The Narcissism of Differences
What makes a rivalry, and can a team exist without a rival to define themselves against?
Every one of you reading this probably has a favourite football team. Most of you probably support a team that plays somewhere near where you grew up. A significant proportion of you might support a team because a parent or friend told you that you should, and a smaller proportion still will follow a side you would otherwise have no geographical or emotional connection to. However you chose your favourite team, you probably have one.
I’d also be willing to bet that all of you have at least one football club that you hate. Maybe it’s because their star player is a diver, or because they once broke your hearts in a season-defining, must-win game. Though probably it’s because you have to. Being a fan of one club means being expected to hate at least one other. But isn’t it just a little bit arbitrary? Who told you that you have to hate United or City? Arsenal and not Spurs? Then again, who told you that you have to hate anyone at all? Why does supporting one football club even have to mean hating another? In other words, why do we as football fans choose our rivals? And more to the point – how?
Our motivations for choosing rivals are an interesting psychological phenomenon, one which the work of the Austrian psychoanalysts in the early 20th century can help to explain. The contemporaries Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud might go a long way to explaining why rivalry is meaningful, why it is that we’re so viscerally connected not just to seeing our local team do well, but also to cheering on just about anyone who crosses paths with rival clubs.
But first, a caveat. Psychoanalysis is not an exact science and, in many cases, is not a science at all. Many of Freud’s theories, including the much-misunderstood Oedipus complex, have been discredited by modern psychology. Many of his grandest psychological pronouncements were methodologically problematic, derived from anecdotal evidence contorted to fit a pre-conceived narrative. It was when psychoanalysis abandoned its claim to scientific enquiry that it provided its most genuine insights. And there is no better insight into the psychological bent to rivalry than the discussion of the uncanny among Austrian psychoanalysts.
“Now and then it is appropriate for a psychoanalyst to take a certain interest in the area of aesthetics,” says Freud in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’. What interests Freud in this essay is why certain narratives in human literatures produce a specific effect, not quite fright, but an ineffable sense of disturbance. Why are we so repulsed by certain horror stories? Why are we so unsettled by stories of a person meeting their exact double? The answer to those questions will also help us to understand why we make rivals of some clubs but not others.
The German term for ‘the uncanny’, ‘das Unheimliche’, combines various etymological strands. ‘Heimlich’ is the German word for ‘secret’ or ‘clandestine’. For something to be uncanny, or ‘unheimlich’, it has to be revelatory of something that ought to have remained hidden. In addition, and this is why it applies to football rivalries, ‘heimlich’ comes from the German word ‘Heim’, meaning ‘home’. So, Freud argues, something is uncanny when it violates the safety of home as a space. A rival produces an uncanny effect in us for two reasons. They are a double which reveals uncomfortable truths about ourselves and they threaten our sense of connection to our home.
Home is important in football. The feeling of going to a stadium to cheer on your team of choice is almost always of a pilgrimage to some Edenic space of safety, comfortably surrounded by thousands unified by their common emotional connection to the place. But the boundaries between home and away are diffuse. Anfield and Goodison Park are separated only by a public park; Dens Park and Tannadice Park in Dundee are practically next door to each other; in Italy major rivals in Rome and Milan are both tenants of the same home.
Roma and Lazio, Liverpool and Everton, Dundee and Dundee United are similar yet different, opposite yet equal. This is a specific reason as to why rivalry forms. A deep sense of resentment and rejection develops because the rival threatens the other’s claim to their home space. Look no further than the way television outlets flog their football packages in the build-up to local derbies, when what’s at stake is almost always local bragging rights. Beating one’s local rival is to overcome another version of oneself, a team similar to us but just not quite similar enough.
When a team threatens our sense of safety at home, a sense of hatred brews. That hatred is channelled into trying to wrest our home back from our rival, to undermine the other team’s claim to represent the community they’re in – as seen in the flurry of social media posts cawing that ‘Manchester is Blue’ after City defeated their rivals United in the Premier League last season. Or their billboard welcoming Carlos Tévez to Manchester after he left United to chase City’s new money in 2009.
Seven years earlier, down the East Lancs Road, the Scotsman David Moyes walked into Goodison Park declaring that Everton were “the People’s Club” on Merseyside, with that self-given moniker still adorning an outer wall of the old stadium. Everton, staring possible relegation in the face while Liverpool chased trophies at home and abroad, needed a rallying cry. And they found one in the claim that for all Liverpool’s might, Everton represented the people of the city in a way the Reds could not.
They were trying to reveal something about the city of Liverpool that would threaten the football club bearing the name. There are more of us than there are of you. The city will always be ours. The nickname ‘the People’s Club’ was an overt threat to their rival’s sense of comfort as the dominant force in the city.
This is also an example of how clubs’ identities are bound up together. We are us, and we are also not them. Being you also means not being someone else. Club identity is strengthened by taking rivals. Setting yourself in opposition to a rival gives a club a better sense of who they are. And for a rivalry to work, there has to be some shared feature. So on some level, a rival is always a kind of double of your own team.
There is something truly uncanny about doubling. In modern technological circles, the concept of the uncanny valley refers to any technology that mimics human beings just that little bit too closely for comfort. The more humanoid an artificial intelligence appears, the more we are drawn to them, until a critical point when they imitate humans too well and we immediately reject them. This effect would have been interesting to Freud, who investigated the uncanny nature of doubling. He argues that humans are drawn to narratives based on a person meeting their exact likeness because it plays on some narcissistic element in the human psyche. But in a typical Freudian twist, “When this stage [narcissism] has been left behind, the double takes on a different aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, he becomes the ghostly harbinger of death.” In other words, the idea of a double initially reassures us that our essence exists outside of ourselves, until that reassurance is broken by the feeling that we are wholly replaceable.
Doubles are always rivals, and rivals are always doubles. Common to practically all human literature that treats doubles and doppelgängers is the theme of enmity. In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Double, Golyadkin is chased out of St Petersburg and drowns. He’s made obsolete by the physical double of himself. The double became automatically his enemy. Poe’s William Wilson is thwarted in his every life’s endeavour by a double of himself bearing the same name. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and José Saramago’s The Double both tell the story of men with an uncanny resemblance to another, and both are rivals for the love of the same woman. These narratives are common to practically every human culture. We’re drawn to them because they tell us something about ourselves. Our identity must be our own. When our identity is shared, it is threatened and it becomes the object of a battle with an ‘other’ in order to wrest it from their grasp.
That duality is common to footballing rivalries. Our rivals strengthen us just as much as they threaten us. Look at how often clubs affirm their own identity not by telling you who they are, but who they are not. Fans on the Gwladys Street can be heard at every home game claiming not to care what the red side say. Back in the days before Manchester City were an oil-enriched, reputation-laundering vanity project, fans on the Stretford End delighted in singing that this was how it felt to be City when United were winning comfortably. And then there’s Millwall, whose fans revel in their club’s unpopularity by shouting “Fuck ‘em all, United, West Ham, Liverpool”. It writes into the fabric of each club a sense that they exist not just to be themselves, but also not to be someone else. Which raises the question: how can a club have a positive sense of identity when it is so heavily based on negative cohesion against others, when the existence of a rival is a challenge to the very identity of one’s own club?
Otto Rank wrote in his 1914 study of doppelgängers that the idea of the double is essentially narcissistic, and that it is designed to reaffirm our sense of self. It provides us with an external view of our own identity. Clubs need rivals because it satisfies that narcissistic need for an identity of our own.
Knowing who your rivals are is enough to tell you who you are. On BBC Radio in 2012, the presenter DJ Spoony interviewed the then-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in the Scot’s Alderley Edge mansion. About to wrap up, Spoony spilled the beans that he was a follower of Liverpool, the club that Ferguson had vowed to knock off their perch early into his United career. After laughing that he felt sorry for his interlocutor, he suddenly took a solemn tone. “Listen,” he said, “these two clubs need each other.”
What was Ferguson saying? That if there were no Liverpool, Manchester United would be less than the Manchester United they were. If there were no Manchester United, Liverpool would be less Liverpool. They rely on each other for their identity.
This is why mimicry, another uncanny act of doubling, is such a powerful device in football. Rivalry is a threat to one’s refuge, and expressions of rivalry are always an attempt to make another’s refuge feel less safe, less theirs. There’s a banner at Old Trafford commemorating a title and European Cup-winning season 11 years ago, deliberately aping the logo of the City of Liverpool’s successful European Capital of Culture bid. It reads ‘Manchester – European Capital of Trophies 2008’. Their celebrations for winning the league and European Cup would not have been complete without borrowing the markers of another city’s identity. Fans of Chelsea and Manchester City enjoy singing in quite colourful language about how Steven Gerrard once slipped onto his posterior. The tune and lyrics are lifted directly from a favourite Kop ditty of years gone by. Liverpool fans could now never fully reclaim the chant.
Rivals threaten us, but they also reassure us. The stronger your rival, the stronger the sense of identity that comes from cohering against them. Perhaps this is why clubs such as Bayern Munich have offered financial assistance to some of their fiercest enemies. In 2004, Borussia Dortmund were on the brink of bankruptcy, nothing like the image of financial stability and creative recruitment they are today. Bayern offered them an interest-free €2 million loan with a generous timetable for repayment. For as much as it was a gesture of real sportsmanship, it was in Bayern’s interest for Dortmund to remain competitive. It was important to have a strong rival. Direct competition incentivises progress and shores against stagnation. Bayern’s financial assistance to Dortmund can’t easily be divorced from their desire to be better than them.
Teams without a direct local rival are determined to find one. Fiorentina’s greatest distaste is reserved for Juventus. Ipswich Town v Norwich City is another such rivalry, one not truly local, but based in a desire to be the best East Anglia has to offer, to demonstrate Suffolk’s superiority over Norfolk or vice versa. It’s based in a desire to be recognised on a national level as the best on a regional level.
To Freud, home is an artifice. Cohering with others into a home community is contrary to basic human drives. In order for home to be a space of refuge, all of us must sacrifice aspects of ourselves and our desires, otherwise the group will fail to cohere. The frustrations caused by the group’s imposition on our individual liberties are expressed outwardly. In arguably his greatest work, Civilisation and its Discontents (1929), Freud discusses our inhumanity towards other humans. In it, he explains that humans are predisposed to rivalry. Your neighbour is the target of the aggression built up from having to cohere into a specific group, and we exist in societies that expend a great deal of energy keeping our aggression towards neighbours in check. While opposition is a healthy relationship between neighbours, this opposition often gives way to enmity. In football, the more local rivals are to each other, the more likely they are to refer to each other as enemies.
Rivalries tend to be local for a specific reason. Neighbouring communities are the ones most predisposed to aggression towards one another, as Freud explains in Civilisation and its Discontents: “I once discussed the phenomenon that is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other – like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scottish, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of ‘the narcissism of small differences’, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.”
An expression of our safety in a group is to threaten the security of other, nearby groups. Admittedly, some of the foundation of Freud’s argument can no longer be credited: he argues that narcissism is a by-product of the Oedipus complex, or the human drive to overcome those who would deny us access to our base desires. But all the same, this notion of the narcissism of small differences chimes directly with how local rivalries form. Local rivals are the ones with whom we have most in common. We often live in the same cities, attend the same schools, drink in the same pubs and speak with the same accents. The smaller the difference between rivals, the greater the hatred. There are few identifying markers that could distinguish a Spurs fan from an Arsenal fan, a United from a City fan, a Liverpool from an Everton fan. It’d be a little easier to guess a Liverpool from a Spurs fan or an Everton from an Arsenal fan. The teams who are least different are the ones who hate each other the most.
Of course, there are caveats. Rivalries are always subject to change, and new ones are springing up all the time. The arrival of nouveau-riche clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City has changed the way clubs make rivals. Since around 2005, Chelsea and Liverpool have been locked in a rivalry almost as fierce as any local rivalry. The two became rivals not because they are similar, but because they are so different. Chelsea, bankrolled by an oil billionaire from Russia, presented an obvious breach of the worldview that gave Liverpool relevance. Manchester City now do the same.
Admittedly, these rivals are not quite as internecine as any local rivalries. City still hate United more than they hate Liverpool. But what these shifting relationships show is that rivalry is not always geographical or spatial. Rivalries occur when one club’s specific set of values is challenged by another. Chelsea challenged Liverpool’s sense of identity by rising to success without a long-standing tradition of winning trophies.
And so Liverpool fans expressed exactly that as part of their burgeoning enmity with a team they’d had few dealings with. “Fuck off, Chelsea FC. You ain’t got no history,” the Kop would sing, and still do. There’s an argument for authenticity as opposed to the rival’s artificiality. Chelsea’s success was one in the eye for the romantic attitude that footballing success cannot simply be bought. To bring this back to the language of the uncanny, Chelsea reminded Liverpool of themselves: Liverpool fans rejected Chelsea because they revealed something that ought never have been brought to light: that the two clubs actually were more similar than anyone would care to admit. There was a time when Liverpool were England’s biggest spenders. Their greatest player of the last century was a record-breaking £440,000 acquisition from Celtic. For all of the notion that there was something specific about Liverpool, their success was also heavily bankrolled. The difference between Liverpool and Chelsea became all the smaller. And so, a rivalry broke out.
When Freud discusses what causes us to reject entities that give us uncanny sensations, he argues that it is because the uncanny “leads back to something once known to us, once very familiar.” When the artifice of our identity is challenged, it leads to an unsettling, uncanny effect. Chelsea don’t want to recognise themselves in Liverpool, nor vice versa. But they must.
Rivalries are often a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Liverpool and Chelsea crossed paths in an inordinate number of important matches in the mid-to-late 2000s. Their rivalry also developed out of a sense of closeness, with both teams standing at a crossroads that only one could traverse. The fact that the two clubs so often had the fate of the other in their hands caused them to identify with each other in a way that they could not tolerate.
Of course the clubs need to be different enough. Chelsea could claim to be the very model of a modern major football club, in contrast to a club whose identity was never so much about the here and now as it was about the there and then. In a similar way, a series of tense games in the 60s and 70s between two clubs not especially local to each other has given rise to one of English football’s strangest rivalries – the almost-local-but-not-quite conflict of the M23 derby between Brighton and Crystal Palace. Some of Europe’s hottest rivalries are not based on geography at all. The sworn conflicts between clubs in Milan and Turin, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, Madrid and Barcelona fall much more along class, demographical and political lines.
Those rivals take us out of our home space and bring us into a place where we have to face ourselves, see ourselves for who we are. It is the narcissism of small differences that makes our closest neighbours our fiercest enemies. A derby is only a derby when a team is within an arbitrary geographical proximity to us. But common to all rivalries, whether local or not, is that they spring up because they threaten the myths we tell ourselves about ourselves and the football clubs that represent us.