President Obama threw his weight behind the U.S. World Cup bid this week with some lovely words about the world's game. "As a child, I played soccer on a dirt road in Jakarta," Obama wrote to FIFA, "and the game brought the children of my neighborhood together." Soccer, according to the president, is a game of "unity" and "camaraderie."
Well then, he must not have seen last weekend's cross-town derbies.
Two major intra-city rivalries in Istanbul and Rome, and one emerging hatred in Los Angeles, came to a boil. The result: 10 red cards, several brawls, two coaches' ejections and some sore foreheads. There was no camaraderie in these neighborhoods.
It seems instead that neighbors -- UNC and Duke, Israel and Palestine, Seinfeld and Newman -- make the worst enemies. According to the Turkish press, the game between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce featured, "hair pulling, throat grabbing, headbutting, pushing, grabbing, slapping and combination punching. In a nutshell, a free-for-all erupted." Two of the combatants, Semih Senturk and Arda Turan, are reportedly close friends off the pitch. Both were sent off. No amity is safe in derby-land.
When faced with a confrontation, soccer players, perhaps still worried about the legality of using their hands, often resort to the headbutt. So it was in the Istanbul match and the Rome derby. After two coaches had already been ejected and tempers were high, AS Roma defender Christian Panucci slid hard into a Lazio player. Stephan Lichtsteiner, who had just scored to put Lazio ahead 3-1, took exception. Then he and Panucci, instead of pushing and shoving, locked foreheads and fought like rams. Panucci was sent off. Soon after two more players were gone. Lazio won 4-2.
Over in Los Angeles, there were no headbutts, but there were some crunching tackles as the Galaxy took on Chivas USA. It was as if this next-generation rivalry were trying to imitate the classics, for better or worse. Three players were sent off. The score, as in Istanbul, was 0-0.
If you're looking for the next free-for-all, you might check out today's Champions League game between Manchester United and Porto. These are by no means classic rivals, or close neighbors, and we don't expect a brawl. But there is some history here. It was Porto, led by Jose Mourinho, who knocked out United in a heated Champions League match in 2004 (United's Roy Keane was sent off in the first leg), and it was Portugal, led by United's Cristiano Ronaldo, who beat England in the 2006 World Cup (United's Wayne Rooney was sent off).
Meanwhile, Man U has its work cut out. They tied 2-2 in England, so Porto has an advantage (Through the away goals rule, they only need to tie 0-0 or 1-1 to advance), and no English team has ever won in Porto's Dragao stadium. The stage is set for a thriller.
If that's not good enough, Buenos Aires' foes, Boca Juniors and River Plate, play on Sunday in the Superclasico. Bring your riot gear.