A TALE OF TWO CITIES – Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC
Whenever teams from the cities of Sydney and Melbourne play each other in any sport there is always an added intensity. The two cities share a rivalrywhich can be traced back to colonial times and the foundation of Melbourne in 1835. The states to which the two cities belong, New South Wales and Victoria, also share a deep seated rivalry.
Sydney was the site for the original penal colony set up by the British in 1788 and there was little in the way of town planning when it came to the city’s early development. Melbourne however was established along strict gridguideline in 1835, perhaps as a reaction to Sydney’s disorganised sprawl. The grid system set up by the farmers who founded the city was more organised allowing business development and a reducing the opportunity for crime to establish a foothold in fledgling city.
For a long time the two cities vied witheach other in the race to be the most important urban environment in Australia. Sydney with its penal roots was overtaken by ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ later as it experienced the benefits of the 1850’s gold rush only to come crashing down to earth during the banking collapse of the 1890’s and Sydney overtook Melbourne as the largest city in terms of population. Melbourne regained prominence as it became the new base of the federal Commonwealth between 1901 & 1927 until Canberra became the permanent capital. Indeed the founding of Canberra as a city was to quell the petty jealousy between Sydney and Melbourne as towho was the more prominent city.
The two cities have continued to trade quips and insults with former Prime Minister Paul Keating stating that “if you’re not living in Sydney you’re camping out” with Melbourne intellectual Waleed Aly retorting that Sydney’s better climate held the key “to Sydney’s vacuity. Sun and beauty very rarely coexist with intelligence.’
The historic rivalry is self evident and when the Australian A-League was founded in 2004 both Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory were two of the eight original participants. The fixture itself is known as The Big Blue (blue being the Australian slang for fight) and was first played on the opening weekend of the inaugural season ending in a 1-1 draw, though the corresponding fixture was a resounding 5-0 defeat by Melbourne. As the league has evolved so has the fixture itself, Grant Muir from Sydney supporters group The Cove believes that it is “quite literally the biggest game of the regular season” and that even in a poor season beating Melbourne is “a shining beacon of joy”.
The Australian league format ensures that each team in the league play each other three times with the team finishing first being awarded the title of A-League Premiers. The top six ranked teams at the end of the season are then placed in the Finals Series, a knock out competition which leads to the Grand Final. The winner of the Grand Final is then presented with the A-League Champions trophy. Sydney and Melbourne currently share two Championship wins apiece though Melbourne led Sydney with two Premiership titles to one. Sydney alsohas one Oceania Club Championship trophy, a trophy that Melbourne hasnever won.
The fixture itself has been used by the Australian footballing authorities to market the league to a wider domestic and global audience, giving the clubs the opportunity to sign the best marquee players allowed under the A-League rules. Both teams competed for Harry Kewell in 2011 with Melbourne finally signing the former Liverpool and Leeds player. Not to be outdone however, a year later Sydney announced that they had signed the Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero, reportedly fending off Liverpool’s interest in the player. Though with the obvious Heysel connections between Liverpool and Del Piero’s former club Juventus, a deal was highly unlikely.
The rise to prominence however of Western Sydney FC could water down the Big Blue if Sydney FC believes that a focus on a rival who operates in the same geographical radius is more important to them than historic city rivalries. Football journalist Joe Gorman disagrees though, believing the Sydney Derby “pales in comparison” with the Big Blue. Sydney FC fans are based across the city including the area where Western Sydney play, having had more time in which to gain a loyal fan base. Gorman also feels that it is too early to see what divides the two sets of fans too. Muir also agrees going on to say that any manufacturing of a rivalry by either the clubs or Australian football authorities would be transparent “thesethings need to take their natural course. In the end, real rivalries are abouthistory between fans and clubs.”
Whilst the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney FC is fierce on the pitch, both teams are at pains to ensure that is where any friction remains. Following an incident in a Melbourne pub just a couple of hours before a Big Blue fixture, Melbourne Chief Executive Geoff Miles expressed his wish to “eradicate the absolute minority element who engage in antisocial behaviour”. Anotherpossible spark for any tension between fans dates back to the now defunct National Soccer League. In a bid to reduce costs and generate local interest many of the clubs were founded along ethnic lines; Heidelberg Alexanderversus South Melbourne Hellas was known as ‘the Greek derby’ and Footscray JUST versus Melbourne Croatia was steeped in Balkan politics. Once disbanded, many fans of these clubs became fans of the new A-League teams, a vast proportion of whom selected Victory and Sydney FC as their teams of choice.
Fans unwilling to move onwards away from centuries old European politics are not welcome however, particularly by their own fans. Muir, wanting a healthy competitive rivalry wishes though for any fan violence to be nipped in the bud and is quick to praise both Victory as a club and its fans for wanting to eradicate any violence “I know the Victory fans want a healthy environment, too. They want lots of travelling fans and they’re angry at the people who are putting that at risk.” He also believes that thoseperpetrating any violence are a “tiny, tiny, minority”. Adam Tennenini who runs the Victory’s own supporters group the Blue and White Brigade echoes the view of his Sydney counterpart and that the violence isn’t wanted, instead “We want to create a positive environment and support our team as well as we can”.
There is a real passion amongst fans and clubs for wanting to make the A-League a success and it if that is to happen then the Big Blue has a massive part to play. The league is a blank canvass and can draw upon the positive aspects of the European leagues whilst filtering out the decades old hatred between rival fans. Luke Alliband also of The Cove would like to see more cherry picking of European footballs more positive aspects”They see the culture of football violence in some European leagues and they rather foolishly try to bring that on here”.
The Big Blue is a unique rivalry given the set of circumstances that it finds itself in. A historic city rivalry which reaches back as far as the earliest European settlers, but one which is aware of its importance and responsibilities to the league in which it is set. If Australian football is to thrive and expand its nascent league to a successful overseas market then The Big Blue and all the excitement it offers is integral to its success. Neither fans nor the clubs themselves wish to see the fixture turn ugly, though they do understand that it means more than all other matches. The final word on the strength of this fixture then is left to the fans. Victory’s Tennenini believes that if one was to”ask any Victory fan and they’ll say straight away that Sydney is their biggest rival. It’s the marquee game in the league and they’ll always consider Sydney the team they most want to beat.” Muir, his Sydney counterpart echoes this ”Some of our fans would accept only getting nine points in a season, if those nine points came off Melbourne,”.
The fixture is intense, vastly important to all involved but above all it is respectful. Maybe others could learn the same?