in a globalised sport culture?

When he was a boy, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard once borrowed a friend’s shirt with the name of his favourite player, Bryan Robson, on the back. He charged around his street scoring imaginary goals – until his parents saw. ‘Get inside now!’ his dad screamed, dragging him into the house. Gerrard’s crime? Robson played for Liverpool’s worst enemy, Manchester United. Wearing their shirt was treason.

Although Manchester and Liverpool are 35 miles apart, their sporting rivalry is perhaps the fiercest in English football. The two teams clashed this weekend, with Liverpool receiving a 3-0 pummelling.

Neither side has much hope of winning the league this year, and a TV pundit compared the squads to pub teams: ‘the Dog and Duck versus the Red Lion’. Yet for some fans vanquishing the old foe is almost as satisfying as a league title.

It is a bitterness born in the smoke of the industrial revolution. Liverpool was a thriving port city in the 19th century, while Manchester was a booming cluster of factories. Liverpool was vital for exporting Mancunian goods, until the new Manchester Ship Canal cut it out of the loop in 1894. It was also the first year that the two cities clashed on the football pitch.

Economic and political factors have a habit of turning sporting rivalries into fierce battles. Lingering Civil War tensions drive Spain’s high-stake showdowns between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Tensions rise when Pakistan meets India in cricket, because the two saw bloody conflicts when the British withdrew from the region in 1947.

While recent wars make sporting contests complex affairs, many critics marvel that the north-west rivalry remains so fresh. Football has moved away from being a working man’s game into a global sport, where a club’s fans across the world vastly outnumber those in their home cities. The passion over local rivalries should be a relic of the past.

More than a game

'The mentality of the football fan is essentially that of a child’, says one journalist. Derby games bring out the pettiness of fans and reduce educated adults to primitive tribesmen. When there are more celebrated league titles and international trophies, it makes no sense to get passionate about a game where the team that bought the most expensive players is likely to win.

Yet for all the anger, tears and tantrums that local rivalries might bring, they are far more important to diehard fans than playing glamorous teams from around the world. Winning prestigious competitions might be the team’s main goal, but local rivalries tap into something more fundamental. They come from a time before commercialisation overwhelmed the game and, some say, represent sport at its fiery best.

You Decide

  1. Are local sporting rivalries petty?
  2. ‘The greatest rivalries are not with those who are different from us, but with those who are most similar.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, try to list five rivalries your school or your town have. Discuss why you think those rivalries exist and whether they are positive rivalries or not.
  2. Research what you think is the biggest rivalry in your favourite sport or activity. Make a class presentation on why the rivalry exists, together with its most dramatic moments.

Some People Say...

“Sport is the continuation of war by other means.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t understand the passion of local rivalries.
For many people who do not follow sport, it is baffling that people often from the same city can temporarily forget what they have in common and view each other as enemies while a sport is going on. Yet rivalry has more to do with similarities than differences. Liverpool and Manchester United are both among England’s most successful clubs, and have had very similar experiences at the top of the game.
But don’t rivalries get out of hand?
Unfortunately yes. While football hooliganism has mostly been stamped out in Britain over the last 30 years, just last month one fan was killed and four seriously injured when rival fans clashed in Brazil. In 2003, a baseball fan in America was shot dead after a game between the Giants and Dodgers.

Word Watch

Manchester Ship Canal
The canal connects Manchester to the Irish Sea, and was built at the equivalent cost of £1.65 billion in today’s money. It fell into disuse in the 1970s, but modifications are planned to increase its capacity by over 1000%.
Civil War
This war, fought between 1936 and 1939, saw the Nationalists led by General Franco defeat the Republicans who had made Barcelona their base. The rivalry has only grown in recent years as Catalonia contemplates independence from Spain.
British India once encompassed the lands that now make up India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the British agreed with Indian leaders to create two separate countries when they left in 1947. The countries have been to war four times since then, and relations remain terrible.

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