Next up in our Sporting Rivalries Series is football.
Football rivalries are often layered and multi-faceted but never defined by just one single factor. Location, history, supporters, players, politics, social class, religion and success can all contribute to the fiercest of rivalries in the game. From the passionate to the profound, the bitter to the simply bonkers, here are five of the greatest rivalries from the world of football.
Celtic versus Rangers
One of football’s biggest rivalries comes from Scotland’s second city, Glasgow. Coined the Old Firm, Celtic versus Rangers has all the ingredients for a fierce footballing rivalry - close geographic proximity, a rife competition for success and religious and political factors.
Just four miles separate Celtic Park in the East and Rangers’ home Ibrox in the West of Glasgow. The pair are the two most successful sides in Scotland by quite a margin and in a display of remarkable dominance, they have 104 Scottish Premier League titles between them. No team outside of Celtic and Rangers have won the league since Aberdeen way back in 1985.
They may share the same city, but that is where the similarities come to an end. Catholics versus Protestants, Loyalists versus Republicans, Irish-Scots versus Ulster-Scots, Conservatism versus Socialism - the rivalry is embroiled with a political, religious, and ideological edge. So much so that Rangers had an unspoken policy of not signing Roman Catholic players, which continued until 1989.
The Old Firm earned its name in the 20th Century, when the two sides were then considered ‘old, firm friends’ but throw in sectarianism (the First and Second World Wars and the Troubles in Ireland) and 120 years on there is not a lot of love between the two sets of supporters. Whilst the political and religious differences have simmered down in recent years, it has not eased the bitterness, resulting in Derby day in Glasgow being a feisty affair.
On the football pitch, Celtic and Rangers have been involved in some epic encounters as the pair battle it out to be crowned top dog in Scotland. Rangers enjoyed extensive success in the 1990s as they boasted a fabulous side - Ally McCoist, Terry Butcher, Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup, etc. – resulting in 11 Scottish topflight titles out of a possible 12 between 1989 and 2000 but Celtic hit back. They famously won the title in 1998 to deny Rangers an unprecedented tenth league championship in a row, and three years later Martin O’Neil assembled a squad, spearheaded by Swedish icon Henrik Larsson, that would claim the treble.
Rangers were relegated to the fourth tier in 2012 after falling into administration, leaving Celtic to dominate the Scottish football scene in recent years. However, Rangers have rebuilt themselves and climbed back to the top. The pair’s meeting in the 2019 Scottish League Cup final - which Celtic edged 1-0 - suggests that the gap is beginning to close once more.
Due to the dominance that the pair enjoy, the Old Firm Derby can take place up to six times a season. The quantity of meetings between the two cannot dampen the intensity and sheer competitiveness of a Celtic versus Rangers fixture.
Boca Juniors versus River Plate
The two biggest clubs in Argentina are separated by just seven kilometers. Boca Juniors - from the docklands in Buenos Aires with a traditionally working class following - and River Plate, who originate from a more affluent part of the city and have a slightly more middle class following, meet in the fixture dubbed Superclásico, and it is quite the spectacle.
Soon after the teams formed, in the early 20th century, River Plate confirmed their reputation as the wealthy side by splashing out on Carlos Peucelle and Bernabe Ferreyra for a combined $45,000 - a lofty transfer fee in 1931. This earned River Plate the nickname Los Millonarios. Boca also call River Plate Gallinas (chickens) after they bottled a 2-0 lead in the 1966 Copa Libertadores final, while River Plate reserve the nicknames Chanchitos (little pigs) and Bosteros (manure collectors) for Boca.
The pair have a proud history in producing the very best Argentinian footballing talent. Diego Maradona’s illustrious career was bookended by spells at Boca and Gabriel Batistuta and Carlos Tevez both started out at the club, whilst Alfredo de Stefano, Hernán Crespo and Gonzalo Higuaín all began their careers at River Plate.
Boca and River Plate have tussled for the Primera División title throughout the course of their history with Boca having been crowned league champions on 34 occasions versus River Plate’s 36. No other team in Argentina come close - the third most is Racing with 18.
Derby day is absolute chaos. The colours, flags and flares give the occasion a carnival feel, but thousands of police are required to line the inside of the stadium to prevent fights breaking out. In the 2012 Derby, the second half was delayed by a giant flying inflatable pig in Boca colours. The madness transcends onto the pitch. It is quite a feisty affair - in a friendly between the two in 2016, five players were sent off, there were 40 fouls and a further nine bookings.
The passion, competitiveness, and utter madness of the Superclásico make it one of the most unique rivalries in world football.
Barcelona versus Real Madrid
Spain’s top tier has been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid for years. The two are not just La Liga titans; they are juggernauts of world football.
They are two of the richest, most successful, and most iconic football teams on the planet. Combined, they have 59 topflight titles - Real Madrid (33), Barcelona (26) - and have won the Champions League on 18 occasions - Real Madrid (13), Barcelona (5). The teams’ meeting is dubbed El Clásico, and it is one of the most colossal football fixtures in the sporting calendar, pulling in a huge global audience.
El Clásico is the battle of two modern, cosmopolitan, but still vastly different cities. The pair differ on culture and politics, with Real Madrid representing traditional Spanish nationalism and Barcelona representing Catalonia and Catalan culture. Madrid are traditionally viewed as the more right wing, conservative club, supported by the royals, whilst Barcelona have a history of being a more left wing, anti-establishment club.
Despite their differences off it, it is on the football pitch where the Barcelona versus Real Madrid rivalry really comes to life. A collection of the finest players to ever grace the game have lined up on opposite sides during El Clásico - Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta versus Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale in the 2010s, to David Beckham Luís Figo, and Zinedine Zidane versus Ronaldinho, Carles Puyol and Samuel Eto’o in the 2000s - making it an absolute blockbuster of a fixture.
Portuguese midfielder Figo caused quite a stir in 2000 when, after five years at Barcelona, he controversially switched allegiances, moving to Real Madrid for €62m. Barcelona fans did not take too kindly to his decision - although both sides have ultras, El Clásico is not renowned for fan unrest, but they made an exception for Figo’s return. Banners bearing the words ‘traitor’ and ‘Judas’ decked Camp Nou, missiles were flung in his direction and despite being Real’s regular corner taker, Figo was off corner duty for El Clásico to prevent him getting too close to the furious Barcelona supporters.
When Figo left, Barcelona’s recruitment strategy adapted, and they began pooling more resources into their world famous La Masia academy. This is a common theme in El Clásico. The pair play off one another and the longevity of their success is determined by the other side’s reaction.
Fenerbahçe versus Galatasaray
The very pinnacle of Turkish football is a rivalry spread across one city and two continents. Istanbul sides Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray are separated by 17 kilometres, the Bosphorus, and substantially differing football philosophies.
Fenerbahçe are located in the Asian side of the Turkish capital. They are perceived as the ‘people’s club’ having been formed by locals for locals. In contrast, Galatasaray are from the European half of Istanbul and were founded by members of Galatasaray High School, the city’s illustrious educational institution attended by those from the capital’s wealthiest families.
Things could have panned out so differently were it not for the Balkan Wars. In fact, there would not be a rivalry at all. In 1912, the presidents of both sides met and proposed combining to form one giant Turkish super club to compete with the rest of Europe’s elite. An agreement was reached, but war intervened and the rest, as they say, is history.
A 1934 meeting on the pitch between the pair really set the tone for what the rivalry is today. Although the initial class differences have become blurred as the two sides have blossomed into the two biggest, richest, and most successful clubs in Turkey, the raw passion and hatred has remained a constant.
In 1934, the ferocious intensity of a game spilled into the stands, and the fighting both on and off the pitch got so severe that the game was forced to be abandoned. Fan antics have since become a common theme during the Derby - pyrotechnics, banners, and rioting are a frequent occurrence.
Although it is a local Derby, the rivalry is felt across the entire country. The pair are Turkey’s most decorated sides, Galatasaray have 22 Süper Lig titles to Fenerbahçe’s 19 and meetings between the pair are tight, tense affairs. However, during the 1995/96 season, while Fenerbahçe were competing for the title, Galatasaray were struggling to finish in the top three and qualify for the UEFA Cup. The two sides met in the final of the Turkish Cup, with Fenerbahçe expected to comfortably emerge victorious but instead, Galatasaray scored an extra time winner, and manager Graeme Souness strolled to the middle of the Fenerbahçe pitch and planted a giant Galatasaray flag in the center circle.
This unpredictability on the pitch, coupled with the wild behaviour off it, makes Fenerbahçe versus Galatasaray truly special.
Lazio versus Roma
For the four rivalries above, Derby day is about a bigger picture. For Celtic and Rangers, Boca Juniors and River Plate, Barcelona and Real Madrid and Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, getting one over their archrivals is often about getting points on the board and making ground in the title race. This is not the case for the Derby della Capitale. There are no other pretenses; it is a battle for bragging rights in Rome where pride and pride alone is at stake.
The rivalry’s starting point can be traced back to when Roma were originally formed in 1927. Dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to create a single, unified team to represent the Italian capital and to do so, four teams from Rome were merged - Alba, Fortitudo, Pro Roma and Roman - to form Roma. Lazio were also pressured to join but they opposed.
Both Roma and Lazio have their own set of ultras - sometimes controversial, occasionally violent, always passionate. This manifests itself in all sorts of ways, from riots to extravagant, colourful firework and banner displays, as both sets of supporters attempt to outdo the other.
Football wise, the two sides have lived in the shadows of Northern Italy’s footballing giants: Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. Roma and Lazio have acquired just five Serie A titles between them, but this only adds to the rivalry. There is less of an international spotlight on the Derby (the ramifications of the result are usually not felt outside of Rome), but an incredibly rooted local feel to it - the two sides even share a stadium. The Derby is the pinnacle of Roma and Lazio’s season, winning can often mean more to supporters than their teams’ final league standing.
The two enjoyed patches of success in the late 90s and early 2000s thanks to presidents with substantial financial backing. At the turn of the millennium, Lazio won Serie A for the first time in 26 years with a squad blessed with the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Nesta, Diego Simeone and Hernan Crespo. Roma followed suit the following year under the guidance of Fabio Capello, as Gabriel Batistuta, Cafu, Emerson, Walter Samuel, Francesco Totti - the fixture’s all-time top scorer - and co stormed to the league title. However, financial troubles soon caught up with the two teams, and Northern Italy’s big three returned to the Serie A summit.
Since their brief spells at the top of Italian football, the Derby della Capitale has returned to its roots. At its very core, the rivalry is a battle for territory, identity, and local pride.
Despite not sharing a city, Manchester United and Liverpool share one of English football’s biggest rivalries as they are the country’s two most successful sides. United have the edge domestically, whilst Liverpool hold the bragging rights in European competitions. Throughout history, momentum and success has swung this way and that along the M62. The pair tussled for top spot during the 1960s, as Bill Shankly’s Liverpool took on Matt Busby’s Manchester United and ever since, the rivalry has been a game of cat and mouse. Liverpool were the team to beat throughout the 70s and 80s under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalgish, before Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United knocked them off their perch in the 1990s. The tides have begun to turn once more thanks to the Jurgen Klopp revolution on Merseyside, as Liverpool attempt to hunt down United’s unprecedented haul of 20 top-flight titles.
Both Manchester United and Liverpool also have Derbies with their respective city rivals: Manchester United with Manchester City and Liverpool with Everton. The latter was always portrayed as a ‘friendly rivalry’, forged in camaraderie and solidarity - but the friendliness has made way for a more competitive edge in recent seasons. Meanwhile the Manchester Derby was never a friendly affair but it was primarily a lop-sided one. United largely dominated proceedings until City’s 2008 takeover and since then, the noisy neighbours have been making an absolute racket, famously snatching the Premier League title on the final day of the 2011/12 season from under their rival’s noses with a last gasp winner.
Elsewhere in Europe, Ajax versus Feyenoord is Holland’s most iconic rivalry. This is a battle between two cities of contrast - Amsterdam, the cultural, artistic, touristy city, and Rotterdam, Holland’s hard working, industrial heartbeat. The differences in culture and attitude transcends to the stands, with violence, riots and fights not uncommon between fans. Visiting supporters have been banned from attending derby matches on numerous occasions. Ajax are the more successful side, with 34 Eredivisie titles to Feyenoord’s 15 - and it is this jealousy, and contempt at living in their rival’s shadows that continues to fuel the Derby.
Two teams who have never lived in one another’s shadow are Benfica and Porto. This is the battle of Portugal’s two most decorated sides, from the country’s two largest cities and who have a combined 65 Primeira Liga titles - Benfica edging it 37 to 28. Bragging rights have swung between the capital and Porto, with Eusébio’s magnificent Benfica side dominant in the 1950s and 60s on both the domestic and European front, whilst Porto won a record five league titles on the bounce between 1994 and 1999. This closeness, competitiveness and sheer quality make the game the hottest fixture in the Portuguese football calendar.
South America is a continent with a real love affair with football, no more so than in Brazil. Their headline Derby comes from Rio de Janiero sides Flamengo and Fluminense who are not separated by a religious or political divide but by a fight for pride and identity. Derby day is played out at the Maracana - the spiritual home of Brazilian football - and it is quite the spectacle. Streamers, banners and drums give the game a carnival feel and although the rivalry is world famous because of the raucous crowd, a selection of greats – like Zico, Romario, Ronaldinho, and Rivelino - have graced the pitch during the Fla-Flu Derby, demonstrating the star quality and entertainment on the pitch in addition to that in the stands.
The pinnacle of Uruguayan domestic football is Derby day between Nacional and Peñarol. The two sides have enjoyed outrageous dominance, with 97 Primera División titles between them. Nobody else won the league between 1932 and 1975. The sides first met in 1900, making the Uruguayan Clásico the oldest rivalry in world football outside the UK. The longevity is matched by a fiery intensity on and off the pitch. During a 2014 encounter, four players were sent off for their part in a post-match brawl whilst nine spent the night in a prison cell.
Football fans are fortunate to enjoy the rivalries of all different shapes and sizes that rage across the globe.
To track football from around the world, head to the Fixture Calendar.
Written in May 2020