‘It’s just a bunch of men kicking a ball around a field’ outsiders frequently mutter, but they don’t understand the moments of magic that a game of football can produce. Those few minutes within each match that have you jumping for joy, or sitting on the edge of your seat.
And then you look past the those 90 minutes spent on the field and see the sheer scale of football - Upwards of 40,000 people sat in a stadium, shouting, cheering, singing and, at times, even crying.
For many, football is much more than a sport, or something to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon. For some, their club is their family. It is this what makes derby games some of the best that you can witness - while a fixture between Manchester United and Sunderland is all well and good, we would rather watch Manchester United go up against Manchester City, or Sunderland face Newcastle United.
Rivalries between clubs always add to the occasion. The fans give it their all to outdo the opposition crowd and often, understanding what it means to the fans, so too do the players. However, while it makes for great viewing, there are times when the emotions that derby games evoke can see things go too far, with criminal damage, violence and, at times, even death having occurred as a result of the beautiful game.
Football is full of fierce rivalries as a result of everything from archaic political beliefs to a bad tackle, but these are 9 of the biggest and baddest:
Roma vs Lazio
Otherwise known as the Derby della Capitale, the rivalry between Roma and Lazio is viewed as the biggest, and often nastiest, derby in Italian football.
The rivalry started way back in the 1920s, when three of Rome’s biggest clubs were merged by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to become Roma, which he hoped would dominate Italian football for years to come. Just one of the city’s big teams refused to join the project - Lazio.
The rivalry between the two sides has been going strong since, largely aided by their close proximity. In fact, despite the tense relationship between the two clubs, they even share their stadium, the Stadio Olimpico, which both clubs have called home since the 1950s.
With the Roma ultras at one end of the stadium and the Lazio ultras as the other, the Rome Derby is viewed by many as a way for one of the two clubs to claim the city’s bragging rights. While song-singing and name calling is to be expected, for the most part derby days pass by without any major issues. However, that isn’t always the case, with racism, rioting and even a death having resulted from the high-profile clash.
Manchester United vs Liverpool
As two of English football’s most successful sides, having won 38 top flight titles between them, it is unsurprising that these two teams share a rivalry that ranks among the most well known in football. Despite having their own local derbies against Manchester United and Everton respectively, this fixture still ranks top of both sides’ lists of must win games throughout the season.
Long periods of dominance from both sides, notably Liverpool in the 70s and 80s and Manchester United in the 90s and 2000s, has helped to heighten the tensions between the two sides, producing a memorable display of action every time they meet. Understandably, for local players, the occasion is a huge event. However, the magnitude of the fixture often manages to rub off on players with no former connection to the clubs.
Panathinaikos vs Olympiakos
The Derby of the Eternal Enemies. The Mother of All Battles. The Derby of the Eternal Adversaries. That are just a few of the names used to describe derby matches played between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos, two clubs based in the Greek capital, Athens.
The match sees the country’s most successful side, Olympiacos, face off against the country’s oldest side, Panathinaikos. However, the dislike shown by the two clubs largely comes from factors outside of football. Class undoubtedly plays a big role, due to the areas in which the clubs were founded. Olympiacos is viewed as a working class club, while Panathinaikos is favoured by the higher class.
Overall, the Athens derby provides one of the most intense atmospheres available in football, and not necessarily in a good way. Hooligan behaviour is a common occurrence. Broken seats can be expected, as too can flares and fights. Matches have had to be called off in the past, with missiles frequently aimed at opposition players.
Incredibly, this rivalry extends beyond the boundaries of football. Crowd trouble and violent battles are the norm when the two club’s basketball and volleyball teams meet, too.
Red Star Belgrade v FK Partizan
Another ‘Eternal Derby’, this one sees two clubs from Belgrade, Serbia, clash in a number of sports, including basketball and handball. However, the biggest meeting between the two clubs undoubtedly come in the Serbian SuperLiga, a league that is almost always a two horse race between Red Star Belgrade and FK Partizan.
The rival has been an intense affair ever since the two clubs were created back in 1945, following the conclusion of the Second World War. Red Star were formed by the youth wing of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, while Partizan was formed by the Yugoslav People’s Army. With the two parties holding vastly different political views, it came as little surprise that those differences would find their way into football.
The atmosphere always borders on terrifying, rather than thrilling and both racism and violence are common occurrences, especially since the breakup of Yugoslavia back in the 1990s. With dismantled seating, flares, smoke, blood and an abundance of police officers suited up in riot gear, the Belgrade derby often looks like scenes from an action-packed war movie, rather than a game of football.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid
As the two most popular clubs in world football, the two richest clubs in world football and also two of the most successful clubs in world football, it comes as no surprise that a meeting between Barcelona and Real Madrid is one of the biggest matches in every football fan’s calendar. With La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League all providing the chance for the clubs to meet, ‘El Clasico’ games are frequently. Yet, each one proves to be as intense and exciting as the next.
The rivalry between the clubs goes back way before the invention of football, beginning with 1713 Siege of Barcelona, when Spain captured the Principality of Catalonia. Until now, Real Madrid or ‘Royal’ Madrid, are seen to represent the Spanish, while Barcelona are seen to represent Catalonia.
While often best remembered for the abundance of quality that both sides possess, such as the dazzling Ronaldinho, or the brilliance of Ronaldo, the fixture can, at times, descend into the chaos that is commonplace at derby matches, from managerial eye poking (involving Jose Mourinho, unsurprisingly) to a severed pig’s head, which was thrown as Luis Figo following his controversial switch from Barcelona to Madrid.
Galatasaray vs Fenerbahce
Like many of the rivalries featured in this article, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce’s differences largely stems from factors outside of the world of football. The former is viewed by many as the ‘upper class’ choice, while the later is largely followed by the working class.
However, their fierce football rivalry started in the 1930s, when a friendly match between the two clubs descended into chaos, with players and fans fighting throughout the stadium. The relationship between the two clubs has never been the same since, and the professionalisation of Turkish football two decades later only heightened the tension.
As two of the Turkish Super Lig’s biggest and most popular clubs, it is unsurprising that the rivalry has survived this long. In fact, the situation seemed to have become worse in recent times, with criminality and violence now the norm.
Incredibly, the two warring clubs might have been one. Had a merger deal, struck between the club’s former presidents Galip Kulaksızoğlu and Ali Sami Yen back in 1912, gone ahead, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce would now be known as ‘Türkkulübü, or ‘The Turkish Club’.
Boca Juniors vs River Plate
This one is commonly referred to as the ‘Superclasico’ and it certainly earns its name. In a country with a population of more than 41 million people, more than 70% of football fans follow one of the two teams involved in the tense affair. As a result, while many of the team’s featured are trying to claim the bragging rights in their city, when Boca Juniors and River Plate meet, they are fighting for the bragging rights on a national scale.
Despite both club’s forming within the same area of Buenos Aires, River Plate’s decision to relocate to a richer area in the 1920s often sees them labelled as the city’s ‘upper-class’ club, or ‘The Millionnaires’ by their rival fans, while Boca represents the working class.
While violence isn’t uncommon, the game is best known for its electric atmosphere, where huge crowds gather to shout, cheer and sing their team to victory.
Al Ahly vs Zamalek
While not quite as high profile as many of the derby matches on this list, the Cairo derby has earned its place as the bloodiest event in football.
In front of a 100,000 strong crowd, matches between Al Ahly SC and Zamalek SC, two of the most successful clubs in the history of African football, tensions usually rise both before, during and after the match, with ultra groups often staging fights between themselves. As a result, serious injury and a number of deaths have been recorded as a result. At one stage, the Egyptian Football Association were forced to cancel the entire league due to the constant violence and, as a result, these two teams are banned from playing against each other in their own stadiums.
Unsurprisingly, this intense rivalry stemmed from issues outside of football. Back when Egypt was under British rule, Zamalek was viewed as the ‘foreign’ team, while Al Ahly was the first football club formed by Egyptians. While Zamalek have now shed their British image, the hatred has never ceased and, in current circumstances, it doesn’t seem that it even will. If anything, the Cairo derby is only getting worse as time passes, as it continues to live up to its name as football’s most violent game.
Celtic vs Rangers
The Old Firm derby is undoubtedly one of the biggest in football and it’s appeal has always been sky high due to the sheer dominance of both Celtic and Rangers, who, between them, have won more than 80% of all the Scottish top flight campaigns ever played. As each team embarked on a period of control, the other would become increasingly frustrated, heightening tensions when the two sides met.
Incredibly, the two sides started as friends, rather than enemies, playing in a friendly game that only helped to establish their fans as a united front. Crowd trouble still occured, but it largely involved the two sets of supporters working with each other, rather than against.
However, the rise of sectarianism in Scotland soon placed the two clubs on opposite sides. With, owing to their founders, Celtic representing the Roman Catholic population and Rangers representing the Protestant population, and their relationship has never been the same since. As a result, while the Old Firm clash offers a brilliant display on the pitch, trouble in and around the stadium is always to be expected.