Mad For It

From Blackpool To Barcelona; Football’s Greatest Rivalries
by Andy Mitten
HarperSport, £15.99
Reviewed by Mark O'Brien
From WSC 264 February 2009 

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One of the oldest questions asked in football is: “Which is the biggest derby game?” Like trying to argue who is the biggest club or who has the best supporters, it’s actually something of a pointless exercise, but nevertheless these fierce local rivalries retain a unique fascination, and even if sides have been slugging it out forever – and at least four times a season for the Old Firm – the sense of anticipation before each encounter rarely dissipates.

In many ways, to understand derby games is to understand football itself, and Andy Mitten sets out to do just that, with a collection of entertaining and easily digestible articles put together over six years observing some of the game’s biggest, and smallest, derby encounters across the world.

This diversity lends the book its richness – most of us have at least a passing knowledge of the internecine footballing conflicts in Glasgow, Milan and north London, but what about the Cairo derby between Al Ahly and Zamalek? Or even B36 and HB’s struggle to be the pride of the Faroe Islands?

Each account gives a potted history of the two clubs or countries involved and an idea of the nature of the rivalry, be it rooted in religion as in Glasgow or perhaps economics and labour disputes, such as the one between Newcastle and Sunderland.

The term derby is used quite loosely – Barcelona versus Real Madrid is one of the world’s biggest games, but the two clubs are obviously anything but neighbours – and that’s explained in the introduction, as is the fact that no team is featured more than once. Therefore, some famous sides are notably absent. The book’s opening encounter, for instance, sees Liverpool host Manchester United in one of the English top flight’s most spiteful games, so there is no room for Manchester City or Everton. It’s a sound editorial decision, though, cutting out repetition and focusing on the meatier clashes rather than adhering slavishly to some strict definition of what a derby is.

The use of the word derby to describe an international really does stretch things, but nonetheless one of the most enlightening pieces is the one about the game described as the “Ultimate Showdown” – Iran versus Iraq. In an era when Iranians have been demonised and White House hawks seem hell bent on military conflict with Tehran, it’s fascinating to read about the young generation of Iranians who see matches as a rare opportunity to express themselves. Far from being a nation of warlike fanatics, the 110,000 crowd actually groan cynically when injured veterans of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war are wheeled on to the pitch before their World Cup qualifier against their neighbours. At the end of the day, like fans all over the world, they just want to watch the match.

It’s a scene that sums up the book, because while Mad For It is ostensibly about differences, in the end it is the similarities between the many different groups of supporters that prove to be the most striking.

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