Soccer supporters are some of the most passionate sports fanatics in the world. In communities all over the globe — from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the working-class towns of industrial northern England — football means absolutely everything.
This remains the case for any run-of-the-mill match day throughout the season; however, there are some games that are particularly important to fans. We're talking grudge matches against title rivals, six-pointers against fellow relegation candidates, and most importantly: derbies.
In this article, we’ll be explaining what a soccer derby is and why these games mean so much to the fans involved. We’ll then move on to listing some of the most fiercely contested rivalries in the whole of world football. As you’ll find out, things can get extremely heated…
A soccer derby is a match that is played between two rival teams. Crucially, unlike a purely sporting rivalry based on league position or recent history, a derby is contested between two clubs that are close to each other geographically. There has to be this regional factor in order for a game to be considered a derby as opposed to just a rivalry.
Teams don’t have to play their local rivals every season in order for it to be considered an established derby match. In fact, if two rivals go several years without facing up against each other, it can make things all the more juicy and combative when they do eventually play.
Every professional football club will have another club that it thinks of as its main local rivals. In big cities with lots of teams — such as London or Istanbul — you sometimes find that teams have multiple local rivals. Arsenal consider Spurs their main rivals, for example, but there is also a fair bit of antipathy between them and Chelsea.
Either way, pretty much all clubs will have one team they hate more than any other. For Aston Villa it’s Birmingham City, for Swansea City it’s their south Wales counterpart Cardiff City, and for Millwall, it’s West Ham. There are plenty more examples, which we’ll get into shortly; but first, it’s worth fleshing out why it is that derby matches are so important to football fans.
The primary reason that football fans care so much about derbies is simple: regional pride. Association football is such a huge part of everyday life in most countries that bragging rights can go a long way. When your team is doing well, it’s something to shout about, and when you’re struggling, you’ll often find other people (particularly fans of rival clubs) poking fun at you.
Each time a derby match takes place, bragging rights are on the line. Will you be able to go to work the next day and gloat to the colleague who supports your local rivals? Or will the game swing the other way and leave you desperate for the next derby to come along so that your side can reassert its dominance in the region? The pride felt when you know your club is on top is the main reason why fans care so much about winning the derby.
Across the planet, this sense of regional pride is felt keenly, in some places more than others. Certain rivalries have developed huge reputations for their ferocity, even gaining famous nicknames due to their magnitude. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the biggest derby matches in world football.
Scottish football has a rich history dating back to the 1860s, when the first association football clubs were formed and discussions surrounding a national team began. The country’s two most famous and decorated clubs by far are the two Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers; their domestic dominance is highlighted by the fact that the last time a club other than these two won the league title was Aberdeen in 1984-85.
The derby between Celtic and Rangers is nicknamed ‘The Old Firm’. The origins of this title are hazy, with some believing it derives from the clubs once being described as ‘two old, firm friends’; either way, the name has caught on, and was recently trademarked. The hatred between the two clubs is fierce, fueled by far more than football; a big part of the divide comes down to religious sectarianism, with Rangers fans typically being Protestant and Celtic fans overwhelmingly Catholic. Bitter prejudice is a common thread in the Old Firm as a result, and each time these sides meet, things get very heated.
Italy is one of the most iconic footballing nations in the world, responsible for producing brilliant players like Andrea Pirlo, Roberto Baggio and Gianluigi Buffon, as well as coining world-famous tactical terms such as regista, mezzala, and trequartista. Italy has some fiery rivalries, but probably its most renowned is the Milan derby, which takes place in Serie A twice each season between AC Milan and Internazionale (assuming both clubs are in the top flight).
Known in Italy as ‘Derby della Madoninna’ in honor of the city’s iconic Virgin Mary statue, the rivalry has been given an extra edge over the years by the socio-economic divide between the two clubs. While Internazionale were seen as the club of the middle classes, with fans often driving to the San Siro as their ‘Rossoneri’ rivals took the tram to games (thus gaining the nickname ‘tramvee’), Milan were traditionally the club of the workers, and major divides formed between the two fanbases as a result.
El Clasico is perhaps the most famous derby on the planet. Each season, games between Real Madrid and Barcelona — the two biggest and most successful clubs in Spain — attract huge TV audiences across the world, as incredibly talented players compete for the bragging rights at the top of La Liga.
Interestingly, El Clasico is heavily tied up in politics, despite the fact it isn’t always seen as being quite as socially divisive as derbies like the Old Firm. While Barcelona have stood for Catalan pride and independence for many fans throughout their history, Madrid represent the centralised Spanish state and the elite (an idea reinforced by the Galcticos era).
In total, the two clubs have played 297 games against each other, of which Real Madrid have gained an overall edge with 103 wins. Underneath those figures are tons of individual stories — legendary players like Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Pepe have all made their names and gained folkloric status amongst fans thanks to their exploits in El Clasico derbies.
The Superclasico is a legendary game between two sides that have genuine hatred for each other, in a country that is arguably more passionate about football than any other: Argentina. This spectacle between the two biggest clubs in the capital city of Buenos Aires, and the most successful sides in Argentine football, is a special one; whether at La Bombonera or El Monumental (two of South America's most iconic stadiums), Superclasico derbies are known for pyrotechnics and flares, bellowing chants and bouncing crowds.
There is a huge amount of animosity and hatred between these two fanbases. In 2004, the Observer wrote that "derby day in Buenos Aires makes the Old Firm game look like a primary school kick-about", and the Superclasico is considered by many to be the greatest rivalry in world football. A good example of how fierce things can get came in 2018, when tensions between fanbases meant that the Copa Libertadores (South America's equivalent of the Champions League) final between the two teams was moved to Madrid due to worries about violence.
Instanbul is a hotbed for football, and the fans of Turkey's so-called 'Big Three' — Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas, all located in the capital — are as passionate as they come. In particular, the rivalry between Fenerbahce and Galatasary is massive. The game is dubbed the Kitalarasi Derbi, which translates as "intercontinental derby" and refers to the fact that Galatasary is situated in the European side of the city of Istanbul, whereas Fenerbahce are located in the Asian side of the city.
This unique geographical situation has boosted tensions between the two clubs over the years, leading to some violent scenes on matchdays and more broadly across the city; the hatred between these sides has led to violence and tragedy on repeated occasions, and clashes with police are commonplace.
Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is a city that goes crazy for football. Not only does the area hold one of the largest soccer stadiums in the world, it also plays host to a super significant derby: Al Ahly vs Zamalek. Both clubs have illustrious histories, with CAF naming them the 1st and 2nd best African teams of the 20th century respectively. They have repeatedly competed for league titles as the two biggest clubs in Egpyt, although in recent years Al Ahly have been dominant, winning 13 league titles in the last 17 years, with defensive midfield veteran Hossam Ashour becoming the player with the third most trophies of all time after Lionel Messi and Dani Alves.
Egypt's population is around 100 million, but matches between these two teams regularly gather a domestic TV audience of 50 million, a statistic that shows how invested supporters are in the derby. The animosity between fans is so huge that in 1971/71, violent clashes between supporters prompted the authorities to cancel the entire remainder of the Egyptian domestic season. That hasn't stopped the two sets of fans regularly clashing ever since.
Nicknamed the 'Derby of the Eternal Enemies', Olympiacos vs Panathinaikos is a serious grudge match that represents one of the most important moments in the Greek sporting calendar. These are the two giants of Greek football, with almost 80% of all Greek league titles won by the two sides combined.
Class separation is a key component of the rivalry, with Panathinaikos broadly being the team of the rich and Olympiacos the team of the poor. While those historical associations have become less relevant over time, the resentment and bitterness created as a result remains. The "Mother of all Battles" (as some fans describe it) is without a doubt one of the fiercest derbies in soccer.