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Packers-Bears rivalry full of tradition

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - When the Chicago Bears meet the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game on Sunday it will be a clash of two of the league's most famous old clubs divided by yet united in an intense rivalry going back 90 years.

Even though the teams, based only 200 miles apart, face each other every year in the NFC North and have met 181 times over the nine decades, they have never before played in a Conference Championship game and have only once met in post-season football - in 1941, seven days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sunday's prize, a place in the Super Bowl, is special enough on its own but it is the names on the trophies that explain the particular resonance this match-up carries for all followers of the game.

The winners on Sunday will claim the George Halas trophy and the right to compete in the Super Bowl, for the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Those two men were central not only to the history of the Bears and the Packers respectively but to the development of American football as the nation's most popular sport.

Halas's contribution ran all the way from the early rough and tumble game played by workers in the industrial North-East to the modern, highly marketed NFL.

The Chicago-native, who passed away in 1983, created the Bears, playing for them back in the 1920s, giving them their name and coaching them while owning them as they won six NFL championships between 1921 and 1963.

Every time the Bears take the field there is a reminder of Halas on their sleeve where the initials 'GSH' are placed.

If Halas was the ultimate owner, Lombardi remains the reference point for all coaches of the game - winning five NFL championships with the Packers including the first two Super Bowls.

It was the success of Lombardi's teams which turned Green Bay from a team from the smallest market in the NFL, a Lakeside town with a passionate local support, to one with a nationwide following.

His style, authoritarian but astute, respected but revolutionary, set the standard for all those who have sought success in the NFL and none have managed to topple his status as the greatest coach the league has seen.

NEIGHBOR DISLIKE

Newspapers and websites have been reliving the games of the past this week - republishing old black and white photos of players in leather helmets doing battle on muddy fields and each generation has its own memories of Bears-Packers games.

But for the fans, the rivalry is not about competing legacies, the reputations of historic figures in American sport, but something much more raw, something found in sport all over the world - a dislike of the neighbor.

The players have been careful with their words this week, the two quarterbacks talking about their respect for each other and leaving the 'trash talk' for the New York Jets.

But the fans are less inclined to be politically correct and some are even upset at the cordiality between the two sets of players.

"I miss the Packers-Bears rivalry that seethed hatred from both sides," wrote one blogger on Totalpackers.com who said the mutual appreciation between the Bears' quarterback Jay Culter and his Packers' counterpart Aaron Rodgers "makes me sick".

But a packed and cold Soldier Field on Sunday will no doubt make sure every player knows exactly what is at stake.

(Editing by Rex Gowar)

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