There’s nothing quite like a good rivalry. Whether it’s in fiction or in sports, when two people or groups who consider each other rivals face off, the storyline takes a dramatic twist. The USA and the Soviet Union, The Rock and Steve Austin, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins; rivalries push each participant to be the best version of themselves that they can be.
Sports rivalries are only as fierce as they are because the fans make it that way. When two rival teams are locked in a showdown, it creates a real tension in the air as both sets of fans try to cheer on their side to victory. Sometimes a rivalry is a friendly one, more of a bromance than a real destined adversary. Sometimes sports rivalries aren’t even based on the actions in the game, but rather on cultural or civic rivalries between the two cities. The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs NHL rivalry is largely a civic rivalry between Canada’s traditionally two biggest cities. Sometimes previously intense rivalries cool down to become an echo of what they once were, but sometimes they get taken to new heights by new events.
Soccer rivalries are, in the opinion of this writer, the most intense in all of sport, and almost entirely because of the fans. Soccer fans – particularly in Europe and South America, but really everywhere – are absolute fanatics. So much so that in the past (but also occasionally today) encounters between two rival sets of fans can end in violence and even death. I don’t think anyone would argue that this kind of passion is destructive and excessive, but when it’s channeled non-violently it definitely makes for some of the greatest crowds in all of sport. Sometimes soccer rivalries are rare encounters between two teams who only meet in European competition once every few years, and sometimes it’s a rivalry between teams in the same domestic league who encounter each other multiple times a year. That being said, the wildest and most storied rivalries are the ones where two teams share the same city, because the rivalry becomes about much more than the sport. It becomes about control of the home front, about who is king in the castle that they share. These local rivalries – or ‘derbies’ as the English are fond of calling them – make for some of the most exciting games in all of sport. Let’s profile 5 of the most intense, hard-hitting local rivalries in all of soccer.
5. Real Madrid vs. Atlético Madrid
El Derbi madrileño is the name given to the showdown between the two top teams in the Spanish capital of Madrid. For many, many years, the Madrid derby wasn’t one that was given much thought. The dominance of Real Madrid consistently displayed for decades meant that their local rivals lived an existence perennially in the shadow of their nemesis across town. Unlike when Real Madrid would encounter Barcelona in El Clásico, widely considered the greatest rivalry in soccer, no one seemed to care when Real would square off against their significantly poorer and less successful rivals Atlético Madrid. Their stadiums symbolize the difference between the two sides; Real’s majestic home, the Santiago Bernabéau is situated on the affluent Paseo de la Castellana along with some of Madrid’s most storied businesses. Atlético’s Vincente Calderón stadium is next to a brewery by the Manzanares river. The first Spanish league match between the two took place in 1928, which began a long and tumultuous history in which Real Madrid often came out on top. Out of the 154 games played between the two in history, Real has won 85 while Atlético has won 36 (33 draws). Interestingly enough, the two crown jewels of Madrid will now meet in the finals of the UEFA Champion’s League on May 24th in Lisbon, Portugal. For the first time in Champion’s League history, two teams from the same city will meet in the finals. If Real win, they will become the first club to win 10 European championships, while if Atlético emerge on top they will earn their first European title at the expense of their local rivals. Whoever wins, history will be made.
4. Manchester City vs. Manchester United
Like Madrid, Manchester is a city that traditionally had one dominant team and one less successful team. Manchester United is one of the most famous clubs in the world, and virtually everyone who even loosely follows soccer knows a bit about the club and it’s history. Their nouveau riche cross-town rivals, Manchester City, have only very recently entered the consciousness of fans outside of England. The two teams played against each other for the first time in 1881, and have since faced each other 167 times. Of that 167, Manchester United has won 69 times, while Manchester City has won 48 (50 drawn).
Prior to World War II, Manchester City consistently got the best out of their rivals United. Things changed in post-WWII England, as the two sides experienced back and forth success until the late 70s, when United pulled away and became the far better team. At the beginning of the Premier League era, United began a period of dominance never before seen in English soccer – until 2008, when Manchester City was purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group. The massive cash injection made City competitive again, and the new era of the Manchester rivalry culminated with City snatching the 2011/2012 league title out of the jaws of United on the very last day of the season, winning by goal differential in memorable fashion with 2 goals in extra time. Today, United is licking their wounds after their worst season in memory, while City are celebrating their 2013/2014 Premier League title victory. The Manchester rivalry will only become more heated now that both sides are experiencing success at the highest level.
3. AC Milan vs. Inter Milan
The Derby della Madonnina (or just the Milan Derby in English) is one of Italy’s most storied rivalries. Unlike the other entries on the list, who just have to contend with sharing a city with their rivals, the two Milanese teams must make due with sharing a stadium. Both teams, despite being famous and wildly successful clubs in their own right, call the San Siro stadium in Milan home. Also in contrast to history of other teams with local rivals, no one side has been the dominant one throughout history. Throughout the 212 games played between the two, Inter has won 76 and AC Milan has won 74. The two squads have made Milan home to more European championships than any other team in history, with a total of 10 (7 for AC Milan and 3 for Inter Milan).
2. Celtic vs. Rangers
As previously mentioned, sometimes sports rivalries are simply the incarnation of more sinister, cultural rivalries, as was the case in Glasgow, Scotland. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers – nicknamed ‘The Old Firm’ – is the manifestation of tension between Catholics and Protestants in Scotland’s capital. Celtic was traditionally the Catholic team, while Rangers represented Glasgow’s Protestant population. Although the rivalry isn’t quite as tense as it once was – particularly because Rangers now play in a lower league than Celtic – a certain degree of violence between segments of the fan base used to be the norm and not the exception. The two teams have not played each other in two years, but Rangers look as if they are only 1 season away from being promoted back to the top flight of the Scottish Premier League, which would rekindle the rivalry with Celtic. The two teams have played each other an astonishing 399 times since 1888, with Rangers winning 159 times and Celtic winning 144 (96 draws). The next time the two sides meet will be their 400th encounter after a long hiatus, so whenever it does happen, you can be sure the encounter will be electrifying to say the least.
1. Boca Juniors vs. River Plate
For those who exclusively follow European soccer, this one may come as a bit of a surprise. The most intense, storied rivalry in all of soccer isn’t actually found on the game’s home continent of Europe, but rather in South America. Buenos Aires, Argentina, is home to both Boca Juniors and their cross-town rivals River Plate. Games played between the two have been given the moniker Superclásico, which is a play on the Clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Game day between Boca Juniors and River Plate have been described as extraordinarily tense, as the entire city of Buenos Aires slows down to watch the encounter. The history between the two is filled with tragedy and death – 71 fans were trampled to death during a game in 1968 – with each side accusing the other of violence. On the pitch, they’ve met 347 times since 1908, with Boca Juniors winning 127 times and River Plate winning 112 (109 draws). The Supercláscio has been described by those who have attended as the single most electrifying game in soccer, and witnessing it live is undoubtedly an unforgettable experience.