The Spot

What Makes a Great Soccer Rivalry?

Hungary’s defender Adam Lang, second to the right, argues with Austria’s forward Marko Arnautovic, left, during their Euro 2016 match in Bordeaux, France, on Tuesday.

Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

On June 14, the Austrian and Hungarian national teams met for the 138th time, making it the second-most-contested rivalry in soccer. For me, and possibly only me and a few other history teachers, Austria vs. Hungary was a matchup of great historical import, not because of any understanding on my part of any of these 137 previous games, but because, come on, there used to be an Austria-Hungary, or, if you prefer, an Austro-Hungarian Empire. There had to be some bad blood between the two nations that used to be one big empire and might still be if it weren’t for nationalism and World War I. I’m a history teacher by trade, so what could possibly be better than this?

There have been better games, particularly in the tournament that’s going on in our backyard in the United States, and almost certainly one of the prior 137 meetings between these two teams was more entertaining than Hungary’s 2–0 win over the supposedly superior and definitely better-pedigreed Austrians. Still, it was a decent match, with passages of snappy play, marred by the sending off of Austrian defender Aleksandar Dragovic and the petulance of Marko Arnautovic, a dime-store version of football’s biggest personality, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (sorry, Ronaldo). It was not, however, an epic clash of geopolitical rivals with national pride and a place in history at stake. Given this year’s 24-team Euro format, even the outcome didn’t matter all that much; Austria can still make it out of the group stage if they manage to win one of their next two games, which it looks like they might.

I know why I thought it would be an epic clash. Because soccer, mainly because of its global reach but also because it has existed as a professional and a national sport for so damn long, is easy to hang history on. Sure, sometimes this makes sense, but in all honesty how many games are really the soccer equivalent of the Miracle on Ice? Probably more than I can think of, but less then there should be, given the potential for history to play itself out on the soccer pitch. Start with the number of wars, hot and cold, between different footballing nations, add in nationalist rivalries and then colonies versus former colonizers, and practically every matchup has some historical resonance. Even if you limit yourself to the era after association football was formalized, the potential for historical revenge via soccer is enormous.

The history of soccer is so much larger than that of any other sport that it is tempting to try to shoe-horn national team games into nationalist historical narratives. This can enable a casual fan to develop the kind of artificial context that can make a boring game exciting. Don’t know anything about Paraguay and Uruguay? Why not pull for plucky Paraguay, the country that was decimated in the War of the Triple Alliance? And what could be more of a grudge match this year than one between Russia and Ukraine?

It was with this admittedly stupid idea in mind that I set out to watch Thursday’s match between Germany and Poland at a sports bar in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. I had watched Poland take on Russia in this bar during the 2012 Euros, the tournament co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine. I have never suffered through a more anxious two hours of soccer viewing. The bar was packed with hard men who drank beer with a purpose, though clearly that purpose was not to make the game more enjoyable. The only noise was made by the two or three women there shouting encouragement to the Poles. The game ended in a 1–1 draw to the relief of everyone involved. Given that memorable experience, I was nervously looking forward to the match with Germany.

The bar was barely recognizable as compared with the sullen scene of four years ago, apart from the wall décor of empty beer cans and the dress code of white-and-red Polish scarves. The crowd was boisterous and, dare I say, cheerful, despite the fact that the game itself was pretty dire, with only one or two shots on goal for either team. At the end of the match, the first 0–0 draw of the tournament, the Polish crowd went wild cheering “Polska! Polska!” What was the difference? Why did the Poland-Russia game seem to mean so much more to this crowd?

Here’s my theory: What makes a great national football rivalry isn’t historical bad blood, it’s the quality of the football. In 2012, Poland and Russia were pretty evenly matched, despite their FIFA rankings, which, as we know, are meaningless. Poland was the host, the game was in Warsaw, and losing to Russia would have been, well, embarrassing. Today, Poland is a much better team, but Germany is the World Cup holder and a traditional soccer powerhouse. In their previous meetings, Poland had beaten the Germans once, and that was in the qualifiers for this tournament. Where a 1–1 draw with Russia was met with grim resignation, on this day there were cheers and applause after 0–0. A point taken from Germany is a cause for celebration.

If my theory is right, and soccer history is more important to a soccer match than national history, then the fact that there’s no strong Austria-Hungary rivalry makes some sense. Both countries have fielded historically great teams, but their eras of national greatness came 20 years apart. Austria had one of the first world-beating sides, dubbed Das Wunderteam, in the 1930s. For an amazing run between 1931 and 1934 this team lost just three out of 31 matches and scored 101 goals. They were led by “The Paper Man” Matthias Sindelar, who soccer historian David Goldblatt described as “if not the first … certainly the leading playmaker in European football.”* This amazing team was undone by political unrest in Austria and a typically Italian defense in the 1934 World Cup, but not before they made their mark on the international stage by beating Scotland by the score of 5–0 in Vienna in May 1931.

The Hungarians had their own wonder-team, the celebrated Golden Squad of the 1950s. This team revolutionized the game innovating a four-man defense and a passing game that ran circles around other European teams. Unlike Das Wunderteam, you can actually see footage of the Mighty Magyars, including perhaps their most famous game, a 6–3 dismantling of England at Wembley from November 1953.

This Hungarian side, which went undefeated for four years and won Olympic gold, saw its run end against West Germany in the Wankdorf stadium at the 1954 World Cup.

Interestingly, these great Austrian and Hungarian teams both made a name for themselves by beating British teams at a time when Britain was still revered as the birthplace of the game and beating a British team meant something. Oh, how far away those days seem.

So a history of national enmity or competition does not translate into football history as much as those of us who know more about history than soccer might want it to. There’s still plenty of history that surrounds the sport, and many writers who will try to make it about more than 22 grown men and women playing a game and impute meaning where it may or may not reside. But if trying to squeeze the 90 minutes of football into a historical context that is usually either too small or much too big for it gets me to tune in to a match between Spain and England to see the Iberians get revenge for the Armada, I’ll take it.

*Correction, June 17, 2016: This post originally misspelled Matthias Sindelar’s first name.

Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016 and Copa America.