The Chicago-based writer Sydney J. Harris once explained the difference between patriotism and nationalism as being the difference between being proud of what you country has done, and being proud of your country no matter what it does. As a mindset (and, indeed, as a world view), the latter description sounds a difficult person to be stuck chatting to at a party. In sport, though, all rules of polite society go out of the window, and virtually every fan of an international event – team or individual – can become a jingoistic nationalist while spectating.
And, aside from those silly flags people insist on attaching to their wing mirrors during football World Cups, why not? Many sporting events bring to the fore rivalries which diplomacy otherwise keeps under wraps, and (usually) harmlessly enough. Many of the great rivalries between sporting nations are indicative of historical, cultural or political differences, and while geographical proximity is usually the root of rivalries between domestic teams (English football is the home of local derbies, what with Arsenal and Spurs playing in nearby parts of north London, and Liverpool and Everton’s grounds virtually opposite one another), when global politics is added into the mix, international meetings can come down to more than simple petty one-upmanship: it becomes matter of national pride. Or embarrassment.
Strong rivalries add to the excitement of sports and, as a fan, there can be nothing more satisfying than gaining success over your most hated betes noires. Presented here nine of the fiercest and deepest-rooted international sporting rivalries.
1. India vs Pakistan – cricket
To understand the intensity of India and Pakistan’s battles in cricket, consider this: around a billion Indians and Pakistanis typically watch their sides meet. This is nine times the global audience for an average Superbowl. It is perhaps the most heated combination of politics, religion and sport between two sides anywhere in the world – and to locals, it is perhaps more important than all three put together.
A sporting rivalry between two countries who constantly have nuclear weapons pointing at eat other is always going to have a certain dramatic frisson; relations between the two states – frosty, and peppered with disputes primarily over Kashmir, ever since Partition in 1947 – have escalated over time. Players operate under intense pressure and defeat is not excused lightly; in 1999, Indian fans invaded the pitch when their team were on the brink of defeat. Pakistan’s victory was eventually finished in front of an empty stadium. India have had the better of it in recent years, though, as this brilliantly mocking TV advert for the Cricket World Cup rubs saltily into the wound:
2. England vs Scotland – football
There’s nothing English fans love more than to hold a grudge, whether it’s against a team with a neighbouring postcode to their club of choice or another nation. While Germany (more on whom later) and Argentina deserve honourable mentions, their friends in the north, Scotland have a deep-seated anomie. Their 1872 match was the first ever international football match, and there would be a yearly meeting between England and Scotland until 1989, every year requiring high-security measures and risking hysteria on both sides boiling over into violence.
Matches between the two rivals have been fairly even – 47 victories to 41, respectively – so it’s not for nothing that many Scots still call the English the “Auld Enemy” – and as last year’s independence referendum campaign demonstrated, it is about much more than football. England and Scotland meeting after being grouped together for 2018 World Cup qualifiers will certainly be one to watch, for neutrals and patriots alike.
Here’s a good illustration of this rivalry from 1996, from penalty to glory in less than 5 minutes
3. United States vs Europe – golf
The United States had little trouble disposing of a combined Great Britain and Ireland golf team in the Ryder Cup, until in 1979 the opposition was expanded to draw golfers from all of Europe. This contest of two global superpowers has been the source of decades of quality play from both sides, not to mention sportsmanship, showboating, tension, dreadful shirts, silly hats and embarrassing putting celebrations. The European side won for the third successive competition in 2014, meaning the States are currently 10-7 down in the series.
4. England vs Australia – cricket
In 1882, Australia beat England on British soil for the first time (of many); it was jokingly said at the time that English cricket was dead, and “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. A tiny urn, supposedly filled with the ashes of a wooden cricket ball which Ivo Bligh pledged to “recapture” in the team’s 1883 visit to Australia, remains the prize to this day.
While the Aussies have enjoyed dominance in the contest for most of the past thirty years, the Poms have scored the odd upset, most notably against the 2005 side led by Ricky Ponting, who made it his personal mission to win vengeance, achieved in style with a 5-0 whitewash. As is so often the case, it may not be the great rivalry the British tabloid press would like it to be: Australia have more than four times as many wins as the England side.
Beat them this year though didn’t we 😉
5. New Zealand vs Australia – rugby union
The All Blacks and the Wallabies’ confrontations in rugby union are about as intense as the sport gets. Their annual clashes for the Blendisloe Cup (established in 1931) are never less than enticing, not least the possible best-ever rugby match in 2000, where a world-record crowd witnessed Jonah Lomu scoring the try that gave New Zealand a last-minute victory.
New Zealand have had the better of the rivalry – a just reward for bearing the brunt of decades of ‘sheep shagger’ jokes from Aussie fans. But Australia have twice denied New Zealand a place in the Rugby World Cup finals, in 1991 and 2003; they finally won their first world cup trophy in more than twenty years on home soil in 2011. Don’t be surprised if a match between the two sides is a highlight of the 2015 tournament, to be held in England this September and October.