A tale of two city teams
Derbies are part of the essence of football, perhaps even more so in South America than in Europe. The logic is clear. Distances are vast in South America, forcing the game to develop locally. Brazil has only had a genuinely national championship since 1971, while the Peruvian league was restricted to Lima until 1967.
Vasco and Flamengo could only draw the latest derby between them
Also, the economic formation of many South American nations left them very centralised, dominated by the major port through which raw materials were shipped out and manufactured produce came in.
Argentina is dominated by Buenos Aires, Uruguay by Montevideo, Paraguay by Asuncion - and this is clearly reflected in football. Almost all the big teams come from these cities. In Chile, the title very rarely leaves Santiago, and so on.
Most of these cities were going through a growth spurt when football caught on in the continent and supporting a team quickly became an important part of urban identity.
In the Spanish-speaking half of South America, the biggest derby is the Boca Juniors - River Plate clash in Buenos Aires. In part, this is a reflection of the prestige of Argentine football on the continent. But it is also because other South American countries can relate to the fault line in the modestly entitled 'Superclasico'.
River against Boca is the haves against the have-nots.
The two clubs grew up side by side in the working class dockside areas of the city. After a while, though, River Plate moved out to the snooty suburbs. Boca stayed put. Both moved into their current stadiums and firmly established their identities when Argentine football was on the verge of entering its 1940s golden age - Boca amongst the sweat and the smells of run down, cramped streets, River surrounded by swish streets and with so much space that some of the stadium corridors seem wider than the United Nations building.
This game has a specifically Argentine, immigrant twist but the 'team of the elite versus team of the people' plotline is enacted all over the continent - in Universitario v Alianza Lima in Peru, or Olimpia v Cerro Porteno in Paraguay, or the ancient Nacional v Penarol clash in Uruguay.
There are also variations on the theme. I am reflecting on this because I have just come back from watching Rio's biggest derby, Flamengo against Vasco da Gama - 'the classic of the multitudes'.
The story here is slightly different. Vasco, the club of Rio's Portuguese community, rocked the foundations of the game in the city by winning the local championship in 1923 with a team that included black and poor players.
The established big clubs, including Flamengo, fought hard to restrict the game to the elite. But in the following decade, after the game had turned professional, Flamengo pulled off a masterstroke. They acquired the popular touch by signing the three leading, black players of the day.
Most important was Leonidas da Silva, top scorer of the 1938 World Cup and a controversial, charismatic figure who served as a prototype for the likes of Romario.
The signings gave Flamengo irresistible appeal. Rio was still Brazil's capital at the time and the club's matches were broadcast all across the giant country by radio. Even today Flamengo can fill stadiums thousands of miles away in the north-east of the nation - the consequence of some shrewd thinking almost 75 years ago.
Vasco, meanwhile, are a big club but their fanbase can hardly compare with Flamengo's - and so having their thunder stolen added spice to the derby. Eurico Miranda, until recently Vasco president, used to say that beating Flamengo gave him more pleasure than sex.
There were no orgasmic moments for him or anyone else in this latest game between the two sides. It finished 0-0. As I rode the underground home, I reflected that, when local derbies are concerned, so often the social history is more interesting than the game.
Watching football offers two great pleasures.
Firstly, it engages the mind. "Our centre-backs are playing too far apart, we need to get the ball to the wings quicker, the opposition are vulnerable in the space behind their left-back." It is the kind of mental analysis that the fan makes based on observation.
Secondly, it offers pure emotion. The fan can lose him/herself in the high of the occasion.
The big derbies can often possess too much of the second and not enough of the first. There is an excess of emotion - usually hate, often nerves. Hyped up by the crowd, players can run too much and think too little. As a result, the spectacle suffers.
For all its dramatic swirl, a derby can be technically deficient and mean spirited. Fans know this already. Even so, many of them will have checked the dates of their particular derby as soon as the fixtures were published. From Manchester to Montevideo, it is part of the essence of the game.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) With Brazil hosting the Summer Olympics two years after the World Cup, how much do you think they will put into winning gold in football? Their World Cup history well documented but I can't remember reading much about Brazil's Olympic footballing history...
A) They take it very seriously. It is the only title available to them that they have never won, so they would love to put that right. Never mind the 2016 Olympics, we have got the London Games coming up next. That is especially important. At senior level, Brazil have very few competitive games to prepare a side for the next World Cup - just next year's Copa America and the 2013 Confederations Cup. So the 2012 Olympics is an ideal halfway house for them. English crowds will be able to get a sneak preview of the side Brazil will be grooming for 2014.
Q) Now that Maradona has been relieved of his duties, who are the front runners to coach Argentina. Could Sergio Batista, coach of the winning Olympics side in 2008, be the best man for the job?
A) Batista, Argentina's Under-20 coach, will take charge of the seniors against Ireland next week and could be a candidate to stay on. But the front runner would seem to be Alejandro Sabella, once of Sheffield United and Leeds. After years as Daniel Passarella's assistant, Sabella stepped out on his own last year as coach of Estudiantes. He won last year's Copa Libertadores and was only a couple of minutes away from beating Barcelona and winning the World Club Cup.