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Jun 11, 2012

When friends become enemies

Winning major titles isn’t all about skill. Another useful ingredient is chemistry. A tight-knit, less-talented group working toward the same goal can overcome a more fancied side that has a multitude of exploding egos.

But how easy is it for players to get along at the international level when they’re bitter rivals in club football? Divisions result in the dressing room.

The most obvious case of interclub rivalry on a national team is Spain, since the core of its performers hail from Barcelona and Real Madrid. La Roja, however, aren’t alone. Here’s a closer look.

Spain: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid

Judging by Spain’s outings at the past two major tournaments, any ill feeling between Barca and Real players were put to the side when push really came to shove. But think for a second about what the story might have been if the European Championship had been held last summer, not this one.

The hatred between the clubs -- coming off four meetings between the middle of April and early May in the Champions League, Copa del Rey and La Liga -- reached an all-time high. Midfielder Xavi, only this week, reiterated that Real Madrid was a sore loser when Barcelona was getting its way. Barca players outnumber Real Madrid on the Spanish squad, seven to five.

“We have congratulated them when they won,” Xavi said. “That is sport at the end of the day. We have been very respectful with them. However, I have noted that it wasn’t the same in reverse.”

At a more micro level, with Carles Puyol’s injury, Gerard Pique is playing in the center of defense with Sergio Ramos. They aren’t drinking buddies.  

“They are young kids with their differences, but we have no problems,” Spain manager Vicente del Bosque said. “If Pique and Ramos do not get along, they’ll be dropped.”

Did Pique have a little look at Ramos, wondering where he was, on Italy’s goal in Sunday’s 1-all draw? You be the judge.

Germany: Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich

When Borussia Dortmund wasn’t contending for the Bundesliga crown, Bayern Munich and Dortmund players presumably wouldn’t have had much trouble co-existing on the national team. But the soccer landscape in Germany has shifted.

Bayern Munich no longer rules, having seen its despised enemy claim back-to-back titles. (Shinji Kagawa’s sale to Manchester United, along with murmurings of more exits, though, could swing the pendulum back in Bayern’s favor next season.) Dortmund also spanked Bayern in the German Cup final.  

As Dortmund showed no signs of relinquishing its grip on the Bundesliga, Bayern’s midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger came out with this potshot in January: “We know that Dortmund have a good team,” he told Kicker. “But I think Bayern will always have a better quality team. It is always ultimately up to us as to how the title will be decided.”

Did Dortmund’s Mats Hummels shed a tear when an inconsolable Schweinsteiger lay on the turf in the aftermath of the Champions League final?

Germany differs from Spain in one respect: While Real and Barcelona make up most of Spain’s starting 11, Hummels was the lone Dortmund player to begin when Germany beat Portugal 1-0 on Saturday.

He was the sole member of the back five (including keeper Manuel Neuer) not from Bayern, partnering Holger Badstuber in the center of defense, where communication is key.  

England: Liverpool, Manchester City vs. Manchester United

Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes is a firm believer that club rivalries adversely affect dressing rooms. “When I was with England, there was always a lot of United players and Liverpool players in the squad, and it was plainly obvious that some of our lads didn’t like some of their boys, and some of their lads didn’t like some of us,” Scholes said last year, before he came out of retirement. “We weren’t just footballers. We actually loved the clubs we played for, and the rivalry was always there. You can’t build a team or a spirit when that rivalry is always close to the surface. It was always too big to get over.”

Good for England, then, that the number of Liverpool players in the starting lineup has diminished. Further, several who made the final 23-man squad – Jordan Henderson, Martin Kelly and Stewart Downing – won’t irk United players in a way that, for instance, the more experienced Steven Gerrard would.

Henderson and Downing haven’t been at Liverpool long, and Kelly isn’t a regular at Anfield. (United players would be right to question, though, what the trio is doing on the national team in the first place.)    

A third team entered the mix after winning the EPL title in May: Manchester City. If two of the three are bound to gang up on the other, it’s City and Liverpool versus United. City midfielder James Milner, in response to Scholes, claims all has been well recently.

“Since I’ve been here, the players have been very together,” Milner said in October. “Everyone mixes.”

England, not as good as Spain and Germany, needs to be pulling in the right direction to cause an upset and reach the semifinals.  

 

 

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