The Derby Effect

Like any real sports fan, I love to trash talk. Since arriving at college, however, I’ve had to get accustomed to some smack talking of a much more national, “macro” variety. Surrounded by people from all over the country, during baseball season I’ve got to be ready to hate on the Cardinals, the Brewers, the Marlins—to name a few—all within a given day. It can be fun at times, but it’s less personal—less rewarding—and I honestly miss the days back in Chicago when the majority of my insults could be directed solely at the White Sox and the Sox fans I had grown up with and came across every day. And even though the Crosstown Classic doesn’t hold a candle to Cubs-Cards baseball-wise, there’s something magical about the derby and all that goes with it.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a derby (pronounced “darby”) is a game played between two local teams and is a common occurance in European soccer. These rivalries go back years and years, often stemming from differences in socioeconomic status, political ideology, and religion of the fan bases. They may not always be the trendiest of fixtures, but the fact that it’s a derby adds a certain mystique and seems to heighten the will to win. The experts say form goes out the window for these games; that regardless of record or talent or whatever, it comes down to raw desire and physicality.

I began to ponder this idea on the eve of the P-P/CMS football game. The Hens had had a rough season and were facing a far superior squad of Stags in their final game. It didn’t look good on paper, but it was a derby. Perhaps P-P football could take a page out of their soccer-playing counterparts’ book and shut down higher-ranked CMS at home. As easy as that sounded, my inner statistician was quite skeptical, so I decided to do some digging. I hoped that good ol’ ESPN.com would be able to shed some light on a couple burning questions: whether this supposed derby phenomenon translated to other sports (specifically in America) and whether it has even been true in European soccer of late.

Let’s begin with question two. I decided to compare the total points taken (three for a win, one for a draw, zero for a tie) with the average position in the league standings over a five-year period (the past five full seasons) for five of Europe’s oldest and most heated derbies. These were Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur (North London Derby), Liverpool and Everton (Merseyside Derby), AC Milan and Inter Milan (Derby della Madonnina), Roma and Lazio (Derby della Capitale), and Celtic Glasgow and Glasgow Rangers (The Old Firm Derby). The results are in the table to the right.

The stats aren’t exactly surprising. Over the past five full seasons, the team taking more points from the derby had a higher average position in the league standing. Rangers versus Celtic is an exception, but even so, total points are very similar and the average rank is almost identical. I’ve never taken a statistics class and I’m no soccer analyst, but “the form goes out the window” claim seems a bit hyperbolic.

Luckily, sports and hyperbole go hand in hand, so we as fans should know when to take certain statements with a grain of salt (like the ever-popular “Anyone can beat anyone on any given day” saying in college football). A more accurate claim about these derby games would be that form (and the entire game, really) take a back seat to the ambience. Were Lazio at the bottom of the table and Roma the top, the Lazio faithful would still be proudly waving their fascist flags during the Derby della Capitale. Regardless of the score, Rangers fans would be yelling their anti-Catholic chants as they have every game since 1888. Needless to say, these rivalries go far beyond mere sport.

So why aren’t derbies as big of a deal in the states? One night in Florence, I remember drunkenly arguing that USC-UCLA is just as big in Los Angeles as Torino FC-Juventus is in Torino, only to have a young Italian fan disagree with me on account of the “historic nature” of his favorite rivalry. This is partly true, but it’s only one of the stars that need to align for a real American derby to take place. The most glaring problem is one of geography and how big the United States is compared to somewhere like England, which is about the size of Marston Quad. Even among big colleges, there are only a handful of truly local American rivals. The next is an issue of the nature of each sport. For sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey, who play division foes several times during the regular season and perhaps even full series in the playoffs, it’s hard to create the do-or-die atmosphere at every single game. The 16-game NFL football season would seem to lend itself to the ultimate derby, but local teams hardly ever play each other. The only two NFL teams based in the same city, the Jets and Giants, have played exactly one regular season game in the past five years.

Regardless of geography, scheduling, or whatever other factors, there’s something about the game of soccer that makes it perfect for a derby. There’s more fan involvement than in any other mainstream sport, and we hear the term “unlucky” and witness horrible calls and crazy deflections all the time, all of which can change the complexion of the game. Forces outside of the 22 players seem to be at work, and at times form really does appear to have gone out the window.

As excited as I was for the Claremont derby, everything I’ve proved or attempted to prove has gone against the Sagehens and against the validity of this game as a real derby. But perhaps the claims of this expert (ha ha) should be taken with a grain of salt as well, because last Saturday’s game had all the makings of a quintessential crosstown rivalry. Expected to just lay down and die, the Hens did their damnedest to survive, and lost a heart-breaker in OT. There was no historical origin, no political agenda, no flares thrown on the field. Just a hard-fought game and some good old-fashioned trash talk.

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