A city divided, big name arrivals and the new kids on the block looking to rein supreme. It could have been the much-hyped Manchester derby, but it’s Australia’s own version of the battle of the noisy neighbours, Melbourne Heart versus Melbourne Victory.
The country’s fledgling league always tried its best to encourage derbies between it’s widespread teams, but the size of Australia and the location of the competition’s teams means that these derbies were not so much based on an uncomfortable close proximity to each other but instead fiery results. As a consequence, these derbies lacked the local panache that defines the world’s very best rivalries.
That was the case until last year when the Melbourne Heart entered the A-League and dramatically changed the landscape of football in Australia’s sporting capital. Entering a crowded marketplace where thirteen teams jostle for the title of being the premier team in Melbourne, they were aimed at bridging the gap between disillusioned supporters of the “old soccer” in Australia who felt alienated by the country’s new premier division, which left them behind in search of the “new football”.
Those who had been there in the days of the NSL were disenchanted by the competition’s new look and feel, but the Melbourne Heart made it their goal to bring these fans to the A-League table. Building on the success of the Melbourne Victory, who are the most successful team in the competition’s short history and as an effect have the largest crowd attendance, the Heart entered the competition under the tutelage of Jon Van’t Schip, looking to make their mark on the division.
While they didn’t canter to a title or come by success too easily, they did bring to the competition what it had been crying out for – a true local derby. They provided the second half of the much-sought platform to maximise the A-League’s growth, when they faced the Victory at AAMI Park in October 2010. Drawing an impressive crowd of 25,897 (within the context of A-League attendances), a hard fought battle was won by the Heart 2-1.
Since then four games have taken place between the Heart and the Victory, the latest instalment just last night, with two red cards, twenty-seven yellows and eleven goals in between. While the latest clash produced no goals, it did provide the largest crowd of any derby, due to the new meaning that the game had taken on after the return of the Galactiroos.
The Galactiroos are, more specifically, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. The one in question was the Victory’s Harry Kewell, whose return back home has seen a surge in press coverage of the A-League, something the league was crying out for after seeing crowds on the wane. Kewell’s reputation as one of Australia’s finest footballing products has contributed to the excitement behind season seven of the A-League, and added a new dimension to a simmering derby.
This derby was preceded by an exciting clash back in January this year, where there was a pulsating 2-2 draw on show that became forgotten in the aftermath of a shocking tackle by Kevin Muscat. Controversies like this, which ended with an eight match ban for the defender, a ban which ended his career, have added fuel to the fire in this young derby.
While the most recent episode of the derby was a dire 0-0, taking place the night before the battle in Manchester, did not serve up the goals like Mancini’s men did, nor did it be hailed as a turning point by anyone of note, a strong crowd numbering 40,000 gave a strong reminder of the power rivalries have over football fans.
Derbies have the power to define a league, as Celtic and Rangers do when one ponders the Scottish league. To a smaller extent, the same has occurred in Spain where Barcelona and Real Madrid have stamped their superiority over those around them.
Derbies have the power to define a club. One can barely mention Milan without the other one coming to mind, and likewise the success of Argentinean giants Boca Juniors and River Plate can only be measured in relation to the other.
The Football Federation Australia, in that sense, holds a great power in their hands. Very rarely do we have the chance, given the small scale of the game in Australia in relation to other codes, to develop something that becomes a part of our national identity and the identity of the Australian game as a whole. Nurturing the Melbourne Derby, while not manufacturing it, is key to the success of the A-League. Rivalries do not develop out of people being told what to do – it is something deeper that stirs inside when an innocuous game goes from just that to something so much more.
The power of the derby need not be underestimated. Given the potential growth of the game in Australia’s fledgling league, one day Melbourne Heart vs Melbourne Victory could stand shoulder to shoulder with Manchester.