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Clasico top billing in the UK

John Brewin
October 26, 2013
All eyes will be on Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo © Getty Images
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The cachet of the Spanish Clasico has long been attractive to UK football supporters.

When Gary Lineker scored a trio of goals for Barcelona against Real Madrid in January 1987's renewal, it was clear back home that this was a heroic achievement by an Englishman in another country's biggest fixture. By that point, a number of Brits had played in Spain. Terry Venables' coaching tenure from 1984 to 1987 at the Camp Nou had increased interest, and by the time satellite TV made continental football more accessible in the 1990s, knowledge of the Spanish game had widened.

Foreign stars like Juergen Klinsmann and Eric Cantona had made their mark in England by then, but a glance at Spain's biggest match was a window on even greater exotica - Davor Suker versus Luiz Ronaldo, for example during the 1996-97 season. At times it seemed like two World XI sides were taking each other on, a thread that continues to the present day.

This Saturday evening, for example, the domestic television audience will be far more familiar with players running out in Catalonia than they will be with the Premier League's late game between Southampton and Fulham. The Clasico is the one foreign domestic fixture that a wide audience will set aside time for.

Football gets no more stellar than Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, two names who mean infinitely more to the average young British fan than Rickie Lambert or Bryan Ruiz might.

Our derby games, or those of traditional rivalry, seem much more parochial. England's version of a Clasico, with historic socio-political and economic issues at the roots of rivalry, is most obviously matches between Manchester United and Liverpool. The two cities have never got along since the building of the Manchester Ship Canal in the late 19th century, a development that snatched the cotton trade fully into Mancunian merchants' hands, and away from the protectionist clutches of the Liverpool docks.

They are 30 miles apart but Mancs and Scousers would tell you there is a world of difference. As Lancastrian broadcaster and journalist Stuart Maconie put it, Manchester is "Moscow to Liverpool's New York, Pyongyang to its Seoul, Minas Morgul to its Minas Tirith," though the footballing enmity really dates to the periods when one looked on as the other surpassed it as English football's greatest power. The fixture takes on greater significance for the team on the lower rung - the 70s and 80s for United, the 90s to the present day for Liverpool. Manchester City and Everton have a rivalry that is mere lukewarm water compared to Liverpool and United's fire and ice.

What stops it being as remotely sexy as the Clasico is that United versus Liverpool is usually an extremely dull fixture. It is hard to recall a classic between the pair from recent years. The best of the Premier League era was a 3-3 at Anfield way back in January 1994. David Moyes' defeat at Liverpool in September saw United produce no worse a performance than they have in the last few seasons.

The fixture rarely catches light in an entertainment sense. It resembles how Glasgow's Old Firm used to be - a match where combat replaces guile, and singular moments of skill or madness provide victory.

Everywhere one might look in English football supplies derbies. They are the matches fans search for in June when the fixture lists are released and can range from Swindon Town and Oxford United - the "A420 derby" - which is perhaps the fiercest in the lower divisions, to the brazen distaste that Crystal Palace swap with Brighton & Hove Albion, 45 miles of distance but still decades of hate that few recall the true origins of.

In times of toil and underachievement, clubs can have seasons defined by their performances against their derby rival. Lately, that has definitely been true of the Tyne-Wear derby, or Wear-Tyne - it depends on which club is playing at home - between Newcastle and Sunderland. Paolo Di Canio won himself considerable currency with Sunderland supporters when his team pulled off a 3-0 victory at St James' Park in April. Newcastle owner Mike Ashley was forced to delay his despotism when Chris Hughton masterminded a 5-1 victory over Sunderland in October 2010. London Irishman Hughton was anointed as a Geordie by joyous home fans that afternoon and Ashley's axe had to wait two months to be wielded.

Sunderland and Newcastle are now part of a conurbation, but see themselves very much as separate cities, having held grievances with each other since medieval times, and especially from the 17th Century's English Civil War.

The regrettable scenes of hooliganism that followed Di Canio's lone moment of triumph revealed just how much the rivalry can still boil over. Newcastle fans topped last season's police arrest league because of city-centre riots that included that notorious incident of a blind-drunk fan attacking a police horse. Thursday saw him - Barry Rogerson - jailed for 12 months.

North London's derby has recently regained its importance as a contest rather than a date in the calendar. After years of Tottenham trailing in the wake of Arsenal, they have begun to regain an even keel for the first time since the late 1980s. Not since the early 1970s have both been consistently in the country's top five teams. Indeed, both have probably had deeper rivalries with Chelsea in recent years: Arsenal in terms of scrapping for honours, Spurs for deep-seated feuding between two sets of fans.

The Manchester derby dominated the destiny of the Premier League in the previous two seasons. Matches between City and United always used to feature those in blue hoping to trip up the dominant giants in red, but that 2008 windfall took City back to an equality that was last shared in the late 1960s.

Next week, the Premier League gets its first taste of Cardiff versus Swansea, a South Wales tale of two cities who really, truly do not like each other. Their meetings in the lower divisions were notorious for incidences of off-field violence, and now a worldwide Sunday audience gets to tune in.

In a derby, tackles are more thunderous, supporters sing more lustily and each goal means far more than usual. A derby hero can remain a fans' folk hero for life. The same rules apply for the Clasico of course, and that is a major reason that large UK audience will look on.

The chance to see the world's best playing under the derby pressure that all fans recognise, look forward to and savour is simply not to be missed.

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John Brewin is a football writer at ESPNFC

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