Borussia Dortmund host Schalke on Tuesday in the 156th edition of the Ruhr derby. BVB won the away leg last fall 3-1, but they will have it all to do as they take on a red-hot Schalke side that have won seven out of nine Bundesliga matches since the winter break.
When the game begins, however, prior form will be of little currency. At its core, the Ruhr derby is purely emotional, the kind of match in which sheer desire and determination can overcome any barrier. In terms of atmosphere and passion, the Ruhr derby is Germany's biggest rivalry by some distance and ranks among the fiercest in the world.
To understand why the rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke is so intense, it's important to understand the history of the Ruhr. Beginning around 1850, the Ruhr changed from a primarily rural area to an booming industrial wasteland. By 1900, the population had increased some fiftyfold to support coal mines and steel mills.
Life, especially in the mines, was difficult. Workers turned to football as an escape from their otherwise unsavory conditions, and through football a diverse community of ethnic Germans and immigrants (primarily from Poland and Turkey) came together. Dozens upon dozens of football clubs sprung forth from workers' housing complexes. Even the mining companies got involved, sponsoring clubs like Rot-Weiss Essen, MSV Duisburg and, most famously, Schalke.
With so many clubs in such a small (under 4500 square km) and densely populated area, football became almost a religion for the locals. And although the mines are long gone now, the Ruhr remains the heart of German football culture.
The rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke began long before the Bundesliga's formation in 1963. For most of the first half of the 1900s, Schalke were the dominant force in the Ruhr. But their immediate neighbors Dortmund pipped the Knappen to the Westphalia Championship in 1947, kicking off a rivalry that has only grown in the years since. To this day, Schalke fans don't even say "Dortmund," they only refer to the city as a region of an adjacent municipality, for example: "Northern Ludenscheid." Similarly, Dortmund fans will refer to Schalke or Gelsenkirchen as "South Gladbeck."
What the Ruhr derby has more than any other rivalry in Germany is a sense of authenticity between Germany's two most passionate groups of fans. Although there is somewhat of a competitive history between the two cities, the Nordderby between Hamburg and Bremen, for example, came in part because HSV and fellow Hamburg side St. Pauli rarely ever faced off head-to-head and HSV fans wanted a rivalry.
Similarly, the "Klassiker" between Bayern and Dortmund is somewhat contrived. Historically, "Klassiker" has been used to describe a match between Bayern and any strong team that at a given time dared compete with them: Gladbach in the 1970s, Hamburg and later Bremen in the 1980s and Dortmund (in patches) in the years since. The matches are often highly entertaining, but there is no one "Klassiker" and the lack of history and de facto geographic isolation of Munich from any challengers makes it a "cooler" rivalry compared to that of Schalke and Dortmund.
The rivalry between Nurnberg and Bayern is less forced than some, but lacks the same flare of that between BVB and S04. The two Bavarian cities are separated by 169 km (4.5 times as far as the distance between the Veltins-Arena and the Signal-Iduna Park), so it's less of a "local" rivalry. Nurnberg identify more as Franconian (their stadium is called the Frankenstadion) than Bavarian.
The other factor that has cooled the Bavarian derby is the lack of competition between the participants. Nurnberg dominated the head-to-heads prior to the Bundesliga's formation; Bayern have overwhelmingly gotten the better of the encounters ever since. The rivalry is between the most successful German clubs past (with nine titles, FCN were German record champions until 1987) and present (Bayern have won the Bundesliga a record 22 times). Sadly, history will never see the great Nurnberg teams of the 1930s take on any of Bayern's more recent, brilliant incarnations.
There are other rivalries in Germany, those between the Berlin clubs, Bayern and 1860 Munich, Koln and Gladbach and many others. But no rivalry in German football has the combination of history, cultural and geographical naturalness and long-term competitiveness that Schalke and BVB share. Regardless of club affiliation, a visit to the Ruhr derby would be time and money well spent for any football fan. It's the greatest rivalry in Germany and one of the best in all of world football.