The Cheap Seats: Doffing my derby
L.A. Galaxy vs. CD Chivas USA. And I'm circling those match dates in saffron-colored ink. (I'm choosing that color in honor of The Gates, this mind-blowing $20 million art project in which 7,500 metal gates, 16 feet tall and strewn with saffron-colored ribbon, are being erected in Central Park. It's the largest art project since the Sphinx. The Sphinx!?! I just thought you should know that.)
I hope everyone watched the Duke-North Carolina basketball game on Wednesday night. Was that not incredible? The passion of the players, the coaches, the fans, the telecasters, the retired soccer pro on his couch in Brooklyn -- it was all so overwhelming. I was verklempt. The raw, sweaty desire to win, the long-faced despair at losing. I was contorting with every shot and twisting with every drive. I felt a little bit like Robin Williams dancing in "The Birdcage," but my body language alone translated the story of that famed rivalry.
Now, don't get me wrong. I shake my head just like every soccer fan when the idiots on the idiot box say things like, "This is the greatest rivalry in sports!" (Credit to that screeching weasel Dick Vitale: He rightly qualified it as the "greatest rivalry is college sports.") We soccer maniacs know that's not true, because we've seen enough Old Firms and Classicos to know better. But, still, the whole madhouse scene at Duke was reminiscent of any of the great derbies around the world.
And it just so happens that derbies have been on my mind a great deal in the past few months. "I love it when a plan comes together," as Hannibal from "The A-Team" used to say. Literally, I've been thinking -- and harassing Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl -- about the world's great intra-city derbies, contemplating writing something long and in-depth about them, about their histories, about the deep-seated hatreds that fuel their pre-game clashes, the grudging respect between the teams, the glory of the game that transcends all the ugliness.
Celtic-Rangers. Boca Juniors-River Plate. Sporting-Benfica. Liverpool-Everton. The Universidads in Santiago, Chile. Olympiakos-Panathinaikos. AC Milan-Inter Milan (which I'm going to attend in two weeks time -- YES!).
When you start to list them, though, you realize there aren't as many big ones -- meaning big clubs in big markets in big leagues -- as you'd think. Sure, there are plenty of little second-tier ones, though they're not "little" to the teams involved or their fans, but the really big ones have been overshadowed by the intercity derbies that have arisen from the globalization of the soccer. As the beautiful game has increasingly shown the ugly side of running a business, and television has made it possible for soccer fans, as opposed to Man U fans or Barcelona fans, to watch farflung teams on a regular basis, traditional intra-city rivalries have all but disappeared. Basically, one club in the city has come to dominate the other. For example, the big rival of perennial Italian champs Juventus is no longer Torino, which isn't even in the Serie A anymore; today, Juve's big rival is AC Milan. Other examples: Arsenal-Manchester United is fiercer than North London's old rumble, Arsenal-Tottenham. Real Madrid-Barcelona is more important than intra-city conflicts like Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid or Barcelona-Espanyol. Bayern Munich-Werder Bremen. Chivas-Club America.
Basically, the European leagues are gradually becoming more like the U.S. leagues -- one team, one city. (Here, of course, there are two notable exceptions, New York and Los Angeles.)
Now, MLS is going the other way. It's just established its first intra-city derby -- or, I should probably say, Chivas USA owner Jorge Vergara has established the league's first intra-city derby. Either way, it's going to be great, and I'm going to do everything in my financially challenged power to get out there for the Chivas USA-Galaxy tilts. (Hello, JetBlue!) It's going to be better than the Metros-United "I-95 Derby," and hopefully less one-sided. It's going to be more personal than the so-called "California Derby," regardless of how morally superior the granola NorCal-ers believe themselves to be. And I'm relatively positive, like 210 percent, that it's going to outshine the "Rocky Mountain Rumble," or whatever the Colorado-Salt Lake match will be nicknamed.
Because, as any urbanologist will tell you, a city is not just one city. (Warning: Once an urbanologist gets going, you're in for a long night.) A city is multiple cities layered on top of each other like a pile of jigsaw transparencies. It's different populations mashed together, struggling to carve out space, and solidify an identity
within the larger mosaic. And sports is one of the great identifiers. Just as any of the thousands of kids in L.A. walking around with Chivas jerseys and Club America jerseys about the meaning of self-identification.
And now, Club America be damned. Angelenos have a new choice to make, one that's closer to home. They're going have to identify with Chivas or the Galaxy, kind of like they do with the Lakers and Clippers. (Wait ... do the Clippers still exist? Were they the reason the NBA installed a relegation system and sent the Clips to the CBA?) I fully expect some of the more fanatical Club America supporters in L.A. to become Galaxy fans, just to spite their Chivas nemeses. See, choice breeds competition. That's simple antitrust economics. And mark my words, those four Chivas-Galaxy matches are going to be the most competitive games in MLS next season. Because, for the first time, the players will not only be playing for their team or their salary, but also for serious bragging rights. We're talking sidle up to bar after the game and tell it to their face bragging rights. Up close and personal bragging rights. Which, as any sibling not in a mafia family will tell you, makes for the sweetest kind of rivalry.
Oh, yeah, it's gonna be great.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at email@example.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.