Whether you call it soccer, calcio, fútbol, fußball, or by any other language or dialect, the world’s biggest game is just that – a game, right?
Erm, wrong. For millions across the globe, it is more than just a game. It is a way of life. A matter of being. It is a religion, as well as an identity.
When it comes down to it, nothing is more sacred than protecting the honor of one’s club. The colors, history, stadia, and ethos come before anything and everything. It is blood and guts, passion and glory, and the reason to get out of bed when duty calls.
While there are intense rivalries between teams across the planet that stretch back over 100 years, there are a few fixtures in soccer that really catch the attention. From Britain to Egypt, and Brazil to Italy, some rivalries eclipse others. Some games, quite simply, matter more.
So, what is it that makes one derby more important than the next? Inter-city rivalry in sports has always been a thing, but when other factors like class, religion, history, politics, and even national identity are involved, things get heated.
If you are unaware of just how hot things can get when two tribes go to war, fear not, as I’ll be happy to explain everything.
In that case, prepare yourself for a journey through the 5 craziest soccer derbies on Earth.
Lazio vs. Roma – “Derby della Capitale” (Rome, Italy)
Rome, the “Eternal City,” is one of the most magnificent and beautiful destinations on the planet.
Although the days of the Roman empire and gladiatorial battles to the death are a thing of the past, one fixture in the city’s soccer calendar, Lazio vs. Roma, stands out as one to watch. Or, once to watch out for, depending on your perspective.
The largest derby in Italy, the Derby della Capitale is played between two teams who share the same stadium, the Stadio Olimpico. Despite playing their games at the same arena – and hailing from Rome – there is nothing that these fierce rivals would want to be bonded by.
And that has been the way things have gone since the foundation os AS Roma all the way back in 1927. The club was (partly) the brainchild of Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted to see Rome put it up to the stronger teams in the north of the country. As such, three clubs – Roman, Alba-Audace, and Fortitudo – were amalgamated to form the club.
However, there was one remaining team in Rome, SS Lazio, who point blank refused to be swallowed up by the merger. Proud of their history and roots, Lazio would look down their noses at the new club. This sentiment is still alive and kicking, close to one hundred years later.
This sense of superiority has played out in multiple acts of violence and hatred, including the death of a Lazio supporter in 1979 and several riots and group fights.
Why the Hatred?
Well, “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us certainly comes to mind.”
Additionally, Lazio fans have often looked down their noses at the upstarts in the Girallorossi colors. For the I Biancocelesti, AS Roma are the outsiders and have never belonged to the rich tapestry of Roman soccer. Lazio has been around since 1900 and this is something the club takes great pride in.
Even though both Lazio and Roma have lived in the shadows of the stronger teams from the north over the past few decades – teams like Juventus, A.C. Milan, and Inter Milan – the intense hatred is still alive and kicking.
More than any other derby in Italy, the Roman derby is, by far, the juiciest. The sheer thrill of the Derby della Capitale is enough to ignite the flames in any Lazio or Roma fan, old or young. It is one of those games that the whole soccer community pays attention to and cannot help but get excited about.
Flamengo vs. Fluminense – “Fla-Flu” (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
When we consider that the world record soccer match attendance (194,603) was set in 1963 between these two teams, it is safe to say that this Rio de Janeiro derby is a big deal.
When soccer began to replace rowing as the go-to sport in Rio, the esteemed rowing club, Flamengo, got onboard and set up a team. In doing so, they ‘stole’ 9 players from Fluminense F.C., much to their disdain. A rivalry had been born before they had even played against one another.
The strange is that these two clubs had always maintained good relations beforehand. As Flamengo was a rowing club before their venture into the world of soccer, they would allow their rowers to play for Fluminense, and vice versa. In their first game as rivals, Fluminense won 3-2.
The fixture as we know it really came into its own in the 1930s when Mário Filho – a journalist for a local sports outlet – challenged fans to a competition to make the next Fla-Flu as vibrant and colorful and possible. Fans brought balloons, tape, streamers, and materials that would be more suitable at a party than a soccer match.
What started off as a one-off competition became a tradition that is celebrated to this day.
Carrying on the Flavor of the Fla-Flu
While most of the rivalries in this piece are especially hostile ones, for the most part, what makes the Fla-Flu crazy is the spectacle itself.
It is certainly known as the most famous rivalry in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. However, Flamengo vs Vasco da Gama – the two teams who have the most support in Rio – is considered as the most heated rivalry in the Brazilian capital city.
Fla-Flu is something completely different – a celebration of all things wild and wonderful in Brazilian culture, especially that found in Rio.
In 1950, the iconic Maracanã Stadium was built to accommodate the home games of both Flamengo and Fluminense. This huge stadium was named after the man that created the tradition of one of the most spectacular derbies on the planet, Mário Filho.
When watching a game between these two teams, spare a thought for the “father of the Fla-Flu.”
Boca Juniors vs. River Plate – “Superclásico” (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
These old rivals from Buenos Aires, Argentina, sum up what a crazy derby should look like. Unfortunately for fans of both world-famous clubs, things can often get a little out of hand when it comes down to it.
Both teams take their unusual names from a trend of bestowing English names of newly formed clubs in Argentina at the turn of the century. River Plate took their name from stamps on goods that had arrived from Britain to Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century.
Boca even took their colors from a Swedish flag that was in the city’s port at the time of their founding.
Fans around the world recently got a glimpse of just how crazy this rivalry is in the canceled Copa Libertadores final between the teams. This was the first final to feature the bitter rivals, with the second loeg postponed following widespread violence against fans and even the Boca Juniors team.
Given that approximately 70% of Argentina supports either Boca or River, it is safe to say that the country sits up and notices when these teams meet.
Social and Economic Differences
River Plate, known by the nickname “Los Millonarios” (The Millionaires), have long been considered to represent the bourgeoisie. Boca, on the other hand, is regarded as the ‘people’s club.’
Despite coming from the same docklands area of Buenos Aires, these labels still stand. Boca, who were founded by Italian immigrants, are proud of their working-class tag while River – who earned their nickname from their spendthrift days in the 40s, 50s, and 60s – attracts the more economically successful fan.
This leads to warfare when both teams meet. Whether it is on the streets or on the terraces, the violence can often escalate to very dangerous levels. The rivalry is more than just about soccer – it is life or death for the fans who support their clubs with intense passion.
This is one of the craziest games on the planet, without any shadow of a doubt.
Partizan vs. Red Star – “Eternal Derby” (Belgrade, Serbia)
The flares, sounds, and colors that encapsulate fans on the terraces for this derby are legendary.
Belgrade’s “Eternal Derby” between Partizan and Red Star is one of the most notorious soccer matches on the planet. Having been the fixture in Serbian sports since the formation of both clubs in 1945, there is nothing that grabs the sports-loving population of the country quite like this match
Despite the club’s stadiums located just a 12-minute walk from each other in the Autokomanda suburb of Belgrade, the identity of fans could not be any different. It is estimated that 50% of Serbians support Red Star, and 45% owe their allegiances to Partizan. This means that just 5% of people support other clubs in the country.
As such, newborn babies are often given small replica shirts of their family’s favorite club.
However, there is an undercurrent of violence that has marred this fixture. The world was shocked in 1999 when a teenage Red Star fan lost his life to a rocket fired into the crowd by rival fans. The game has often attracted huge riots and fan fights, too, which has given it something of a bad name both inside and outside of the country.
This has led to many “regular” supporters avoiding games between the two teams.
Behind the Rivalry
Surprisingly enough, the Belgrade derby is not really driven by politics.
Following World War Two, Partizan was founded by the military while Red Star was set up by members of the police force in Belgrade. As such, those who were in the communist army of Yugoslvia tended to support Partizan while many others got behind Red Star.
Following the break-up of Yugoslavia broke up, Red Star and Partizan fans actually banded together against Slobodan Milosevic’s police force. This was a one-off, bar a few times that they came together against Croatian teams.
That being said, the fixture is one of the craziest soccer matches in the world. The passion certainly adds an edge to the game when both sides meet.
Celtic vs. Rangers – “The Old Firm” (Glasgow, Scotland)
The first thing any Celtic fan reading this piece will probably think to themselves is, “Rangers are dead, are they not?”
Well, there is some truth to that.
Glasgow Rangers, “the most successful club in Scotland” – at least in terms of domestic honors, entered administration in 2012. Banished from the Scottish Premier League, they would re-emerge as a new entity in the Third Division of Scottish football, leaving the world of soccer with a gaping hole that could not be filled.
At the very least, Britain’s greatest soccer derby – and arguably the most fierce, historic, and most infamous in the world – was finished. Over 100 years of combat, both on and off the field, suddenly came to an abrupt halt.
Yes, the cheers and jeers from Glasgow’s green and white contingent – and a sizeable amount of the population from across the water in Ireland (more to come on this) – reverberated around the living rooms and backstreets of the Rangers hotbeds of Glasgow and beyond.
When you talk about pure, unadulterated hatred in soccer, Celtic vs. Rangers is – aside from the fans on either side who just want to support their team without such malice – the most gruesome in the sport.
If you are wondering why this is, you are not alone.
A Brief History of Hatred
Glasgow Rangers were founded in 1872, 16 years before Brother Walfrid – an Irish Marist priest – founded what we now know as Glasgow Celtic, in 1888.
Just a few decades prior, Ireland had been ravaged by war and death. “The Great Hunger,” a period known as the “The Famine” to some, saw millions of Irish die and emigrate due to starvation.
While the country was abundant with food, the livestock, corn, barley, and an assortment of other products that grew on the lush and fertile Irish soil were shipped overseas to Britain.
The poor Irish – many of whom had been kicked out of their homes by ruling British landlords – could only rely on the potato for sustenance. Since many had no land of their own following their displacement by British landlords, they could just about grow potatoes in small patches of dirt found by the side of roads and behind fields.
A great potato blight hit Europe in 1845, leading to mass starvation among the Irish. While many perished, others fled to Britain and the U.S. One of the places that a number of Irish emigrants made it to was Glasgow, Scotland. Even decades after their arrival, the Irish immigrants were so poor that they bordered on desolate.
This led to Brother Walfrid founding the Celtic Football Club with the intention of helping the poor of Glasgow’s East End.
Wait, What Does this Have to do with Celtic vs. Rangers?
The poor Irish that landed in Glasgow were mostly Catholic.
Great Britain had long been a Protestant country following Henry VIII’s conversion to Protestantism. Ireland, a country that had been fighting against the rule of Britain for hundreds of years, remained almost entirely Catholic, much to the disdain of those across the water (including the Scots).
As a result, the Irish were viewed as second class citizens in Glasgow. Today, many of the descendants of those Irish are still looked down upon by some in the blue part of town. Following the Easter Rising, Irish Independence, and the atrocities carried out in “The Troubles,” those of Irish heritage are despised by some of the hardcore Rangers fans. Most happen to be Celtic supporters.
A typical Celtic vs. Rangers game – whether it is in Celtic Park or Ibrox – will feature hundreds of Irish flags and hundreds of Union Jacks (the flag of the United Kingdom). The sectarian demonstrations that celebrate both the (Republican) IRA and the (Protestant) UDA, UFF, and UVF paramilitary groups are still in effect.
There have been several murders and serious assaults owed to this fiercest of derbies. In 2011, Celtic boss Neil Lennon even received bullets in the mail from Rangers fans, who were believed to be threatening his life.
Whether we like it or not, Celtic vs. Rangers is a clash that comes down to more than soccer. It involves bigotry, sectarianism, hatred, religion, and a celebration of the darker side of Hiberno-Anglo relations.
For those who doubt just how intense this rivalry is, simply wearing a Celtic shirt in a “Rangers part of town” at any time of the day – or vice versa – would be akin to jumping into a lion’s den wearing a tuxedo made out of bacon.
The Passion of Derbies
Soccer is the world’s most celebrated sport.
From the backstreets of Manchester, England to the fields of Mogadishu, Somalia, you will find kids draped in their clubs’ colors, dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final. There is no sport that seems to unite and divide cities, countries, and even continents quite like soccer.
For the fixtures that come and go without much attention, the big derbies are the ones that have the ability to bring entire countries to a standstill. The players on the pitch know only too well the price that comes with losing against their bitter rivals, while understanding just how much a win for their team means to their fans.
Sometimes, these fixtures are played with political and social undercurrents. Politics finds its way into the game, bringing hate, division, and bitter feuds with it.
For most fans, however, it is all about soccer. And that’s the way it should be.