9 International Sporting Rivalries

The Chicago-based writer Sydney J. Harris once explained the difference between patriotism and nationalism as being the difference between being proud of what your 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 short, 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 a 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.

India vs Pakistan at 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 has 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:

England vs Scotland at 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 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 a penalty to glory in less than 5 minutes

The United States vs Europe at 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.

England vs Australia at 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 the 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 has more than four times as many wins as the England side.

New Zealand vs Australia at 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 has had the better of the rivalry – a just reward for bearing the brunt of decades of ‘sheep shagger’ jokes from Aussie fans. But Australia has 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.

South Korea vs Japan at Football

When South Korea plays Japan, winning has historically meant everything. Take their qualifying clash for the 1954 World Cup: only one team would represent Asia, and it would be decided over two legs. However, the South Korean president Syngman Rhee would not allow “past invaders” Japan into the country to play the Korean home leg. Ultimately both legs were played in Japan, and, perhaps spurred on by Rhee’s warning to the team to “throw yourselves into the ocean” if they lost, South Korea duly carried it 7-3 on aggregate.

US vs USSR at The Olympics

Not surprisingly, this rivalry both transcended sport, and throughout the Cold War it lurked behind every occasion the two nations met. Countless Olympic events, in all competitions, contested between the two has been worthy of a grudge match billing.

In particular, the 1972 Munich games the clash for the basketball gold medal descended into farce, with the last few seconds being re-played and the Soviets scoring the points needed to overtake the (previously match-winning) American total. Worse yet, when the US team appealed, the review panel was dominated 3-2 by judges from Soviet countries. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful and perhaps understandably, they refused to take their silver medals. Things have cooled in recent years, due to both the obvious political changes and the general sporting dominance of the States over Russia.

Canada vs USSR and Russia at Ice Hockey

Stronger now than American animus with the USSR is the feud between the Russians and Canadians in ice hockey. The Summit series in 1972 stands as a high-watermark in their battles, taking an eight-game series to settle. Eventually won 4-3 by Canada, with one draw, the series – originally intended to good-naturedly pit the two best nations up against one another – was littered with controversy, banned players, refereeing meltdowns and the deliberate injury of Valeri Karlamov in match six.

This rivalry has staying power throughout the generations, too – a team brawl between the junior sides managed to get both nations disqualified from the 1987 World Junior Championships.

Germany vs The Netherlands at Football

Finally, while English fans might like to think the Germans are their greatest rival of all, this feeling is not shared in Germany: hardly surprising, given the one-sided nature of their matches (with one obvious exception). It’s with the Dutch that most Germans feel a pang of rivalry. The bad blood principally dates back to the Second World War, in this case, the German occupation of Dutch territories.

In common with England, the frequency with which Germany comes out on top has become a particular thorn in the Netherlands’ side, most famously when they lifted the 1974 World Cup with Holland as beaten finalists. They also helped knock the Dutch out of the group stages of Euro 2012, beating them 2-1 and setting them on their way to zero points in their group.

There are so many more to add to this, add to the discussion in the comments below and let us know some more that we missed 🙂