As I was writing about the best places around the world to see soccer games, I realized that more often than not, it’s not so much the place that makes the game great but the teams on the field. And often, even more than the players, it’s the crowd that can make the experience truly memorable.
This list of some of the biggest soccer rivalries in the world was, then, the only logical progression.
To be quite honest, a few of these rivalries were chosen for this article because they had a particularly glorious (read: amusing) nickname, or the history of the rivalry was interesting to me. But in each case, there’s something noteworthy about the clash between the two teams that makes attending one of these derbies an experience you’ll never forget.
Celtic v. Rangers – Glasgow, Scotland
If you’re going to talk derbies, there’s no better or bigger place to start than Glasgow. Any match between Celtic and Rangers is called an Old Firm derby, although the origins of the nickname aren’t definitively known. The origins of the rivalry, however, are crystal clear.
Although these teams are Scottish, they represent the historic political and religious divide in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, and between Nationalists and Unionists. Celtic are associated with the Catholic church and Irish Nationalists. Rangers are associated with the Protestant church and Unionists. So any tie between the two teams isn’t just about soccer. Celtic v. Rangers games have long been known for outbreaks of fan violence, including a massive fight that spilled onto the pitch in 1980 and involved roughly 9,000 people.
If you decide to attend an Old Firm derby and your loyalties don’t already lie with one club or the other, be sure you’re not wearing either green or blue. Then, find out who you’re sitting with and cheer – loudly – for whoever they’re cheering for.
Boca Juniors v. River Plate – Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina is home to a soccer rivalry which produces some of the most exciting games to watch worldwide. Any game between Boca Juniors and River Plate (both based in Buenos Aires) is known as the Superclásico, and it pits the traditionally working-class Boca against the traditionally wealthy River. Again, this is a rivalry that isn’t just about the game.
Superclásico matches are noted for the gigantic flags and colorful banners which each club’s supporters hang from every conceivable part of the stadium, and for the feeling that the stadium itself is "bouncing" as the thousands of fans jump and cheer for their squad. It’s a good-natured rivalry for the most part, with violent clashes being few and far between. Seeing a Boca v. River game in person can be a thrilling addition to your itinerary in Buenos Aires, and it’s generally a friendly enough environment that it’s a pretty popular tourist attraction.
Lazio v. Roma – Rome, Italy
The Italian sports media is fond of calling all kinds of ties "derbies," but easily the biggest derby in Italy is between Rome’s two top squads, Lazio and Roma. Any game between Lazio and Roma is known as the Derby della Capitale, but unlike many of the rivalries where there’s a distinct home field advantage these teams both call the Stadio Olimpico their home pitch.
Each team’s strongest supporters have claimed one end of the stands as their own – Lazio’s fans (historically more wealthy and right-wing) occupy the Curva Nord while Roma’s fans (traditionally more working-class and left-wing) are in the Curva Sud. Rome derbies are still often marked by violence between fans, as well as violence on the pitch – it’s not uncommon to see more fouls and yellow cards than might otherwise be expected, or several players (not to mention coaches and training staff) sent off the field entirely.
Al-Ahly v. Zamalek – Cairo, Egypt
The rivalry between the two top teams in Egypt’s capital city is bigger than Cairo or even Egypt. The rivalry between Al-Ahly and Zamalek is among the top derbies in Africa – not to mention the entire Arab world. It’s not unheard of to choose the officials for a significant derby more carefully than another game, but in the case of the Cairo derby the officials are brought in from other countries so as to appear as unbiased as possible.
This attempt at impartiality hasn’t stopped the fans from erupting when a call doesn’t go their way, however. The worst case of fan violence at a game between Al-Ahly and Zamalek was in 1966 when rioting fans set fire to a factory near the other team’s stadium. Even today, routes to and from stadiums are strictly managed on game day so that opposing fans won’t come into contact with one another before or after the match.
Liverpool v. Manchester United – England
Not all soccer rivalries are cross-town clashes, as the long-standing tie between Liverpool and Manchester United shows. The cities where these teams are based are a short 30 miles apart, but the rivalry is based primarily on the fact that these are two of the most successful teams in England. Between them they’ve got more than 110 trophies.
Sometimes called the North West Derby, games between Liverpool and Manchester United used to be marked by not only some pretty vicious chants between fan groups but also violence between the more extreme fans. Nowadays, real fights between fans are extremely rare, although the atmosphere in the stadium is still going to be intense. If you’re willing to pay the high ticket prices to see a Liverpool v. Man U match, wearing red is a safe bet.
Benfica v. Porto – Portugal
Portugal may be a small country in comparison to some soccer heavyweights, but it’s home to an interesting rivalry that’s been developing more in the last 10 years or so. Benfica (based in the southern capital city of Lisbon) was the dominant team for many decades, but in the 1990s Porto (based in the northern city of Porto) began really making their mark on the national scene.
The existing regional rivalry between northern and southern Portugal makes the Benfica-Porto match-ups even more intense. The increased tension of this Portugal derby in the last ten years has, unfortunately, led to some of the same problems other rivalries deal with – namely increased violent incidents between fan groups, and convictions over match-fixing. Yeah, the big time isn’t always pretty.
Barcelona v. Real Madrid – Spain
Another example of a soccer rivalry between teams in different cities is the match-up between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain. It’s known as El Clásico and it’s similar to the Liverpool v. Man U rivalry in that these are the two winningest clubs in the country. But beyond that, the cities in which these teams are based represent two different regions in Spain – and those regions have a rivalry of their own.
Madrid is traditionally the seat of the Spanish royal family and therefore is more representative of the nation. Barcelona, on the other hand, is located in Catalonia, which has its own language and a distinct regional identity – so much so that there has been a movement advocating for Catalonia to be its own independent country. Games between Barcelona and Real Madrid are seen by some as the sports equivalent of this regional rivalry, but most people just see it as one of the most interesting derbies in soccer.
Partizan v. Red Star Belgrade – Belgrade, Serbia
Some countries with a history of soccer hooliganism have made strides in recent years to cut down on the amount of fan violence associated with games. Some countries haven’t been able to curb the passions of their most ardent supporters. In Belgrade, hooliganism still thrives – especially when the city’s top two soccer teams clash in what’s known as the Eternal Derby.
Fan association with Partizan and Crvena Zvezda (also known as Red Star Belgrade) stretches beyond the Belgrade city limits, as support for these two clubs exists throughout Serbia. Not only that, allegiance to one club or another isn’t limited to soccer – each organization also has a basketball and a handball team, and those derbies are just as tense.
Eternal Derby days are often marked by fan violence in the stands and outside the stadium, so don’t be surprised to see a heavy riot police presence at Partizan v. Red Star Belgrade games. But don’t count on all those police to keep things calm, either.
Fenerbahçe v. Galatasaray – Istanbul, Turkey
The rivalry between Istanbul’s two top teams, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, is unique among soccer rivalries – although both teams call the same city home, they’re based on different continents. Fenerbahçe, traditionally associated with a more working-class fan base, has their home stadium on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. Galatasaray, whose supporters are historically thought of as being from the upper crust, are based on the European side of the city.
Although these aren’t the only two teams based in Istanbul, it’s definitely the match-up that’s most intense. Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray are also the two of most successful clubs in Turkey, which enhances the rivalry. These games aren’t typically known for violent outbursts in the stands, although if you’re seated amongst the most fervent supporters you might have flares going off nearby.
Olympiacos v. Panathinaikos – Athens, Greece
When it comes to rivalry nicknames sounding more like they belong to warring tribes than soccer teams, I’ve got to tip my hat to the derby between Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. It’s known as the "Derby of the Eternal Enemies" or the only-slightly-less-serious-sounding "Mother of all Battles." As with so many of the soccer rivalries in the world, these teams historically represent two different socioeconomic groups in Athens – Olympiacos has ties to the more working-class side of the city while Panathinaikos has ties to the middle and upper classes.
Supporters of these two clubs may not be separated so much by economics anymore, but they’re still split by their soccer alliances – so much so that fan violence isn’t just something from the distant past. Hooliganism in Athens is alive and well, even today. As recently as 2007 a Panathinaikos fan was stabbed to death during a "pre-arranged clash" with Olympiacos hooligans – and that wasn’t even on a derby day.
Flamengo v. Fluminense – Rio di Janeiro, Brazil
We have Brazil to thank for the moniker of "the beautiful game" for soccer itself, so it shouldn’t have surprised me when one of the country’s fiercest rivalries produced the most fun nickname on this list. When the Rio di Janeiro teams of Flamengo and Fluminense play, it’s called the Fla-Flu – or Flu-Fla, depending on your allegiance. It matters not that I understand this is just an abbreviation of the team names, it still makes me chuckle.
Fla-Flu games are played in Rio’s enormous Maracanã stadium, and regularly fill the 90,000+ seats. Before the stadium was modified to remove the general admission standing areas, one Fla-Flu match pulled in more than 177,000 people. The smaller-in-comparison crowds at games today don’t seem to diminish the decibel level of the chants and songs, however, so you’re likely to leave the Maracanã with your ears ringing.
AC Milan v. Inter – Milan, Italy
I’ll tell you now that I’m biased, in that this is my derby. It’s not the most exciting derby on the list, or the one with the most fan arrests or anything, but it’s one of the longest-standing rivalries in soccer – and it also happens to involve the team I support, AC Milan. So it is, of course, the best derby, period. Hrmph.
The rivalry between AC Milan and Inter Milan dates back to the formation of Inter in 1908 (AC Milan was founded in 1899), and it’s long been known as the Derby della Madonnina. The name comes from the local nickname for the golden Madonna statue on the highest spire atop the Milan Duomo, but that charming fact doesn’t stop this from being a tense match-up. Fans always taunt the other side with insulting chants and derogatory banners, but things can occasionally get violent. In 2005 a match was halted when a flare thrown from the Inter crowd hit Milan’s keeper in the shoulder.
Both AC Milan and Inter call the same stadium (Stadio San Siro) their home pitch, and the Milan derby is always a capacity crowd. Get your tickets well in advance, and make sure you’re wearing the right colors.
Chivas v. Club América – Mexico
The rivalry between two of Mexico’s top teams, Chivas and Club América, stems from several things. The clubs are based in the country’s two most populous cities, Chivas in Guadalajara and Club América in the capital of Mexico City. Between the two clubs, they’ve hoisted national championship trophies more than 20 times, so it’s always a match-up between historically good teams. But this derby is also about the nationality of the players on each team.
While Chivas players are more often Mexico-born, Club América fields far more foreign-born players. The Mexico City club is owned by the biggest telecommunications company in the country, so it’s seen as having more money to lure famous players in from other countries. That’s one of the reasons this derby, also known as El Clásico, is also thought of as a competition between a "big city" team representing the upper crust and a "country" team representing the little guy.
Esteghlal v. Persepolis – Tehran, Iran
As far as derbies go, the Tehran derby between the city’s top two teams – Esteghlal and Persepolis – is quite new. The rivalry only dates back to the late 1960s, and even then both teams were known by different names. But it’s been called the biggest rivalry in Asia, and the fact that it’s played in one of the world’s biggest stadiums definitely makes it noteworthy.
Matches between Esteghlal and Persepolis (also called Piroozi) usually fill the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to capacity, which means 90,000 are cheering their teams on to victory. But among those fans, you won’t see women. The long-standing ban on women attending soccer games was lifted in 2006, only to be reinstated less than two weeks later. So it doesn’t matter whether I’d be excited about attending a Tehran derby, whether I’d be willing to brave the potential fights between fans – I’m a woman, so I’d be left watching the game from behind fences.
About the Author:
BootsnAll writer Jessica Spiegel is something of a newcomer to soccer fandom, but she’s loyal to her chosen squad and cherishes every AC Milan derby victory. You can read about her enthusiasm for Italian soccer and all things Italy on WhyGo Italy, BootsnAll’s Italy travel guide.
For another take on the world’s top derbies, check out World Soccer magazine’s list of the 50 greatest soccer derbies in the world.
photo credits: Old Firm by Stanmar, Boca-River by jocluis, Al-Ahly fans by d_mcplum, Lazio-Roma by WebMic, Manchester United-Liverpool by Mr Cake, Barcelona-Real Madrid by Tesista, Fenerbahçe-Galatasary by Mertol, Olimpiacos-Panathinaikos by Sxpl, Fla-Flu by Arley Ramos, Milan-Inter by Michelangelo_rd, Chivas fans by Jaec, Partizan-Red Star by belgraded.com, Benfica-Porto by Jose Goulao, Tehran stadium by Mnasiri7