It’s derby weekend in Europe with Madrid and Manchester awaiting the resumption of hostility between their two best and brightest sides, so what better time could there be to undertake the futile and extremely contentious task of deciding which grudge matches are the most intense.
First of all, some ground rules. We’re going to stick solely to games in Europe (well just about, but more on that later). That is not to say that there are not outstanding derbies, but rather that the best derbies in other parts of the world are equally deserving of columns all their own (and if you’re interested in, say, Boca Juniors vs. River Platte you can now sign up to Paramount+ and watch the two Argentinean giants face off)
Secondly, and most importantly, we shall not be having any rivalry matches between opposing cities. There are of course wonderful rivalries between north and south, west and east across the continent, many of which have an intensity that would outshine some matches between near neighbors (and one of which, Bayern Munch vs. Borussia Dortmund which is being played on Saturday). But, there is still something different about these close knit games where one street roots for their club and a block away there is vociferous support for their great rivals. When these sorts of fixtures take place communities are abuzz with excitement, there is no escaping the tension for days on end.
So, sorry El Clasico and all your translated cousins (except El Trafico, you get no apologies until you come up with a better name) this is strictly a local affair. Let’s see how it shakes out:
10. Manchester derby
Has this tumbled away from the upper echelons of our rankings because of how insipid recent meetings between these two sides have been? It’s hard to know because self-care means never allowing yourself to think about the 0-0 draw from back in December.
The harsh truth is that those sorts of games have become rather more frequent between these two sides in recent years; even the games with significant repercussions have not always been vintage fare. Meanwhile, it is hard to get too carried away with the importance of this fixture when Manchester United don’t even view City as their greatest rivals, an honor reserved for Liverpool.
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Why put this on the list at all then? Well there are few derbies in all world football that pit two major footballing superpowers against each other. But most of all we do so to recognize that glorious period where meeting between United and City were not turgid affairs but epochal clashes that are riven into English football. Vincent Kompany’s header. Michael Owen at the death. Mario Balotelli and that undershirt. Rivalries didn’t get better than that.
9. A Derbi
As is so often the case in the derbies of eastern Europe in particular, there is no escaping the deeply politicized nature of the rivalry between Budapest powerhouses Ujpest and Ferencvaros.
The former, in the north of the Hungarian capital and only integrated into the city in 1950, were the rural outsiders who broke up the MTK Budapest and Ferencvaros duopoly in the 1930s. In the post-war era Ujpest became the club of the Interior Ministry. Their great rivals, meanwhile, came to be viewed as the party of opposition to the communist leadership. Now their roles are reversed. A member of the ruling Fidesz party is the president of Ferencvaros whilst Ujpest stand out for their distance from Viktor Orban’s regime.
Not that any of this matters on matchdays, raucous affairs of pyrotechnics, banners and aggression on the pitch in a match that brings Budapest to a juddering halt.
8. El Derbi Madrileno
Much like the Manchester derby, this loses a fair share of its standing for the simple reality that Atletico Madrid are not the first team Real Madrid look for on every fixture list but that does not entirely dull the intensity of the enmity between these two neighbors, one typified in the stadiums where they spent most of their lives.
The Santiago Bernabeu lies on the great Paseo de la Castellana. Keep walking — admittedly for quite a while — and you will find yourself at the Plaza de Cibeles, or the Prado Museum in the heart of the Spanish capital. The Vicente Calderon, Atletico’s home until 2017, was close to a brewery with a motorway running underneath it.
This rivalry has been at its best in recent years with their two Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016 both absorbing contests. Diego Simeone has helped Atletico establish themselves as a real force in Spanish football, albeit one that seems to regress to its doubt-riddled former self whenever it comes up against the team in all white from across the city, as was proven earlier this season when the all-conquering Rojiblancos fell apart against a struggling Madrid. Whether they can change that narrative this weekend remains to be seen.
7. Derby of the Eternal Enemies
Before we go any further, a moment’s applause please for some outstanding naming by the boys in Greece. Yes, other teams might have hated each other for a long time and might be prepared to continue their enmity for a fair while yet but there is something to be said for Olympiacos and Panathanaikos committing to their rivalry until the end of time itself.
Perhaps by then Olympiacos might have stopped hoarding all that Champions League wealth that has propelled them to the summit of Greek football, albeit recent years have seen their dominance fade somewhat with AEK Athens and PAOK Thessaloniki winning the titles in 2018 and 2019. Still that doesn’t change Greece’s big two.
6. El Gran Derbi
There is some debate as to which was the first meeting between Real Betis and Sevilla but there would be something wonderful if it was indeed one of the proposed options, a 4-3 thriller won by the latter on February 8, 1915, that went uncompleted as a furious crowd stormed onto the pitch. Few games in Europe evoke quite the passion of this match.
This is a derby rich in history from two of the mere nine clubs to have won the Spanish title. Notably, in 1918 Sevilla were 22-0 winners over their great rivals but the specifics of the game remain shrouded in mystery, though Betis were said to have sent a team of children into the fixture as they were protesting their inability to select players called up for military service.
5. Derby della Madonnina
A true meeting of Italian football juggernauts, the derby della Madonnina (so named for the statute of the Virgin Mary atop the city’s Duomo) has been graced by some of the finest footballers in the game’s history. Its list of record scorers is a who’s who of Europe’s elite strikers, from Giuseppe Meazza to Zlatan Ibrahimovic via Andriy Shevchenko and Gunnar Nordahl.
After years in the doldrums of Italian football this season has seen both Inter and AC Milan emerge as serious forces in Serie A, last month’s 3-0 win for Antonio Conte’s side might go down as the moment where Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez swung the title race away from the Rossoneri.
It would be a hugely significant title win for Inter, moving them one clear of Milan with 19 Scudetti to their name, bragging rights for one of the two tenants of San Siro (for the time being at least).
4. The Intercontinental Derby
As has become apparent throughout this list, the name goes a long way in picking out our favorites here and what a cracker this is, even if it just reflects that Galatasaray is on the European side of the Bosphorous and Fenerbahce the Asian.
There are few rivalries quite as intense as Istanbul’s and on more than one occasion it has stretched into deeply unpleasant territory off the pitch. During the game, however, its pageantry is remarkable and it has produced one of the indelible moments of continental football rivalry when manager Graeme Souness planted a Galatasaray flag in the Fenerbahce center circle, an act of provocation that he was convinced had lost him his job.
«I’m sitting in the dressing room afterwards thinking «that’s me, I’ll be finished, I’ll have a plane ticket and be off tomorrow,» he said years later. «Our board came in 10 minutes later with tears in their eyes, saying «this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to the football club.» I’ve never kissed so many mustachioed men in my life.»
3. North London derby
That this list was compiled by someone whose patch is the British capital will inevitably lead to accusations of London-centric, liberal elite bias. Why should a match between perennial rivals for fourth, at best, outshine the clash between the two juggernauts in Manchester?
Well, I’ll tell you why. There is no more wonderfully silly clash in all of European football than Arsenal against Tottenham. It is the one game that always outperforms our expected nonsense metric. What other fixture could have two Arsenal comebacks to win 5-2? Who else but Spurs could overturn a 4-2 deficit to the Gunners in the 89th minute? (Well, maybe Newcastle I guess).
Even relatively mundane score lines like the 2-0 win for Tottenham in December are enlivened by acts of utter madness; in this case, Thomas Partey walking off the pitch with an injury as Harry Kane burst through to score. At Atletico Madrid the Ghanaian was one of Europe’s most reliable and shrewd midfield generals. He has looked like that in an Arsenal shirt when he has been fit. But the north London derby does very silly things to even the finest footballers.
2. The Eternal Derby
There are many eternal derbies but few if any are as intense as the rivalry between Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade. This may be about the divisions of a city but these two clubs divide Serbia as a whole, you are either a Red Star or Partizan fan. According to a 2007 survey 48 percent of Serbians support Red Star, 31 percent Partizan and 21 percent every other club in the country.
At its fiercest games in front of almost 100,000 Red Star supporters at the Marakana could be almost unbearable challenges for opposing players, as former Partizan midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic attested, telling the BBC in 2018: «I played against one of the most important Red Star teams – at the start of the 1990s where they were champions of Europe and world champions. That game in front of 100,000 people with a hot atmosphere – big crowds and big ultras who don’t stop supporting the team. Sometimes it’s impossible to hear what’s happening around you.»
There is a long history of violence in this fixture, albeit one that appears to have receded in recent years thanks to punitive laws and grounds whose capacity has been halved by UEFA regulations. Yet the explosive, visceral intensity of the rivalry remains, played out in captivating scenes that make this one of Europe’s best matches.
1. Old Firm
It could only be! Floriana vs. Silema Wanderers, the great rivalry of the Maltese Premier League. Oh, you mean that Old Firm. Well, I guess.
Celtic and Rangers is the proto-derby, the one that gives us everything required for a top tier rivalry. This is a deep-seated antipathy that extends beyond just the football pitch that reflects on and raises awkward questions about the community that it exists in. Alongside that there is the fact that these matches really matter, that for most of the history of Scottish football whoever got the better of these games would end the season as champion.
Then of course there is the wonderful undertow of schaudenfreude, the delight not just in the success of your own club but the despair it will bring to your great rival. When Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are eventually crowned Scottish Premiership there will of course be an overriding sense of delight at the completion of a lengthy journey from demotion to the fourth tier in 2012 to their 55th season at the summit of domestic football.
But no fan could really argue that the title won’t be a fair bit sweeter for denying Celtic their 10th title in a row, just as the team in green and white had done in 1998 when Rangers looked destined to beat the Lisbon Lions record from 1966 to 1974.
And if you’re doubting that all this contributes to making the Old Firm the best of the bunch, take it from a man who knows grudge matches – former Barcelona, Manchester United, Feyenoord and Celtic striker Henrik Larsson.
«You can talk about Barca against their old rivals from Madrid, but, believe me, it’s not even close,» Larsson said in 2009. «I’ve played in two of those matches, so I know what I am talking about.
«There is nothing bigger than the Glasgow derby.»