Thursday, February 17, 2011
To fanatics, football takes the precedence of religion hence they are more than ready to lay down their lives for the game, and their beloved clubs. Sometimes these emotions boil over when teams with a fanatical following lock horns for whatever reasons.
Such games are usually a powder keg with a mistake or a moment of magic having the potential creating history, sparking fierce fights, riots or even death. There are of course many such matches across the world but a few stands several stadias above the rest.
In Kenya, the most highly football charged fixture is that between Gor Mahia and the AFC Leopards. In the years gone by a meeting between these two always sparked a stone throwing contest between fans and running battles with police. This might not be the case today but the rivalry is still intense with emotions and passions. The last encounter between the two perennial rivals last season turned tragic after eight fans were trampled to death in a gate stampede.
Other derbies known for their intensity across Africa are those between Al Ahly and Zamalek in Egypt, Club Africaine and Esperance in Tunisia, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in South Africa and Hearts of Oaks verses Asante Kotoko in Ghana.
Major European and South American clubs usually have millions of fans not only in their respective countries but also across the world. Hence during some of the European derbies life sometimes comes to a standstill, with some people placing huge bets on who will emerge the winner.
One of the most famous football battles across the globe is that between the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. The contest between these two sides is seen as a clash of cultures between the regions of Catalonia and Castile. Dubbed el classico this titanic showdown more often than not determines the destiny of the Spanish league title.
Over the years the rivalry have been intensified by defections and counter-defections by star players from both sides of the football divide. The first dispute over a player’s signature manifested in 1953 when the two clubs sought the services of Alfredo di Stefano. The midfield maestro, better known as the Blonde Bullet, finally opted to play at Santiago Barnebeu where he was instrumental in the club’s success in subsequent years.
However bad blood between the two perennial rivals hit an all time high in the year 2000 when Louis Figo unexpectedly crossed over to Madrid under the coaxing of the legendary club official Florentino Perez. The unrelenting Perez had hinted during campaigns for the club’s presidency that he would bring Figo over but many had doubted, only to be proved wrong when the mercurial Portuguese midfielder signed a $37.5 million that was to keep him in Madrid for five years.
Things turned ballistic when Figo came back to Nou Camp for the el classico. While preparing to take a corner in the section of the field populated by Barca ultras the player was overwhelmed by missiles, among them a butchered pig head that later became a symbol of sympathy for animal rights activists across Europe and beyond. The match had to be stopped for 12 minutes as riot police tried to bring things back to order.
But even after a huge media storm in which Nou Camp officials accused Figo of being provocative, the “Barca’s Great Judas” was unapologetic.
“I don’t know if Gaspart (club president) is taking the piss,” Figo said in response to coach Louis van Gaal’s comments adding that he was “plain surprised-after all, he never said anything when he was my manager for two years.”
While Real Madrid remains the most successful in Europe between the two Barcelona set a world record in the 2009 by winning all the six competitions they participated in. According to survey by Sport+Markt in 2009 Barcelona has about 44.2 million supporters throughout Europe, 2.9 million more than Real Madrid.
The last meeting in Nou Camp in November last year ended with a Messi-inspired Barcelona putting five past Iker Cassillas which put the Catalans a point ahead of their rivals. But with charismatic Jose “Special One” Maurihno in charge and Real seeking to break a two-year trophy drought, the next encounter in Barnabeu promises to have all the hallmarks of a clash of titans.
Across the border in Italy Derby della Madonnina between Inter and Milan and Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter are also ranked as some of the most explosive matches across Europe. In England the North West Derby between Manchester United and Liverpool is considered one of the most nail biting by both local and international fans. Although the two are the most successful clubs in England having won 115 combined, Liverpool have failed to win the Premier League since it’s founding in 1992. Other equally exciting English derbies popular among Kenyan fans are the London derby between Chelsea and Arsenal, the Manchester derby between United and City and of course Arsenal versus Manchester United.
The Rangers-Celtic derby in Scotland is the most politically and animosity filled derbies in the United Kingdom. Dubbed the Old Firm derby this game between the two Scottish giants is more than just a football match for it pits religion, politics and opposing attitudes between supporters of the two teams. While Celtic is considered a Catholic club with Republican and Nationalist supporters, Rangers pass as a Protestant outfit with Unionist and Loyalist backing.
The game between the two rivals usually have a bearing on the conflict in Northern Ireland from where thousands travel every year for the explosive game in Ibrox Stadium or Celtic Park. In 1980, 9,000 fans fought a bloody on-pitch battle after Celtic won 1-0 in the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden, making it the worst inversion into a football pitch ever reported.
However, all these European rivalries are dramatically dilute in comparison to the events that graces the Buenos Aeries derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate. Whether the game is in the La Bombonera or the El Monumental (Boca and River home grounds respectively) the atmosphere for this famous match is always electric with intensive chanting, fireworks, flags and rolls of paper painting the sky a familiar red and blue of the two teams. Among the famous Boca Bosteros that went on to conquer the world includes Diego Maradona, Hugo Ibarra, Walter Samuel and Juan Roman Riquleme.
The Superclassico is now so popular that it’s included among the various tourist attractions in Argentina with visitors buying holiday packages that include a ticket to watch the famous game. This, perhaps, prompted the English paper The Observer to put it at their list of “50 sporting things you must do before you die”, adding that “Derby day in Buenos Airies make the Old Firm game look like a primary school kick-about”.
In the neighbouring soccer mad Brazil, the most emotionally encounter is between Corinthians and Palmeiras in the old city of Sao Paolo. Dubbed Derby Paulista this rivalry is so huge that its outcome more often than not decides the outcome of the regional, state, the national championships and sometimes the continental Copa Libertadores. Several books have been written and many movies shot about this rivalry, the most famous being a version of Romeo and Juliet where Palmeiras and Corinthians take the place Montagues and Capulets respectively.
River Ruzizi in Burundi is hardly recognizable on the African map, but it’s among the most famous spot for adventure seekers not because of its scenery or people but one crocodilian resident famously known as Gustave.
What makes this Gustave beast standout among his peers residing in this crocodile infested river is his gargantuan nature. He is said to be 20 feet long and weighs almost a ton. According to villagers living along the shores of this muddy waterway that cuts across the Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo border, the fabled reptilian monster is said to have devoured more than 300 people in the last two decades.
Many experts argue that it’s impossible for one crocodile to cause such a damage but Patrice Faye, a French naturalist who has been tracing this animal for the last ten years, the degree of exaggeration in these reports is very minimal.
“Gustave is real,” said Faye. I’ve seen him. I’ve seen three different people in his jaws.” A local fisherman, Jumaine Mbankunguka, confirms Faye’s claims by narrating how he had seen the animal crossing the river one morning, moving quickly and seeming to stretch on forever.
Coming to the shores during the mating seasons when he leaves his abode in the reeds to seek females the crocodile’s huge size means that it can’t catch swift animals which reduces its feeding options to fish, bathers and fishermen. But according to John Thorbjarnarson, a crocodile expert from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, it’s common for people to exaggerate the size of a big crocodile. “A really big Nile crocodile, which is probably what Gustave is, would be about 17 feet,” he says. “But this would appear larger especially with the excitement of fear or terror.”
Explaining the beast’s famous penchant for human flesh Mr. Thorbjarnarson gives the locals a benefit of doubt since Gustave is a Nile croc, one of the 23 species of crocodiles and alligators known to be man-eaters. However the herpetologist believes the animal might be blamed for deaths he had nothing to do with. “It’s very easy to blame a crocodile for people who drowns or go missing,” he says.
The legend of Gustave is held with a godlike awe in this region hence it’s hard to pick the truth from the myths. For instance there are claims that Gustave kills grownup hippos for food, a very unlikely scenario since the two fierce species always have a mutual respect for each other.
Although Mr. Faye has dedicated a lot of his time in the last 12 years to tracking and trapping Gustave, the task has proved as daunting as the beast itself. From using a goat in a giant metal cage placed in the river to nooses and other contraptions, the Frenchman has exhausted all the tricks in his bag to no avail.
In one of the occasions the self declared eccentric was so sure of catching the beast that he invited a television crew from National Geographic to witness the great capture, but it turned out to be a hoax.
Perplexed by Faye’s persistence in the hunt, Burundian authorities have built a large enclosed pool at the edge of the river in Rusizi National Park in case the Frenchman’s endevours bears fruit. The Park management and Mr. Faye are optimistic that Gustave will one day be housed here, which will hopefully bring in a flood of tourists from all over the world.
After 2003 the giant croc went underground until 2007 when he resurfaced again. During his apparent sabbatical there was a sigh of relief in many fishing villages along the shores of Rusizi with everyone hoping the menace was over. Rumours were rife that he had been shot and eaten by rebels in the DR Congo or had died of old age.
But all this turned out to be false hopes as the reptile resurfaced in 2007 doing what he does best: killing. This time round the victim was a fisherman tending to his nets. “He was standing waist-deep in the lake when the croc dragged him away and drowned him,” Faye recalls. “There were a lot of witnesses. They raised such a commotion that the crocodile let him go. His widow showed me pictures of the corpse. He had a nasty bite in the stomach and one in the leg.”
The leviathan has managed to elude skillful crocodile hunters from around the world for the last two decades, the only scythe from these encounters being a bullet scar on its head by which his surviving victims identify him.
After a highly exaggerated story of the Gustave legend was posted on Adventurer, a popular US-based travel magazine, the amphibious superstar inspired a fiction film entitled Primeval. Set in Burundi and filmed in South Africa with a larger than life computer generated crocodile the movie evoked strong criticism from many quarters., among them Gustave’s greatest admirers Faye
“It shows the country in bad light, and the people of Burundi are made out to be savages, barbarians, thieves, and murderers,” says Frenchman. “The only good Burundian in the movie ends up being rescued and taken to the United States.” The visibly unhappy environmentalist went end to explain how Hollywood directors and image creators portrays Gustave galloping across the screen like “a champion of cross-country races who devours campsites and cars, climbs trees, and swallows boats.”