What is the greatest football rivalry? Each year football fans across the country scour their fixture lists to circle the contests against their most bitter adversaries. If you are an English football fan reading this, you are likely to immediately think of your beloved team’s rivalry and why that is a candidate for this list. Of course, it is undeniable that the likes of the Manchester, Merseyside and North London Derbies, to name a few, are some of the most passionate. As a Sunderland fan myself, I could have easily dedicated half of this article to the 2-1 beating of Newcastle dished out two seasons ago before their relegation, with the other half a huge picture of Kieran Richardson’s winning free kick bursting the top corner of the net. But I wanted to see what existed abroad; and in what ways they differed from what we experience every year in England. In no particular order, I have provided what I feel are eight of the greatest rivalries the world has to offer.
Fenerbahçe vs. Galatasaray
With 17 league titles each, these two clubs are considered the most successful in the Turkish league. Situated in Istanbul between Europe and Asia, and separated only by the Bosphorous, the Kitalar-Arasi Derbi has been raging for over a century. Both clubs were founded within two years of each other in 1905 and 1907. Galatasaray, based in the European half of Istanbul, was created first by a group of students from the Galatasaray Lycee, one of the most prestigious institutions in Turkey, and are associated with aristocracy. In contrast, Fenerbahçe hails from the Asian side and is followed by a mostly working-class fan base who refer to their team as the ‘people’s club.’ In recent years, the football hooliganism has escalated with street rioting occurring across the country before and after games.
Roma vs. Lazio
The Derby della Capitale is rooted in history dating back to Mussolini’s reign when he ordered the four Roman teams to merge to challenge the northern clubs. Three of them obliged to form AS Roma, while Lazio managed to hold out thanks to the influence of Fascist general, Giorgio Vaccaro, and remain independent. The derby has been the scene of great controversy with a Lazio fan being killed in 1979 when a Roma supporter hurled a firework in his eye and a game being called off in 2004 when a riot broke out in the stands. Unfortunately, games have more recently played witness to increased racism, particularly from the Lazio Ultras, who have displayed offensive banners and hurled abuse at black Roma players.
Celtic vs. Rangers
With 95 league titles between them, the Old Firm Derby is played out between two of the most successful clubs in football history. However, this is not just a sporting rivalry. Both clubs find themselves as bases for disputes regarding both religion and Northern Ireland. Rangers fans are traditionally Protestant and Ulster Loyalists whilst Celtic generally calls on Catholic followers with roots in the Irish Republican movement. One of the worst on-pitch battles occurred in 1980 after Celtic won the Scottish Cup Final and caused an, at the time, unprecedented step of alcohol being banned in Scottish grounds. Title-deciding games have been avoided since May 1999 when missiles were thrown and struck the referee, causing the game to be paused. The government has reported that violent attacks increase nine-fold during an Old Firm weekend.
Palmeiras vs. Corinthians
The Paulista Derby is the fiercest rivalry of the greatest country to ever kick a ball – Brazil. Conceived after an English football team also known as the ‘Corinthians’ toured in 1910, Sport Club Corinthians Paulista was founded by a group of blue-collar workers impressed by the players. Similar to other football rivalries, a group of rebels split from the team in 1914 to create a sports club for the Italian community called Palestra Itália and are known to their rivals simply as ‘the betrayers.’ There have been books written and movies shot about this rivalry, including a version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where Palmeiras and Corinthians take the place of the Montagues and Capulets.
Olympiakos vs. Panathanaikos
This derby’s local nickname – ‘Derby of the eternal enemies’ – says it all really. Sharing a feature inherent with many of Europe’s fiercest contests, the two clubs can trace their rivalry back to religious, social and cultural differences. Panathanaikos were founded in 1908 in the centre of Athens and are considered a classic representative of high-class society. Olympiakos were created 17 years later in the Athenian port of Piraeus and attract fans from all over Greece expressing their contempt for the wealthier classes. Over recent years the games have been marred by outbreaks of violence including the stabbing of a Panathanaikos fan in 2007, which sparked a national outrage and caused all team sports games to be suspended for two weeks.
Red Star Belgrade vs. Partizan Belgrade
In a 2007 survey, it was revealed that 82% of Serbia supported one of the two clubs who engage ‘The Eternal Derby’ (Eastern Europe seems to have a taste for fatalism in their derby names). Incidents between the Delije (Heroes of Red Star) and the Grobaris (Undertakers) factions frequently occur before, during and after games and usually need riot police to intervene. A game in October 2000 was abandoned when fans of both teams invaded the pitch, clashed and attacked the players. Unfortunately, tragedy is a regular feature in matches. In October 1999, a 17 year old Red Star fan was killed by a signal flare fired from the Grobari section of the stadium. In 2006, a Partizan fan was stabbed to death in an arranged battle.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
El Clasico is the most watched club match in the world, second only to the Champions League Final. Besides dominating the league between them in recent years, these two clubs also share a deep political history. The dictator, General Franco, was a keen Real Madrid fan and was accused of pressuring Alfredo di Stefano into signing for them despite initially agreeing to join Barcelona. The rest is history, as two-time Ballon d’Or winner Di Stefano led Real to five European Cups and eight league titles. Barcelona is a symbol of Catalan identity and the fans vehemently opposed the Franco dictatorship (which banned any non-Castilian Spanish language). Recently, Luis Figo stunned the football world by moving from Barcelona to Real Madrid: his return to the Camp Nou saw fans hurl whiskey bottles and even a pig’s head onto the pitch.
Boca Juniors vs. River Plate
In 2004, The Observer put the Superclásico at the top of their list of ’50 sporting things to do before you die.’ Both clubs originate from La Boca, a working class dockland area in Buenos Aires in. But, in 1925, River moved to the wealthy area of Nunez and, with many upper-class fans, became known as Los Millonarios (The Millionaires). In contrast, Boca became known as the working class club with many fans hailing from the local Italian community. On 23 June 1968, 71 fans were crushed to death in an incident known as the Puerta 12 tragedy: the average age of the victims was 19. It has been long disputed exactly what happened, with each set of fans blaming the other group for causing the stampede.