The other Great Debate: how do you define a derby?

By Ridge Mahoney

The Great Debate about what to call the simmering rivalry between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC rages on and probably will for some time, as will a sidebar discussion: just what is a derby anyway?

Gotham Cup, Big Apple Cup, Hudson River Derby, New York Clasico, Don Garber Derby, and many more labels have been suggested. If the respective fan groups ever reach consensus and agree to call it something along the lines of Cascadia Cup or El Capitan, that will be an important milestone in the league’s history. Since they play three times this year and will probably do so for quite a while, there’s no rush.

But the derby discussion will never end since there are no fixed guidelines as to just what a derby is. “Local rivalry” doesn’t suffice if there’s no agreement on what “local” means, though proximity does and should count for something. The fact the teams play in different states -- which some would argue negates the derby designation -- doesn’t seem to merit a disqualification, since Red Bull Arena and Yankee Stadium are about only 13 miles apart as the crow flies and about 21 miles by road. (The actual driving time could be several hours depending on traffic.)

Setting aside teams that share stadiums, no derby can equal that of Dundee United and Dundee for proximity. From the center circle of Dens Park to the center circle of Tannadice Park one need travel only 927 feet; they lie on opposite sides of Tannadice Street in Dundee. But how far one can extend “boundaries” to define a derby depends on tradition as well as perspective.

Origins of the term “derby” are murky, though primitive forms of soccer played centuries ago that involved full-scale melees between teams of several hundred were staged in Ashbourne, a town in the East Midlands county of Derbyshire. The “game” would start on Shrove Tuesday and conclude the following day, Ash Wednesday. For nearly 200 years the term (pronounced “darby”) has been used to denote various sporting contests and originates from a horse race, the Epsom Derby, instituted by the 12th Earl of Derby in 1780.

Games between teams from the same city are always derbies, though intensity of the rivalry can vary greatly. Games between Tottenham and Arsenal -- the North London derby -- are usually far more intense than Chelsea-West Ham. On Thursday, bitter Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors dueled in the Libertadores Cup and even though there are many other First Division clubs within the city limits those meetings are always fierce. Sectarian as well as sporting traditions are in force and all police are on alert when Glasgow rivals Rangers and Celtic square off.

Yet can teams from different cities play derbies? It would seem so. Sunderland and Newcastle are just 12 miles apart, closer than Red Bull Arena and Yankee Stadium, so usage of the Tyne-Wear derby or Wear-Tyne derby or North East derby seems reasonable. (“Tyneside” and “Wearside” refer to areas near the River Tyne and River Wear.) Blackburn and Burnley are about the same distance apart and both are in East Lancashire, as opposed to West Lancashire rivals Blackpool and Preston North End. Different cities but same region. Derby?

Fans of Bayern Munich and 1860 Munich have a long history of derbies, though 1860’s inability to retain Bundesliga status cuts down on the times they play each other. Just down the road is the suburb of Unterhaching, home of sporting club Spielvereinigung Unterhaching, which managed two seasons in the Bundesliga before being relegated in 2001. Neither Munich club would regard SpVgg as a big rival but are their games derbies? 

The Roma-Lazio and AC Milan-Inter Milan derbies are steeped in history, yet would a fan of either Milan club regard a match against Torino, a two-hour drive away, as a derby? Many German clubs are bunched closely together in the Rhine-Ruhr region; Gelsenkirchen (home of Schalke 04) and Cologne are about an hour apart. Derby? Is there such a thing as a Texas derby when Houston and Dallas are 239 miles apart? The Quakes and Galaxy are rivals, not derby dates.

Chivas and Club America are famed for their meetings in "El Super Clasico” and since their cities are about five and half hours apart those games are not derbies. Yet Cascadia Cup rivals Portland and Vancouver are about the same distance apart and separated by Washington state as well as the Canadian border. Rivalry? Yes. Derby? Probably not. The same holds for Toronto and Montreal, great rivals in many ways but at least five hours apart by car. 

Nothing will diminish the rivalry between fans of Red Bull and D.C. United, and once Philadelphia plays a few more seasons those games will increase in animosity. So let the fans of NYCFC and Red Bull rage on about what a showdown should be called. Derby, Clasico, Cup, call it what you will. It’s a turf war with three points on the line and another step forward for MLS.

3 comments about "The other Great Debate: how do you define a derby?".
  1. Gus Keri, May 8, 2015 at 10:08 p.m.

    How about the Batman-Robin derby?

  2. Thomas Hosier, May 11, 2015 at 2:50 p.m.

    or the Gotham City Cup?

  3. Rick Estupinan, May 11, 2015 at 7:26 p.m.

    After watching the Red Bulls play NYC at the Red Bulls Arena,and witnessing the passion of the fans,I can predict a good rivalry in the future between these two teams. It very well can become a great DARBY.It would be forvery good for World Football,and I envision this with great expectation.

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