The 7 Greatest Rivalries in Club Football: From Boca to the Bernabeu
World football is littered with clashes and rivalries that mean something above and beyond the mundane fixtures of the league calendar. Teams share animosity for a myriad of different reasons and to a number of varying degrees.
This article lists the seven greatest rivalries in club football; these are the fixtures that possess a meaning far beyond a simple game, the matches that are universally sought out on the day that the season’s schedule is released and the clashes that are important beyond the context of a league.
And no, before you ask, Wimbleon vs. MK Dons didn’t make it…
7. The Intercontinental Derby
Galatasaray and Fenerbahce are Turkey’s most successful teams, and when they meet in the Kitalar Arasi Derbi (the "intercontinental derby") it captures the imagination of fans on two continents.
The Istanbul sides each represent a different part of the city. Fenerbahce are from the Asian part of the metropolis, while Galatasaray are from the European part.
The two clubs were formed in the first decade of the last century. Gala first, by the legendary Ali Sami Yen, and then, two years later, Fener, on the opposite bank of the Bosporus.
Less than 30 years after their formation, the meeting between the two became tinged with violence as a battle between players and supporters altered the complexion of the previously amicable affair.
In many ways, the reunions between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce perfectly capture the uniqueness and the beauty of Istanbul; the colour, the passion and the almost unique situation of being one city straddling two continents.
6. The Eternal War
Italy’s "Derby Della Capitale," the eternal struggle between Roma and Lazio, is one of world football’s most enduring rivalries.
Such has been the success of Italy’s other sides in recent seasons, winning the Scudetto has been little more than a distant dream for these two. Instead, they have focused on their mutual disdain, and the long-term rivalry between these two capital clubs has bubbled ferociously.
The Rome Derby is about ownership, ownership of a city…what was it Commodus said? “Control the mob and you control Rome.”
Perhaps, however, Lazio’s victory over their neighbours in last year’s Italian Cup final might have been the impetus Roma needed to concentrate on a higher goal. This season, the Giallorossi have taken Serie A by storm and look finally, once again, to be serious contenders for the top prize.
5. A Canal Away
England’s most successful teams, both domestically and in Europe, really don’t like each other. In fact, frankly speaking, people from Manchester and people from Liverpool just don’t like each other.
The two cities share a long mutual history, but it hasn’t been without its difficulties. They are only 35 miles away from one another and shared a synergetic, if testing, relationship during the 19th century, when the industrial revolution encouraged greater economic unity and thus, a greater interaction.
Today, both clubs share a volatile sense of Northern pride and two bulging trophy cabinets. They also share an extensive common history. The clubs first met in 1894, making the North-West derby one of the oldest rivalries in existence.
They may not have been directly in competition for the Premier League over the last two decades (Liverpool have watched on impotently as Sir Alex Ferguson has knocked them off their perch), but when the two sides meet, context is put to one side.
4. Pyramids and Pepper Spray
Not the most globally recognised pair of clubs, perhaps, but as Alex Olliver wrote in Andy Mitten’s seminal work, Mad for It (p. 45), Cairo boasts “a footballing rivalry that can genuinely claim to dwarf Real v Barca and Boca v River Plate.”
He continues, “Al Ahly v Zamalek goes beyond fanatical. It is part football match, part political rally, part history lesson and generally a good excuse for the locals to hurl rocks at each other.”
Whenever the two Cairo giants—Egypt’s big two—meet, they don’t convene at either of their own stadiums, but rather at the 100,000-capacity national stadium in the Nasr City district of the capital. The bi-annual derbies are known as Likaa El Kemma, translated as "The Meeting of the Best."
Again, there are deep historical significances.
This is a rivalry that began from a socio-economic base; Ahly, meaning "National" representing the people, whereas Zamalek represented the more privileged portions of society. It became a political division in the 1940s, when supporting Ahly signified a Nationalist persuasion and supporting Zamalek a Royalist preference.
3. The Superclasico
The Observer once identified the Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate as the No. 1 sporting event to attend before you die.
The reasons? The support these two receive is phenomenal, and is matched by the passion and ferocity on display. They are the giants of Argentine football and regularly contest the nation’s chief footballing honours. Since 1913, when the sides first met, clashes between the two have been typically vibrant, vivid and colourful affairs.
The boundaries may have bled into one another slightly in this commercial age, but this is yet another key dichotomy forged upon fault lines within a community. Boca are seen as the club of the dockland area and typically represented the working class, while River, nicknamed Los Millonarios hail from the affluent Belgrano cartier in the north of Buenos Aires.
However, too often the action on the pitch has been marred by violence off it.
2. Gone but Not Forgotten
The Old Firm battle between Rangers and Celtic may not currently be getting an airing due to the former’s descent down the Scottish Leagues, however, even in memory, the rivalry remains almost unparalleled.
Scotland’s two most powerful sides tell the story of a city, Glasgow, divided on questions of ideology, culture and, perhaps most importantly, religion.
The contest has been sharpened by the fact that the sides are, by some distance, Scotland’s dominant teams; Rangers have won 54 Scottish Championships, compared to Celtic’s 44. This is rarely just a battle between old foes, but a fight for points and for valuable momentum in another title battle.
Unfortunately, the presence of the match report on the back page is all too often accompanied by news of the latest fan violence on the front page; the animosity between the two sides is so intense that visible skirmishes are commonplace.
Bleacher Report’s Sam Pilger once wrote that “The feeling of tension and mutual hatred…makes Liverpool v Manchester United look like a trip to Disneyland”.
Not one for the feint-hearted.
1. El Clasico
While the other entries on this list may be disputed by some of you, El Clasico is the incontestable No. 1 when it comes to club rivalries.
It is a battle between Spain’s two biggest sides, La Liga’s giants, and two clubs that could feasibly claim to be the world’s most famous teams.
There have been books written about the many intricacies and nuances of this historic rivalry, from Spanish political fault-lines, Franco’s Spain and Catalonia, all the way to the Di Stefano fiasco and Luis Figo’s infamous rendezvous with a pig’s head.
In recent seasons, the two sides’ domestic dominance and weaknesses elsewhere in La Liga have meant that the game has taken on more significance than ever before within the context of the season.
The presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has taken the iconic struggle between the two glamorous sides to another level of intensity, drawing upon itself intense analysis and wrangling over minute details.
It is a universal affair and rightly deserves top spot on my list.