Great Football Rivalries

Football has made its way into the world’s consciousness in a way that no other sport has quite achieved. Ahead of the World Cup which has been the ultimate platform for many a rivalry to flourish, we take a look at some of the best football rivalries around.

Manchester United v Liverpool

English football fans will know all about the rivalry that exists between these two powerhouses, one that’s been given renewed vigour after Manchester United endured a dreadful season by their standards while Liverpool have risen once more to be considered genuine title contenders. Put simply, England’s most successful clubs don’t like each other. They first met in 1894, making it one of the oldest rivalries in world football. The cities had been competitors themselves with Liverpool famous for its port and Manchester renowned for its manufacturing. The creation of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1984 allowed ships to bypass Liverpool which led to resentment and job losses, setting the tone for confrontation on the pitch. Incredibly, not since Phil Chisnall’s transfer in 1964 has a player moved directly between clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote as United boss "My greatest challenge is not what's happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their perch. And you can print that.”  has passed into football folklore and he led his side to 13 league titles, allowing them to beat Liverpool’s record of 18 with 20. Reds fans will always point to the fact they have won five European Cups, bettering United’s haul of three, as the ultimate pointer of success, but until Liverpool regain the league after 24 long years and counting, it looks like Manchester has won this particular argument for now.

Boca Juniors and River Plate

El Superclasico is probably the most ferocious and important derby in South American football, a game that ‘makes the Old Firm game look like a primary school kick-about.’ They are the two most successful clubs in Argentina, comprising around 70% of all supporters in the country. Boca Juniors have their roots in the working-class docklands areas of Buenos Aires, while River Plate are associated with the richer areas of the capital. On June 23, 1968 after a match between the two teams, 71 fans were killed in a crush and 150 fans injured with both sets of fans blaming the others for the tragedy. Three years later a government enquiry found no-one to blame angering both sets of supporters. The passion on show is almost unheard of in sport, with the stadiums transformed into a cauldron of colour, noise and tension. It frequently turns violent and stories of ultra-fans visiting their team’s dormitories and dressing room before games to reiterate the importance of the occasion have only fuelled the notoriety of this match.

Fenerbahce and Galatasaray

The Intercontinental Derby is Turkey’s biggest clash with Fenerbahce representing the Asian side of Istanbul and Galatasaray the European side. The first match between the sides was in 1904 and in later years there were efforts to merge the pair into one club. But because of the Balkan Wars in 1913 this never went through. A ‘friendly’ game between the clubs in 1934 spelled the end of previously good relations between the teams. Because of opposing players fighting and trouble in the stands, the game was abandoned. The Turkish Cup final of 1996 came at a time when Fenerbahce were challenging for the league and Galatasaray were struggling badly. Everyone expected an easy win for Fenerbahce and their chairman suggested Graeme Souness was a poor coach for their rivals. Surprisingly, Galatasaray won the first leg 1-0 and then in injury time in the second leg at Fenerbahce hit an equaliser that saw them crowned champions. Souness, full of passion, ran onto the pitch and stuck a Galatasaray flag in the centre of the pitch, infuriating the home fans and making him a legend with his club. The hatred is so intense that violence occurs between rivals fans across Turkey when the pair meet.

El Salvador and Honduras

Not many football matches can claim to have started a war but that’s what happened after these neighbours met in a qualification match for the 1970 World Cup – well, almost. Known as the ‘Football War’, the causes of the conflict go further back than just the playoff match that took place in Mexico City in 1969. Both previous matches in the campaign had finished with the home side winning and there was serious violence after each encounter between fans. After El Salvador won the decisive play-off 3-2 in a dramatic meeting that was settled in extra-time, the violence grew. At the heart of it was a political conflict between the two nations over land-reform laws in Honduras that had seen thousands of El Salvadorans expelled from the country with the loss of land and possessions. The El Salvador government stopped all diplomatic relations with Honduras, accusing them of ‘genocide’ and a four-day war broke out. Both countries suffered major casualties and hundreds of thousands were displaced during battle. A legacy of distrust exists to this day and meetings between the pair always carry real tension.

Real Madrid and Barcelona

El Clasico is the most famous rivalry in world football and certainly the most popular with a global audience. Only the Champions League final attracts a bigger number of viewers for a club match. Once more politics have played their part in shaping the narrative behind this great fixture. Barcelona has come to represent Catalanism – a breakaway movement for independence in the north of the country – while Madrid, in part due to its links with General Franco, is seen as representing nationalism. In the 1950s both clubs claimed to have signed Argentinean superstar Alfredo Di Franco. A FIFA investigation decided the clubs had to share the player over alternative seasons but Barcelona's General Franco-imposed President backed down and Di Franco went on to help lead Madrid to five successive European Cup successes. Player transfers have continued to stoke the flames of tension between the clubs. Luis Figo’s move to Madrid in 2000 was treated as treason by the Barca fans and the likes of Michael Laudrup, Bernd Schuster and Luis Enrique swapping sides in recent times have been controversial. As Barca have usurped their rivals in the capital over the last few years the stakes have gotten even higher when the pair meet, making for an incredible spectacle.

Argentina and England

Tensions over the Falkland Islands continue to simmer away even after the Falklands War of 1982 when Argentinean forces invaded the British island. They were ultimately defeated but the hostility remains and when the countries met in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final the stage was set for a belter against the backdrop of political grievance. Of course the game will be remembered for one man’s actions. Diego Maradona’s famous ‘Hand of God’ goal levelled the tie at 1-1 and then, from the absurd to the sublime, the diminutive player scored one of the best goals of all time, dribbling past almost the whole England side to hit the winner. A dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat in the 1998 World Cup to Argentina, embedded in the minds of Three Lions fans thanks to David Beckham’s dismissal and a late disallowed goal from Sol Campbell that would have put them through, helped keep the rivalry alive. But in Japan at the 2002 World Cup both Beckham and England went some way to avenging those painful defeats over their old foes with Beckham’s penalty leading the side to a stirring 1-0 win – a result the Argies couldn’t recover from as they exited the tournament in the group stages.

Celtic and Rangers

Like so many sporting rivalries, Scotland’s most enduring conflict between Rangers and Celtic – the Old Firm  is steeped in politics, religion and national identity. Glasgow’s two clubs originally stood for opposing ideals with Rangers generally attracting the support of Protestant loyalists and Celtic representing the Catholic Irish Scots and the politics of republicanism. That they are Scotland’s two most successful clubs has only inflamed tension. Violence is common with reports suggesting sectarian activity and attacks rise ninefold on weekends when the Old Firm play. Opposing fans fought an on-pitch battle after Celtic's 1–0 victory in the 1980 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden which remains one of the worst invasions onto a football pitch ever reported, and was instrumental in alcohol being banned from football grounds in the country. There was serious fan disorder during an Old Firm match played in May 1999 at Celtic Park and since the events of that day, Old Firm league matches have normally been played in the early afternoon and the possibility of a title decider has been deliberately avoided. Rangers’ enforced relegation to the third tier in 2012 has at least allowed a break in regularity between the teams meeting but it has also robbed the Scottish Premier League of any competitiveness at the top.

Ajax and Feyenoord

De Klassieker between two of the Netherlands’ biggest clubs may not have the same profile as some of the other fixtures on this list but it’s one of the most terrifying. The rivalry between the two clubs really took off in the 1970s when Ajax and Feyenoord were arguably the two best teams in the world. With Johan Cruyff in the side, Ajax won three consecutive European Cups from 1971-73 after Feyenoord won their only European Cup in 1970. In 1983 Cruyff made a dramatic move to Feyenoord, motivated by revenge against the Ajax board for not giving him a new contract, and he duly delivered by winning the league and cup double in his only season at the club. Frequent clashes between hooligans have resulted in deaths, and riots were becoming so commonplace that in February 2009 the mayors of each city agreed to ban visiting supporters for the next five seasons in an attempt to curb the animosity – something has hasn’t gone away with Ajax returning from the wilderness to win the last four Dutch Leagues. Feyenoord last took glory in 1999.

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