International Football's 10 Most Politically-Charged Football Rivalries
Tensions are rarely as high, the blood rarely as hot, as when international rivals square off for a game of football.
More often than not the on-field result of geopolitics is a terrific, competitive match. But occasionally emotion takes over, and what transpires is raw hostility, with a ball being kicked around as a sort of sideshow.
That, or the contest is simply called off as the chanting escalates, the flares rain down and the players are caught in a situation that prevents them from putting on a show.
We were reminded of the latter scenario when Tuesday’s Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania was abandoned just prior to the interval.
With the incident in Belgrade fresh in mind, following are some of international football’s other most impassioned rivalries.
Head-to-head records courtesy 11v11.com.
10. Portugal vs. Spain
The fissure: Geopolitics. Although their recent relations are mostly peaceful, Portugal and Spain haven’t always been the best of friends. Spain, the larger of the two countries, invaded Portugal in the middle of the 18th century—albeit unsuccessfully. These days the Iberian Derby is predominantly about the football.
The results: Portugal have won only six of the 36 matches they’ve contested against Spain—their most recent victory coming in November 2010.
Helder Postiga scored twice in the 4-0 drubbing in Lisbon, and Carlos Martins and Hugo Almeida also found the back of the net.
At the semi-final stage of Euro 2012 Spain prevailed 4-2 on penalties following 120 minutes of scoreless football.
9. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
The fissure: Religion. Iran is the spiritual homeland of Shia Islam while Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni and home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
The results: Saudi Arabia have won six and lost five of their 11 matches against Iran.
Most of their encounters have been competitive affairs, with Saudi Arabia picking up the most recent victory in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
In 1996 Saudi Arabia prevailed 4-3 on penalties in the semi-final round of the AFC Asian Cup. Ahmad Jamil Madani scored the winning spot-kick.
8. England vs. Scotland
The fissure: Geopolitics. England and Scotland have an ancient history—sometimes violent and sometimes cordial. Last month Scottish voters rejected independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum.
The results: No international football rivalry is either as long or as storied as that between England and Scotland.
The two sides first met in 1872 (a 0-0 draw) and most recently contested a 2013 friendly that England won 3-2. Rickie Lambert scored the winner.
In 1928 Scotland’s famous “Wembley Wizards” triumphed 5-1 in London, and in 1977 Scottish supporters invaded the Wembley pitch and tore down the goalposts as their team prevailed 2-1.
7. Mexico vs. United States
The fissure: Geopolitics. Mexico are the region’s traditional football powerhouse, but the United States is the world’s biggest economic and military superpower—and one that only continues to improve on the pitch, much to the chagrin of their neighbours to the south.
The results: Mexico still hold a clear advantage in their head-to-head record with the United States, although the gap continues to close.
In August 2012 the Americans won their first ever match at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, and perhaps their most famous victory over El Tri came at the 2002 World Cup when they bounced their arch-rivals from the round of 16.
The Azteca faithful typically greet the American players with beer showers and bags of urine, as recalled by The New York Times, and in 2004 USA Today reported that sections of the Mexico City crowd had taunted their opponents with chants of “Osama, Osama,” in reference to Osama bin Laden.
6. Argentina vs. Brazil
The fissure: Geography and football. Argentina gave the world Maradona. Brazil birthed Pele. These days Argentina’s Lionel Messi is widely regarded as the best player in the world, although Brazil’s Neymar is quickly becoming an international superstar. This is a rivalry based on football, pure and simple—though the the close proximity of the nations plays a role as well.
The results: Statistically, Brazil hold a slim edge over their South American rivals, with 43 wins to Argentina’s 37 in head-to-head encounters.
The two sides met in the World Cup for the first time in 1974, with Jairzinho scoring the winner for Brazil in Germany.
In 1978 they contested the infamous “Battle of Rosario” (a violent, goalless draw), and in 1982 Zico, Serginho and Junior found the back of the net as Brazil won 3-1 in Spain.
In one of their more violent encounters, five players were ejected from a 1991 Copa America match in which Argentina prevailed 3-2. Gabriel Batistuta scored the winner.
5. Germany vs. Netherlands
The fissure: History. The Germany-Netherlands football rivalry grew out of Dutch resentment toward the German occupation of their country during World War II. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.
The results: The Netherlands were devastated to lose the 1974 World Cup final to tournament hosts West Germany, especially as their team—which included the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Johnny Rep—were favourites to win the title.
But in 1988 Ronald Koeman and Marco van Basten helped the Netherlands overturn a 1-0 deficit and beat West Germany in the semi-final round of Euro ’88 in Hamburg. They then triumphed over the Soviet Union in the final.
Two years later tensions boiled over when Netherlands midfielder Frank Rijkaard spat at Germany’s Rudi Voller during the 1990 World Cup.
4. Algeria vs. Egypt
The fissure: Football. Egypt supported Algeria’s bid for independence from France, and the two countries also cooperated during Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. On-field relations, however, have hardly been as cordial.
The results: In their 23 meetings, Algeria have prevailed on 10 occasions while Egypt have won seven times.
Their series of World Cup qualification matches in 2009 sparked a diplomatic crisis when, as The Telegraph reported at the time, players were attacked by supporters and both governments lobbied “for protection for their citizens,” as “violent clashes between Egyptian and Algerian communities” spread “as far afield as France.”
In the third and decisive match, Antar Yahia scored the decisive goal for Algeria on the neutral territory of Sudan.
3. Japan vs. South Korea
The fissure: History and geopolitics. Japan and South Korea have been regional rivals for more than a thousand years. Everything from cultural enmities to trade conflicts and colonisation is front of mind whenever their national teams meet on the football pitch.
The results: At the 2012 Olympics, as described by Jun Yoon in a Duke University paper, South Korea midfielder Park Jong-Woo held up a flag that read “Dokdo is our territory,” in reference to the disputed island also known as Liancourt Rocks.
Ahead of the event’s Bronze Medal match between the two sides, South Korea manager Myung-bo Hong is reported to have told his players to “Go destroy them.”
In 87 meetings with their regional rivals, Japan have so far won just 12 times, their most recent victory coming in July 2013 at the East Asian Cup.
2. El Salvador vs. Honduras
The fissure: The 100 Hour War. In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras fought a brief war set off by simmering economic and migratory disputes. Given the tensions, fighting erupted between supporters of the country’s national teams during a World Cup qualifying match in Tegucigalpa, and the day before the second leg of the tie, the El Salvadorian air force attacked Honduras. A ceasefire was quickly reached, but it wasn’t until 1980 that a peace treaty was agreed.
The results: El Salvador have typically struggled against Honduras, winning only 12 of their 59-head-to-head encounters and losing 32.
They did, however, beat their regional rivals in 1969—winning 3-2 after extra time in the neutral territory of Mexico City.
Three of the last four meetings between the two sides have ended in draws.
1. Croatia vs. Serbia
The fissure: Geopolitics. The myriad ethnic groups that once comprised Yugoslavia have since established sovereign states, although the breakup of the former union was sealed with no shortage of bloodshed on all sides. Croatia fought a War of Independence from 1991 to 1995, and because of the existing tensions with Serbia, the two sides rarely meet on the football pitch.
The results: The most famous footballing incident involving these countries happened at club level when, in 1990, Dinamo Zagreb hosted Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban kicked a police officer who was assaulting a home supporter.
Boban’s actions are widely thought to have further inspired separatist aspirations in Croatia.
Not surprisingly, riots and demonstrations took place when Croatia played Serbia in Belgrade for the first time, and recently the two met in 2014 World Cup qualification—with Croatia winning 2-0 at home and drawing 1-1 away.