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Top 10 Rivalries in World Soccer
For many soccer fans, rivalries are what make the sport so special.
Sure, winning trophies is the aim of the game. But is there really any greater feeling than getting the better of your rivals?
I think it is fair to say that no other sport has rivalries quite like soccer. With decades – and sometimes centuries – of conflict between teams, the passion that engulfs certain fixtures is almost incomprehensible.
But what are the biggest rivalries in world soccer?
In this post, I give my take on the 10 fiercest soccer rivalries on the planet.
Boca Juniors vs. River Plate (Argentina)
The Superclasico is perhaps the fiercest rivalry in world soccer. This matchup sees Argentina’s most successful clubs – Boca Juniors and River Plate – face off for the Buenos Aires bragging rights, although this fixture is about much more than simply getting the better of your local rival.
It is no secret that Boca and River have hated each other for well over a century. But when the two sides clashed in the 2018 Copa Libertadores final, all hell broke loose.
The first leg of the final ended 2-2, but the second leg was postponed due to violence. Boca’s team bus was attacked on the way to the stadium, leaving several players requiring hospital treatment.
River eventually won 5-3 on aggregate, with the second leg being played 10,000km away in Madrid, Spain.
You know a rivalry is fierce when you have to move a game to the other side of the world to prevent crowd trouble!
Fenerbahce vs. Galatasaray (Turkey)
Fenerbahce and Galatasaray may belong to the same country and even the same city, but remarkably, they find themselves in different continents.
Based in the European half of the city, Galatasaray is historically viewed as a middle-class team. The club was founded by wealthy Turks, so the red and yellow side of Istanbul has been the envy of the city’s less fortunate communities for decades.
If you cross the Bosphorus Bridge, you arrive in Asia. This is Fenerbahce’s patch. The yellow and navy-blue half of the city represents the working class.
Ultimately, a deep-rooted class divide has created a brutal rivalry between the two sides, so clashes between the two sets of supporters are often violent. A Fenerbahce fan was even stabbed to death by Galatasaray supporters following a derby match in 2013.
But the most famous on-field incident in Intercontinental Derby history has to be Graeme Souness’ mindless flag moment. Back in 1996, when he was manager of Galatasaray, Souness planted a red and yellow flag in the middle of Fenerbahce’s pitch.
A brave move to say the least.
Celtic vs. Rangers (Scotland)
The Old Firm Derby goes much further than just soccer.
With Celtic renowned for being a Catholic club and Rangers possessing Protestant roots, contrasting religious and political beliefs often lead to meetings between Glasgow’s bitter rivals turning violent both on and off the pitch.
To say that Celtic and Rangers despise each other would be a massive understatement. Scotland’s most decorated clubs have never seen eye to eye, and it feels like their rivalry is only getting deeper.
The Hoops have held onto the bragging rights in recent years, winning each of the last nine Scottish Premiership trophies. But over the past couple of seasons, Rangers have re-established themselves as genuine title challengers.
With both teams battling for success once again, winning the Old Firm Derby is more important than ever right now.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid (Spain)
El Clasico is arguably Europe’s most famous derby. Sure, the Old Firm may have the history. But when it comes to the size of the clubs and the quality of the players involved, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid cannot be beaten.
Not only are Barcelona and Madrid Spain’s most successful soccer clubs, but they are also the country’s biggest cities. Madrid – the capital – represents Spanish nationalism, while Catalonia – the autonomous region in which Barcelona is located – has long fought for independence from Spain.
Needless to say, not many players have been brave enough to switch between the two clubs. But in 2000, Luis Figo swapped Barca for Real. To this day, Figo’s controversial move remains one of the strangest transfers of all time.
Bizarrely, a pig’s head was thrown at Figo when he returned to Camp Nou wearing the famous white jersey of Los Blancos.
Nothing says “I hate you” more than a flying pig’s head, right?
Nacional vs. Penarol (Uruguay)
The Uruguayan Clasico is one of South America’s oldest rivalries, dating back to the early 1900s. The conflict started following a disagreement over which club was founded first, and the two sides have failed to settle their differences ever since.
With a combined total of almost 100 Uruguayan Primera Division titles between them, Nacional and Penarol are among the most decorated teams in the game. Indeed, the longevity and history of the matchup make this rivalry one of the fiercest on the planet.
Back in 2000, a mass brawl between the teams resulted in numerous players and coaches from both sides being arrested by Montevideo police.
But the violence has also spilled onto the streets in recent years. A Penarol fan shot a Nacional supporter within a mile of the stadium when the teams clashed in 2009.
Oh, and just in case you need further convincing that this is one of the craziest rivalries in world soccer, Uruguay’s president once banned the police force from attending any games involving Nacional and Penarol due to attacks on police officers.
Al Ahly vs. Zamalek (Egypt)
The Cairo Derby is the only African rivalry that features in this post. But after finding out a bit more about it, I’m sure you will agree that it deserves a place on the list.
Both Al Ahly and Zamalek have been at the top of Egyptian soccer since its inception. Al Ahly claimed the first ever Egyptian Premier League trophy back in 1949, with both sides winning multiple titles over the past 70 years.
Al Ahly translates to “national”, with the club representing the rising nationalist movement in the early 1900s. On the other hand, Zamalek picked up the nickname Al Mukhatalat, meaning “mixed”.
Zamalek was the first Egyptian club to field European and African players in the same team, something that Al Ahly was firmly against. Since then, ideological differences have continuously divided the two sides.
The Cairo derby is hosted at the capital’s national stadium, where 100,000 screaming supporters create an unrivaled atmosphere. Pyrotechnics light up the stadium, with violent clashes often breaking out both in the stands and on the field of play.
With Egyptian referees refusing to officiate games between Al Ahly and Zamalek in recent years, foreign referees have become increasingly more common in the Cairo Derby.
Gremio vs. Internacional (Brazil)
Brazil’s most heated rivalry can be found in the country’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Gremio and Internacional both hail from the state capital, Porto Alegre, and it’s safe to say they absolutely hate each other.
Gremio was founded in 1903, while Inter formed a few years later. The first meeting between the teams ended 10-0 in Gremio’s favor, so it is hardly surprising that Inter has been desperate to get the better of their local foe ever since.
However, in recent times, the rivalry has moved onto a continental scale. Of course, local bragging rights remain a priority. But with both sides securing two Copa Libertadores titles in the last 25 years, Gremio and Inter both want to be viewed as a powerhouse of South American soccer.
“Grenal” has produced plenty of vicious moments over the years. In fact, the aggression between the two sides began over a century ago, with a Gremio supporter stabbing an Inter player back in 1918.
In a meeting between the teams earlier in the year, eight red cards were shown as players from both sides were sent off for fighting.
Liverpool vs. Manchester United (England)
With the country steeped in history, England is home to countless rivalries. From Portsmouth vs. Southampton in the south, to Newcastle vs. Sunderland in the north, the list is endless.
When it comes to English rivalries, the North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham is usually referred to as the fiercest local matchup. But in terms of winning silverware, no one comes close to Liverpool and Manchester United.
Yes, both clubs have more immediate local rivals. The Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton is always feisty, while Man Utd has Man City just around the corner.
But with Everton’s last league title coming all the way back in 1987 and Man City only challenging in the lade decade, Liverpool vs. Manchester United is arguably the standout fixture on the English soccer calendar.
With a combined total of 39 top-flight titles between them, Man Utd (20) and Liverpool (19) are England’s most successful clubs by some distance. Their success has seen them compete against each other at the highest level for decades, with the rivalry continuing to grow.
In England, crowd trouble is relatively low compared to other European countries. But on the pitch, the players don’t hide their emotions. Indeed, 16 red cards have been shown in games between Liverpool and Man Utd over the years.
Lazio vs. Roma (Italy)
The Derby della Madonnina between AC Milan and Inter Milan is widely regarded as the biggest game in Italy. And don’t get me wrong, I could have easily included the San Siro rivals in this post.
But I simply couldn’t leave out the Rome Derby.
The fact that the two teams from Italy’s capital share a stadium is bad enough. But with both clubs famous for their “Ultra” supporter groups, the mixture of soccer and politics doesn’t blend well.
The Irriducibili – Lazio’s Ultras – are notorious for their neo-fascist ideologies. Fabrizio “Diabolik” Piscitelli – the infamous leader of the Irriducibili – was shot dead in a Rome park last year, and the murderer is still at large.
The Curva Nord’s tribute choreography for Lazio leader Fabrizio ‘Diabolik’ Piscitelli pic.twitter.com/R5oWmFxmbE— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) August 26, 2019
Neither team has enjoyed much success on the pitch over the years, with only five Serie A titles going to the capital. Juventus, along with the two Milan clubs, have dominated Italian soccer recently, so it could be argued that Lazio and Roma care more about beating each other than winning trophies.
A jam-packed Stadio Olimpico on derby day is a sight to behold. 70,000 supporters cram into Rome’s modern-day colosseum as flares, fireworks, and smoke bombs fly around the stadium.
Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke (Germany)
While most Bayern Munich fans view Der Klassiker as the biggest match of the season, Borussia Dortmund supporters will tell you otherwise.
For Dortmund, the Rivierderby against local rivals Schalke is far more important.
Back in the day, Schalke dominated the Ruhr region. The Royal Blues secured seven Bundesliga triumphs between 1934 and 1958 but have failed to win the title since then. However, Dortmund has risen in recent years to become one of the strongest teams in European soccer.
This fixture has produced endless drama in years gone by. From Schalke defender Friedel Rausch getting bitten by a police dog as crowds stormed the pitch in 1969, to Jens Lehmann becoming the first goalkeeper to score from open play in the Bundesliga in 1997, games between Dortmund and Schalke are invariably thrillers.
Clashes between rival fans often occur, but I think the Rivierderby should be talked about for what has happened on the pitch in recent times.
In 2017, Schalke came from four goals down inside 25 minutes to rescue a remarkable 4-4 draw in stoppage time at Signal Iduna Park. This is what derby games should be about, right?
At the end of the day, there are countless rivalries that could have made it onto my list.
The Eternal derby between Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade is Serbia’s offering, while the Derby of Eternal Enemies between Greek sides Olympiakos and Panathinaikos is also fierce.
Ajax vs. Feyenoord (Netherlands), Flamengo vs. Fluminense (Brazil), and Atalanta vs. Brescia (Italy) are also worth a mention.
If you think any other soccer rivalries deserve to be included, feel free to share your suggestions in the comments section below.