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The 10 greatest rivalries in club football history

Classic Rivalries!
Classic Rivalries!
Chinmay
CONTRIBUTOR

What do we love about football? Some of us love a goal-fest, while others like to see midfield maestros wave their magic on the field. But if there is one thing everyone has in common, it is the passion for the beautiful game. There is no better place to witness such passion than a game between two arch-rivals, on and off the field.

Football rivalries around the globe make this sport different than any other. The history between the clubs, the atmosphere and of course, 90 minutes of intense football is a perfect recipe for such derbies.

In this article, we take a look at 10 of the greatest club rivalries in football.


#10 Kolkata Derby

Boro Match
Boro Match

The Boro Match, meaning ‘Big Match’ in the Bengali language, is a cross-city derby between Mohun Bagan (now ATK Mogun Bagan) and East Bengal in Kolkata, India. It is without a doubt the greatest derby in Asian football, with a history of almost 100 years.

The derby represents supporters from either side of Kolkata. Mohan Bagan supporters, usually from the West, represent the nativist population (Ghotis) of the city. East Bengal, on the other hand, represents the immigrant population.

The first game between the two sides was played in 1921 and in 327 competitive meetings since then, East Bengal hold a 122-93 advantage. Back in 1997 during the semi-final of Indian Federation Cup, the Kolkata Derby drew an attendance of 131,781 at the Salt Lake Stadium – a record bettered by very few games in the history of football.


#9 Cairo derby

Not your everyday scenario!
Not your everyday scenario!

Al-Ahly and Zamalek are the two biggest clubs in Egypt and amongst the most successful clubs in Africa. Confederation of African Football (CAF) even named them the first and second African clubs of the 20th century respectively. So it should come as no surprise that a game between these two Cairo-based sides is the biggest match on the calendar for club football in Africa and the entire Arab world.

This rivalry is especially known for it’s fierce and often violent nature. World Soccer Magazine has listed the Cairo derby amongst the top 10 most fierce rivalries. On derby days, more than 100,000 fans square off in the stands and outside the stadium. It has also taken an ugly turn on numerous occasions. After one such incident during 1971-72, the crowd violence led to the entire season being cancelled.

The Cairo derby is also amongst those rare matches in the world football where non-Egyptian referees officiate the games to avoid partiality. 


#8 Flamengo vs. Fluminense

Fla-Flu at the Maracanã
Fla-Flu at the Maracanã

If all derbies had interesting names, ‘Fla-Flu’ would probably be at the top of that list. Nonetheless, Flamengo and Fluminense, two cross-town rivals in Rio de Janeiro, leave everything on the field every time they face each other.

Just like the name, the Fla-Flu rivalry also has an interesting back story. In October 1911, a group of unsatisfied Fluminese players left for Flamengo, a club which did not have a football team back then. The first game between two clubs was played in July 1912 where Fluminese won 3-2. Since then, this has been one of the biggest rivalries in South American football.

Brazil is the home of football and that of football rivalries. But what makes Flamengo vs. Fluminense extra special is the iconic Maracana Stadium. With the attendance of 194,603 at the Maracana back in 1963, the Fla-Flu game also holds the world record for the highest attendance for a football game.

#7 The Old Firm

The Old Firm Derby
The Old Firm Derby

The Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers, the two most successful football clubs in Scotland, is more than just a game of football. The two Glasgow-based clubs represent the difference in the political and religious ideologies of supporters.

Celtic supporters are associated with the Catholic Church and Rangers with the Protestants Church. The rivalry goes further ahead on the political compass with differences in views on Northern-Ireland politics (Loyalists and Republicans), the national identity issue (British and Irish Scots) and the social ideology (conservatism and socialism). These differences have led to multiple violent derbies in this rivalry’s 132-year history.

At the same time, this rivalry has also contributed to the Scottish economy. In 2005, the mere presence of two cross-city rivals was worth £120 million to the nation’s economy.

Both clubs have dominated Scottish football with 105 league titles, 72 Scottish Cups and 46 Scottish League Cups between them.


#6 Liverpool vs. Manchester United

Liverpool vs United - The Race for the Best in England!
Liverpool vs United - The Race for the Best in England!

There is no shortage of classic rivalries in English football. However, very few of them are better than Liverpool vs. Manchester United, the country's two most successful clubs by a distance, the Reds vs. the Red Devils.

Unlike most other rivalries, the North West Derby is more about the on-field dominance than anything else. Both United and Liverpool have dominated English football with 20 and 19 league titles and three and six European titles, respectively.

The race for the crown of ‘Best English Club’ is the secret behind this rivalry. The legendary managers and players who have been part of this derby over the years have also helped spice things up.

The first game between the two clubs was played in April 1894, when United were named Newton Heath. Since then, the powerhouses of English football have faced off 204 times, where United hold 80-67 advantage.


#5 The Milan derby

Derby Della Madonnina
Derby Della Madonnina

Two clubs from the beautiful city of Milan, they have won the Serie A title 18 times each, they also share the same home. Yes, it’s the Derby Della Madonnina, aka the Milan Derby.

In 1908, a mere nine years after AC Milan was founded, the club was split due to issues over the signing of foreign players. The new club was called ‘Football Club Internazionale’ and just like that, both clubs became arch-rivals.

The Milan clubs first faced each other in 1909, where the “parent” club won 3-2. Since then, both teams have faced each other 296 times in official and unofficial games, and AC Milan hold an advantage with 112 wins.

Just like the Fla-Flu, the Milan Derby is one of the very few cross-town derbies to be played in the same stadium, the San Siro.


#4 Olympiakos vs. Panathinaikos

Mother of all battles
Mother of all battles

When a game of football is called ‘the derby of the eternal enemies’ or ‘the Mother of all battles’, take the hint and watch the game on TV.

The rivalry started as working-class supporters versus the middle and upper class of society. Olympiakos supporters came from the outskirts of Athens in Piraeus, while Panathinaikos had the support of the rich part of the city. Over the years, the economic differences may have been settled, but the rivalry has hardly mellowed down. If anything, it keeps getting more fierce and crazy with every passing game of football.

Although these eternal rivals are the two most successful clubs in Greece, Olympiakos dominate the league with 45-20 track record. Unfortunately, hooliganism has been part of this derby for years and has resulted in some ugly incidents.

#3 Fenerbahce vs. Galatasaray 

The Intercontinental Derby
The Intercontinental Derby

This is a one of a kind football rivalry. Fenerbahce and Galatasaray are from the city of Istanbul. But interestingly enough, it is called ‘The Intercontinental Derby’ as Fenerbahce is on the Asian side of Istanbul and Galatasaray is on the European side.

The two most decorated clubs in Turkey are part of, possibly, the most intense and bitter derbies in European football. In their 111-year history, the Istanbul-based clubs have met 391 times where Fenerbahce are ahead with 146-124. However, Galatasaray have an upper hand in league titles (22-19) and the Turkish Cup (18-6).

Flares and stand-offs in the stands amongst fans is a common occurrence and even on the field, there is never a shortage of yellow and red cards.


#2 El Clasico

El Clasico
El Clasico

The rivalry that needs no introduction, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. Spanish Nationalists vs. Catalan Nationalists, El Clasico is more than just a game of football.

The derby between two giants of Spanish and European football is amongst the most viewed annual sporting events. Legend has it that the world as we know it stops for 90 minutes every time Barcelona and Real Madrid face each other.

While the two teams first met in 1902, the rivalry started to develop on the political front during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Francisco Franco, the Spanish general who led the nationalist forces during the Civil war, was against the idea of Catalonia as a separate nation, a notion which had been brewing in the North of Spain. Meanwhile, Barcelona was a huge force behind this notion.

The involvement of politics in football only made things worse and it became a full-blown rivalry after Real’s controversial 11-1 victory against Barcelona in 1943. Since then, the controversies surrounding the transfers of Alfredo Di Stefano in the 1950s and Luis Figo in 2000 have only added more fuel to the fire.

The teams have met 244 times in competitive games and are poised at 96-96, which says a lot about the on-field rivalry. However, Real lead the race for the league titles with 34-26 and European titles with a record 13 titles to Barcelona’s five.


#1 Boca Juniors vs. River Plate

Superclasico!!!
Superclasico!!!

Working class vs. upper-class supporters, check. Derogatory nicknames for oppositions, check. Flares, violence and insanely dangerous match day rituals, check, check and check.

There are very few places more intense than Buenos Aires on the day of the Superclasico. The two most successful football clubs in Argentina may not be as famous as Barcelona and Real Madrid, but their derby is considered to be the biggest and most intense rivalry not just in football, but the entire sports world.

Just like most other rivalries, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate has a history of cultural differences. However, the game of football has not been able to transition this rivalry into a peaceful one. Just in 2018, the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, where the two clubs met for the first time in their history, had to be moved to Spain due to violence in the first leg.

Boca lead the all-time wins 89-83, while River Plate lead league titles 36-34. But numbers hardly matter on the game day. Such is the hatred amongst both clubs that as long as you win the game, the league title hardly matters.

Edited by Alex Turk

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