Sports thrive on rivalries, but none is bigger than football rivalries. Football rivalries create an electric, hostile and tense atmosphere. It is part of what makes the beautiful game entertaining and generates fierce passion among the fans.
Football rivalries – or football derbies, as they are also known – are much more than a normal game of football. They are the pride of the clubs, the national teams and their fans are at stake as everyone wants to earn bragging rights. Such games always get the blood of players, fans and administrators pumping.
So, what are football rivalries? What makes them unique? Which are the top football rivalries or derbies in the world?
Meaning of football rivalries
Football rivalry is an adversarial relationship between two teams, players and their fans which is powered by on-field or off-field competition. It is an intense competition between two football teams, either clubs or national teams, affecting the teams’ players, management and fans.
Football rivalries are as old as the game of football itself, dating back to modern football in the 19th century. Games between two rivals are known as derbies. These games are usually intense, and club owners and national team administrators are known to stoke rivalries, particularly when the date of such a game approaches. These derbies are the games that football fans look for first when the fixtures are released.
These football rivalries are passionate, and the fans majorly produce the atmosphere for the football to be played. Bragging stakes are on the line as supporters expect their teams to defend and honour the pride of their clubs or national teams by defeating their opponents, which are regarded as no ordinary opponents but fierce rivals. If there is one game that fans want their clubs to win all season or national teams all tournament, it is the one against their biggest rivals.
What prompts football rivalries?
The following factors stoke football rivalries:
Most football derbies globally are games between local rivals, with the two teams either from the same city or countries from the same sub-region or continent. These games provide supporters with the opportunity to contest local bragging rights.
The background or antecedent between the two teams involved fuels derbies, particularly if both are opponents in the same league or country, are national teams from the same continent or have played against themselves repeatedly in important competition matches.
Believe it or not, some football rivalries are fuelled by religion. They are many fuelled by interdenominational differences.
Top 15 football rivalries in the world
There are many football rivalries across the world. Over 60 known global derbies have developed to become legendary football games with heated atmospheres created by the players and fans. However, some are renowned for violence or commotion off the pitch.
This piece will, however, highlight 15 football rivalries that have set the world alight.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid
The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain is stoked more by history and politics than location. The El Clasico, as the game is traditionally known in Spain, is deemed by some football analysts and pundits as the most famous rivalry and the biggest derby in club football globally. Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, and the two football clubs are the country’s most famous and successful ones.
Although the first game between both clubs occurred in 1902, the rivalry developed in the 1930s with opposing political positions. Real Madrid was viewed as representing Spanish nationalism, and Barcelona was deemed to represent Catalan nationalism. The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) contributed to making the rivalry hostile due to the tacit support of General Franco, the Spanish dictator, of Real Madrid, despite claiming to be neutral.
The transfer of the legendary Argentine-Spanish striker, Alfredo di Stefano, to Spain further fuelled this rivalry. Despite both clubs being interested in the player, di Stefano decided to don the colours of Los Blancos (Madrid) over La Blaugrana (Barcelona) even though he had already agreed to join the latter. The rivalry thrived in recent years due to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, considered to be two of the best players of all time, playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively.
Both clubs have played 284 matches against each other, with the capital club winning 105 matches while the Catalan-based club has won 117 games, and 62 matches ended in a draw.
AC Milan vs Inter Milan
The Derby Della Madonnina, also known as the Derby di Milano, is the rivalry game between two football teams based in the Italian city of Milan: AC Milan and Inter Milan. The name ‘Derby Della Madonnina’ was derived from the statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the Duomo, which is one of the main sights in Milan.
The Milan Derby is one of the most watched derbies in the world. The first meeting between both clubs occurred on 10 January 1909 in the Italian Football Championship, with the red stripes of Milan (AC Milan) winning the game 3-2.
The derby arose due to the social divide between the supporters of the two clubs. Inter were seen as the club of the Milan bourgeoisie and was, therefore, the more affluent side; while Milan was supported mainly by the working class. Interestingly, both clubs share the same stadium: the San Siro in Milan. It is a fierce derby with the players and ultras of the two clubs going against each other.
Liverpool vs Manchester United
Liverpool vs Manchester United is one of the historical rivalries in England which is stoked by location. Both clubs are separated by only 35 miles (56 kilometres)
The North-West derby, as the rivalry is officially known, is considered the biggest fixture in English football and one of the biggest and fiercest rivalries in world football. The rivalry, as earlier mentioned, has been fuelled by the proximity of the two major cities that they represent (both clubs are in the North-West part of England). It has also been stoked by the historic economic and industrial competition of both cities. It is rated even higher among the supporters than matches between local football rivals, such as Everton and Manchester City, respectively.
Liverpool won the first game against the then Newton Heath (now Manchester United) 2-0 on 28 April 1894 in a Football League test match. The animosity between both clubs has been intensified by their significant periods of domestic footballing dominance and European success, and popularity.
The two clubs are the most successful English teams in domestic, European and worldwide competitions. This fierce rivalry has seen Manchester United win 69 matches, while Liverpool has 60 victories and 50 of these games in the Premier League ended in a draw. In cup games, Manchester United has 13 victories to Liverpool’s nine, and seven of the games ended in a draw. Their only European clash to date saw Liverpool triumph in the Europa League round of 16 fixture in 2016.
Boca Juniors vs River Plate
The Superclásico is the derby game between two club rivals situated in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires: Boca Juniors and River Plate. This derby game is considered to be the most important football rivalry in Argentina and the most important local derby in the country.
The Superclásico is one of the fiercest in the world. The rivalry was instigated due to the location of both clubs (the neighbourhood of La Boca, where were founded River Plate in 1901 and Boca Juniors in 1905). River Plate, however, moved permanently to the affluent district of Núñez, located in the northern part of the city, in 1923 and its fans are, therefore, viewed as those from the upper house.
Boca Juniors and River Plate are the two most popular and successful teams in Argentine football. The Superclásico is particularly noted for the passion of the fans. Some of the derby games have ended in fights between the “barra brava” (violent factions) of both sides or with the police. Both teams have played 258 official games against each other, with Boca winning 91, River triumphant in 84, and 83 games ending in draws between these rivals.
Celtic vs Rangers
The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is the fiercest derby in Scotland and one of the most ferocious in the world. The Old Firm, as the derby has become known, is a rivalry between two Glasgow-based clubs, which are considered to be the most successful and popular in the country.
This football rivalry has been largely fuelled by religious division and sectarianism in Scotland. The Celtic community are primarily of the Catholic faith, while Rangers are predominantly protestants. This derby has also been stoked by political affiliation and national identity basis. Celtic supporters are historically Irish Scots and are Republicans, while Rangers supporters are preeminently native Scots and Ulster Scots and Unionists in nature. However, this dividing line seems to be blurred in the 21st century.
The first game between both teams was a friendly played on 28 May 1888, with Celtic winning 5-2 against Rangers. Both clubs have played each other 431 times in major competitions: Rangers have won 168 matches, Celtic 162 matches, and 101 ended in a draw.
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Juventus vs Inter Milan
Irrespective of the status of both teams, the rivalry between Juventus and Inter Milan has been the biggest in Italy’s Serie A for decades. This rivalry is so momentous that it was dubbed Derby d’Italia (Derby of Italy) in 1967 by Italian sports journalist Gianni Brera.
This derby stretches back to 1909, in which Juventus defeated Inter 2-0 in their first meeting ever in the Italian Football Championship. It is a rivalry between the two biggest cities in Northern Italy, as well as two of the most successful clubs in the country.
The derby games between both clubs have been intense and passionate. It has also been marred by controversies, the most notable being both fixtures in the 1997/1998 season, particularly the second leg in which Inter were not awarded what was deemed to be a penalty and Juventus went ahead to win the game 1-0 at the San Siro, a result which guaranteed them the Scudetto.
Both teams have played a total of 260 matches, with Juventus winning 115 of them, Inter triumphing in 81 of them and 64 of them ending in draws.
Benfica vs Porto
O Clássico is the derby between two Portuguese clubs S.L. Benfica and FC Porto. Both clubs are the most decorated football clubs in Portugal.
This rivalry is largely influenced by location and history as the two clubs represent the two largest cities in Portugal: Benfica (in Lisbon) and Porto (in Porto). The first match between the duo was played on 28 April 1912, with Benfica defeating Porto 8–2. Also, supporters of the Portuguese capital-based club (Lisbon) are deemed to be more laid back and flamboyant, while those who support the club located in the southern part of the country (Porto) are said to be more hardworking, humble and have a fighting spirit.
Benfica has been more successful domestically, while Porto has more continental (European) trophies. Both teams have played a total of 251 games: Benfica has triumphed in 89 of them, Porto has nicked 100 victories, while 62 ended in draws.
Bayern Munich vs Borrusia Dortmund
Whenever the two most successful clubs in Germany clash, it is the grass that suffers. That is how intense Der Klassiker (The Classic), the derby game between Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund, has been since its existence.
Unlike some of the derbies featured in this piece, the first Der Klassiker was played as recently as 1965, with the Yellow Wall troops (Dortmund) securing all three points in the Bundesliga game against their rivals. However, this rivalry only intensified in the 1990s as a result of competition, as Dortmund’s stature increased and began to challenge perennial title favourites, Bayern. Since the 1990s, Dortmund has won the title several times in a row (notably in the 1994-1995 and 1995-1996 seasons and the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons, respectively).
Overall, both clubs have faced themselves 132 times, with Bayern emerging on top in 65 games, Dortmund victorious in 32 games, and 35 matches ending in a draw.
Liverpool vs Everton
Although known as the ‘friendly derby’, the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton is nothing short of friendly. The Merseyside derby, as the rivalry game between both clubs is known, is named after the county of Merseyside, in which Liverpool is located. The derby is a full-blooded, intense and passionate encounter. It is the longest-running top-flight derby in England
This derby is fuelled mainly by location, as the stadia of both clubs (Anfield and Goodison Park) are 400 metres apart. The withdrawal of Everton’s board members and exodus from Anfield, and the controversial creation of Liverpool further fuelled the rivalry. It is, however, one of the few derbies globally that are not based on fan segregation as many families in Liverpool have fans of both sides.
The first game between both teams was played in the First Division on 13 October 1894, with Everton running away with a 3-0 win over their rivals. Since 1894, both teams have played 241 games, with Liverpool winning 97 of them, Everton on top in 67 games and 77 of them ending in a draw. This derby game holds the record for most red cards in the Premier League.
Olympiacos vs Panathinaikos
Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, Greece’s most successful clubs, repeatedly lock horns in what has been tagged the derby of the eternal enemies. Both clubs are also Athens-based, and the derby has always been a classic for the Greek capital and the entire country.
Their fans are very passionate and they represent the class and social divide that fuels up the derby. Panathinaikos are based in the centre of Athens and are considered the classic representative of the high class and old Athenian society of the Greek capital. Olympiacos, on the other hand, hail from Piraeus, the port city just on the outskirts of Athens, thus attracting the working class as their supporters. The hatred between both sets of fans is so intense that many violent incidents have taken place in Athens in the build-up to the derby or after the game.
The rivalry can also be traced back to the historical antiquities involving the cities of Athens and Piraeus. Olympiacos is the more successful in Greece, but Panathinaikos has the better European record. Olympiacos have gotten 86 victories in all official games, Panathinaikos have recorded 53 wins, and 73 of them have ended in a draw.
Arsenal vs Tottenham Hotspur
Local derbies do not get more interesting and intense than the North London derby, the local football derby between Arsenal and Tottenham. Both clubs are based in North London, and the derby is considered by many to be one of the fiercest derbies in the world.
Although the first match between both clubs was a friendly on 19 November 1887, which was abandoned with Tottenham leading 2-1 and the first official game was played on 4 December 1909, in which Arsenal won 1-0 in a Football League First Division fixture, the rivalry only intensified in 1913 when Arsenal moved from Woolwich, South-East London, to Highbury, North London. This move infuriated Tottenham supporters as they deemed Highbury to be their territory. The acceptance of Arsenal over Tottenham following the expansion of the First Division in 1919 only stoked the rivalry further.
Since 1913, the games between both teams have been fuelled by location as the stadia of both clubs (Emirates Stadium and Tottenham Stadium) are four miles (6.4 kilometres) apart. The games between both teams have been majorly exciting ones played at a fast pace, but they have also been ill-tempered on some occasions. In addition, both sets of supporters are obsessed with finishing above each other in the league and they do taunt themselves constantly over their league positions.
A total of 206 games have been played between the two teams, with 85 wins for Arsenal, 67 wins for Tottenham and 54 games ending in a draw.
Fenerbahçe vs Galatasaray
Known as the Kitalararasi Derbi (The Intercontinental Derby), this is a rivalry game between Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, both based in Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city. It is considered to be the biggest football game in Turkey, and it attracts a very large attendance from the fans.
The derby is referred to as “intercontinental” because of the social fabric of both clubs, even though they are based in Istanbul. Galatasaray were founded in 1905 by students of Galatasaray High School and are, therefore, considered to be members of the middle and high-class area of Istanbul influenced by European (French) culture. Fenerbahçe, on the other hand, were established by local Muslim men in the Asian part of Istanbul, and its supporters are seen as the people’s club (representatives of the working class).
This rivalry has existed for over a century, with the first game between both teams played on 17 January 1909, with Galatasaray running out as 2-0 winners. But the rivalry did not intensify until the now infamous match between both teams on 23 February 1934. The game was supposed to be a friendly game, but both teams were eager to win. The desperation resulted in both teams dishing hard fouls against each other, and the match had to be stopped at several intervals. The referee had to abandon the match as both sets of players fought each other, and the tension spiralled into the stands, where the fans were seated.
Subsequent games have seen the intensity raised to the roof by both the players and the fans, with immense hate between the two teams. It is indeed one of the most bitter derbies in the world as the atmosphere before, during and after the games tend to be heated and the conduct of players, team management and fans quite frantic. The Graeme Souness flag incident in the 1995-1996 cup final is a testament to the vehemency of this fixture.
A total of 395 games have been played between both teams: Fenerbahçe has won 148 of them, Galatasaray came out tops in 125 of them, and 122 matches have ended in draws.
Ajax vs Feyenoord
De Klassieker (The Classic) is the football rivalry between AFC Ajax and Feyenoord Rotterdam. This is the biggest football rivalry in the Netherlands and has, most times, lived up to its billing as a Dutch classic.
The rivalry between both clubs has been fuelled primarily by city rivalry: Ajax is based in Amsterdam, whose people are viewed as the swashbuckling clan filled with artists and actors; while Feyenoord represents Rotterdam, deemed to be a city home to the working-class population. The style of play of both teams also reflects in this rivalry. Ajax is renowned for its beautiful, technical style of play, while Feyenoord is associated with a more pragmatic style of football.
The first encounter between these two clubs took place in 1917, but the rivalry started in 1921. The first official game between both teams was a 1ste Klasse fixture on 9 October 1921 in Rotterdam, which was surrounded by controversy. The match initially ended 3–2 in favour of Ajax but was later officially declared 2–2 due to Feyenoord’s protest of what they believed was a dubious goal by Ajax.
This rivalry heated up considerably in the early 1970s when these two clubs were at the pinnacle of European football and riots started to break between the sets of fans. The transfers of Wim Jansen and Johan Cruyff, legends of Feyenoord and Ajax, respectively, to the opposite clubs in the 1980/1981 and 1983/1984 seasons, respectively, stoked the enmity between both clubs and their fans further.
The intensity of this rivalry has led to numerous incidents of fan violence, notably the Beverwijk clash in 1997 when an Ajax fan was killed, and several others got injured. Due to the notoriety of the fans, the two legs of De Klassieker in a season have, sometimes, been played without away fans since the 1997/1998 season.
Since 1921, both teams have played against each other 199 times: Ajax won 92 of those matches, Feyenoord racked up 59 victories, and 48 of them ended in a draw.
PSG vs Marseille
Many football pundits consider the clash between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Olympique de Marseille as the French version of the Clasico. It is, undoubtedly, the biggest rivalry in France and has aptly been named Le Classique (The Classic).
The battle is deemed as a battle between the two largest cities in France: Paris against Marseille, the former being the capital of the country; while the latter is a province. It is also historical and political as it is a derby between the north (PSG) against the south (Marseille) and the hub of political power (Paris) against the working class (Marseille).
The inaugural match between both teams took place at the Stade Vélodrome in 1971, just a little over a year after PSG were formed. Marseille won the encounter 4-2. The rivalry, however, started in 1986 when PSG won their first championship, and Marseille was bought by prominent businessman and politician, Bernard Tapie. It intensified when both clubs went head to head for the 1988–1989 league title, and the accusations made by PSG president, Francis Borelli, against Tapie and Marseille for fixing matches during that season only added more fuel to the fire.
Fan squabbles and player fights have been prominent in this fixture. A total of 103 games have been played between both teams: PSG won 47, Marseille nicked 33 wins, and 23 of these encounters have ended in a draw.
Argentina vs Brazil
This is the only international fixture deemed to be worthy of appearing on this list. Two of the most famous footballing nations in South America lock horns against each other in the clash referred to as the Superclásico de las Américas (Spanish) or Superclássico das Américas (Portuguese).
The “Battle of the Americas” is renowned for the high level of competitiveness and talent between the two teams. The first meeting between both countries was a friendly match, which ended in a 3-0 win for Argentina in 1914. Both countries have produced players considered the best in the world at particular periods.
The games between both countries are often marked by notable and controversial incidents as neither side wants to lose, even if it s a friendly game. The intensity of the games was exemplified in the 1945 Copa Roca match when Brazil’s Ademir de Menezes fractured Argentine José Battagliero’s leg and the 1946 South American Championship final when Brazil’s Jair Rosa Pinto fractured the tibia and fibula of Argentine captain, José Salomón. The 1946 game was suspended for some minutes as chaos descended on the pitch following fighting by the players and the subsequent invasion by fans onto the pitch.
After the match, in which Argentina won 2-0, the two teams did not play against each other for 10 years. The latest squabble between both teams was in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers when Brazilian health officials quickly stormed the pitch to prevent goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, defender Cristian Romero and midfielder Giovani Lo Celso from playing over COVID-19 regulations. A subsequent melee ensued, and the match was abandoned but was replayed at a later date.
Both teams have played against each other 109 times: Brazil won 43 of the encounters, Argentina triumphed in 40 of them, and 26 matches ended in a draw.