Liverpool vs. Manchester United, Milan vs. Inter, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona. Polling world football fans, the vast majority would agree that these are the biggest rivalries in England, Italy, and Spain, respectively.
But what of Germany?
Is it Bayern vs. Nuernberg? Bayern vs. Dortmund? Bayern vs. Schalke? Bremen vs. Hamburg? The answer is none of the above. Rather, the biggest rivalry in all of Germany is—and any native German, football fan or not, will emphatically agree—Dortmund vs Schalke. And depending on criteria assessed, the Revierderby, as it’s called, just might be the biggest derby in Europe.
At the very heart of every rivalry is not the clubs or their players, but the fans. Without supporters, there would be no atmosphere.
It’s well-documented that the Bundesliga attracts far more fans than any other league in Europe (31% more than the Premier League). But as impressive as the aggregate German attendance may be, it actually understates the level of fanaticism in the North Rhine-Westphalia, and especially the Ruhr area, home of Dortmund and Schalke.
Among all clubs in Europe, Dortmund, at 80,521, had the highest average attendance in 2011-12. Schalke stand sixth on the list, with 61,139. Both teams have averaged near-sellouts for well over a decade. In fact, even after nearly going bankrupt and becoming a mid-table team in the mid-2000s, Dortmund had the Bundesliga’s highest attendance for all but one season.
Through good and bad times, Dortmund's fans, who collectively own the club, are ever-present. Echte Liebe (true love) is BVB's motto, and the club and fans do everything they can for one another. If Schalke were to go through a similar rough spell, there is no doubt their supporters would follow suit.
As with any local rivalry, the Ruhr derby is about much more than football. Both clubs sprang forth form working class neighborhoods, and to this day retain the virtues upon which they were founded in the early 1900s.
Schalke are affectionately known as die Knappen (the miners), while Borussia is a reference to a local brewery that drew a clientele of many East Prussian immigrants who worked in local industry.
Schalke were the dominant force of the Ruhr area and greater North Rhine-Westphalia for many years, but a rivalry grew after the second World War when Dortmund emerged as worthy opposition for their neighbors.
The two sides were so beloved by their fans that once the clubs began to really compete, a bitter rivalry broke out among supporters. This spirit survived even after the mines closed in the 1980s, and remains to this day.
In the Ruhr area, football is a sacred part of the local culture. It's about pride, values, history, and in a sense, it's much like a religion. Not just Schalke and Dortmund, but 2. Bundesliga sides Bochum and Duisburg, and even Regionalliga West clubs Rot-Weiss Oberhausen and Rot-Weiss Essen draw sizable crowds on a weekly basis.
Whether domestically or in international games, Schalke and Dortmund are always accompanied by thousands of supporters. To fans, the expectation is not for players to put on a show for their viewing pleasure. Instead, their purpose is to spur on their team, to make any stadium feel like home. And judging from Dortmund's recent performance against Manchester City, this tactic is working.
When the two clubs meet, it puts not only two of the best teams in Germany against one another, but two of Europe's most passionate sects of fans in a head-to-head clash. And although violence is very rare, each encounter comes with plenty of hostility.
In April, Schalke fans put pigs' blood on the turnstiles at the visitors' entrance. In 2010, Dortmund winger Kevin Grosskreutz famously told Bild he'd disown his hypothetical son if the child were a Schalke supporter. The list goes on and on.
This Saturday, Bayern can expect to maintain their perfect record, while Manchester City will in all likelihood beat West Brom in front of a handful of generally quiet, collected visiting fans. At the very same time, a clash of unparalleled passion will take place in front of a capacity crowd at Dortmund's Signal-Iduna Park. Don't miss it.