Footballers Challenging for Ball

What is the Biggest Derby in Football?

Determining what is the biggest derby in football has long been the source of heated debate among fans for generations. Many supporters will forever claim that their team’s own derby is the fiercest and the most spectacular, unable to even contemplate that another could top it.

To the individual fan, the one closest to their heart is no doubt the biggest, best and most important but it is possible to get a more objective answer to the question. There can be no definitive conclusions and there are many contenders but over the course of this article we will show why some derbies have a more valid claim than others to being the world’s greatest.

What constitutes ‘the biggest?

Question MarksPart of the difficulty of answering the question, “what is the biggest derby in football” stems from the trouble of actually deciding how to decide what constitutes ‘big’. There is far from a consensus on how to measure the magnitude of a derby but there are certain aspects that definitely need to be considered.

The reputation of the two teams involved, stadium atmosphere and size, the hatred between them, how competitive they are, the longevity of the rivalry and their history are all important things to consider. We have distilled these down into five key areas and will factor them into our scoring system for each derby as we search for an answer to the age-old question.

El Clasico – Barcelona v Real Madrid

Catalan and Spanish Torn Flags

In Europe, there is no game bigger than this looking at a range of key metrics. Spain’s two most successful teams have long been bitter rivals as they attempt to take the limelight from one another.

The rivalry has been forged by a number of things but certainly has strong political routes, thanks to the pro-Catalan Barcelona and Spanish nationalists of the capital in Madrid. Back in the days of Franco, Barcelona visited the Spanish capital for a second leg of a 1943 cup clash. The director of state security of the time told the Catalans they were only able to walk and breathe thanks to the generosity of the regime. It no doubt helped the director’s mood that the Blaugrana lost the match 11-1.

Both clubs are regularly the main contenders for the Spanish title, with Atletico Madrid the only team to break their dominance since 2004. Some of the greatest names in world football have regularly blessed this derby, helping it to become one of the most viewed sporting events every time it features.

Every clash is talked about weeks in advance and it regularly delivers with goals and talking points rarely in short supply. Perhaps the only thing it lacks is the perfect atmosphere. Away fan culture is relatively small in Spain, meaning the derby loses a certain dynamic that most others have.

  • Club reputation: 10/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 8/10
  • Fierceness: 8/10
  • History: 9/10
  • Competitiveness: 10/10
  • Total Marks: 45

Intercontinental Derby (Istanbul) – Fenerbahce v Galatasaray

Bosphorus Bridges in Istanbul

There is no fixture in Turkey more deserving of a place on this list. The two sides are separated by Istanbul’s Bosphorus strait, leaving Galatasaray in Europe and Fenerbahce in Asia. Despite this continental element, unlike many other derbies, there is no real ethnic, religious or class-based divide between the two teams.

People are able to support whichever they like, free to follow their hearts. Graeme Souness will forever go down in the history of this derby after planting a Galatasaray flag in the middle of Fenerbahce’s pitch. Fortunately the Scot managed to avoid the wrath of the fans, several of whom attempted to make their way on to the pitch. Of course, whilst this enraged the home fans it was certainly a great for the Scot to get his own supporters on side – probably for life!

The players tend to embrace the rivalry in this game, playing with as much passion as shown by their fans. Red cards are a frequent addition to any clashes as a result with plenty of yellows to boot.

The two clubs have long been battling it out for Turkish league titles. Galatasaray have 22 to their name while Fenerbahce have 28, giving this rivalry a good competitiveness factor. Their stadiums are notoriously difficult places to visit for opposing teams and they are always filled to the rafters thanks to the huge fan bases of both sides.

  • Club reputation: 7/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 9/10
  • Fierceness: 8/10
  • History: 8/10
  • Competitiveness: 9/10
  • Total Marks: 41

Old Firm (Glasgow) – Celtic v Rangers

Boxing Gloves with UK and Ireland Flags

These two sides have history dating back to 1888, making it one of the oldest footballing derbies in the world. There was little rivalry to speak of in the beginning but the rise of sectarianism has turned these two clubs very much against each other.

Once a fixture used to raise money for the most disadvantaged in the area, by the 1920s and 1930s it had turned into a major source of violence. Glasgow chief constable Percey Sillitoe even contemplated cancelling the match in order to reduce the crime rate in the city!

On the pitch, this derby has lost much of its edge in recent years. Rangers were relegated to the Scottish third division in 2012 due to their off-field problems. The Gers have returned to the top flight since but by playing catch up, they still remain short of Celtic’s level.

It’s the Bhoys that have been the kings of Scottish football in recent seasons with their position at the top having long gone without any real threat. Rangers are looking more convincing under Steven Gerrard and could yet push Celtic close in 2018-19.

However, Celtic have won seven Scottish titles in a row, so competitiveness points therefore must be deducted and the same goes for club reputation as Scottish football struggles to attract much of an audience outside of the country.

  • Club reputation: 6/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 9/10
  • Fierceness: 10/10
  • History: 10/10
  • Competitiveness: 6/10
  • Total Marks: 41

North London Derby – Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur

London on Road Map

For many years north London was most definitely red. Arsenal’s dominance of their rivals led to the creation of what is known as St Totteringham’s Day. The occasion marks the day of the year that Tottenham cannot mathematically overtake their rivals.

For 21 consecutive seasons Spurs fans felt the pain of this day but they’ve been able to claim back much pride in recent seasons. Having improved drastically from their former mid-table mediocrity, Tottenham versus Arsenal is now a fixture that regularly looks like it can go either way. They are two big clubs and their matches regularly attract a large audience both inside and outside the stadium.

There are several reasons why this is not the best derby in the world however. Historically speaking it gains plenty of marks with their first ever clash dating back to 1909 but it lacks the fierceness and atmosphere of others. Sol Campbell’s free transfer from Spurs to Arsenal did add much fuel to the fire but the flames have faded since. Perhaps part of the issue is that Spurs also share rivalries with West Ham and Chelsea, unable to focus all their hate on just one club. Another issue is that Arsenal’s home, the Emirates Stadium is not known for being a hostile place and instead, is notorious for lacking atmosphere.

  • Club reputation: 8/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 7/10
  • Fierceness: 8/10
  • History: 8/10
  • Competitiveness: 8/10
  • Total Marks: 39

North West Derby – Liverpool v Manchester United

Manchester Ship Canal
Manchester Ship Canal by Quicks1lver, flickr

Both Liverpool and Manchester United have Premier League rivals within their own city but the contempt runs much strong between these two. These two giants of English football have enjoyed differing levels of success in recent decades but whenever they’ve faced it’s often been an unpredictable contest. No player has ever been directly transferred between the two clubs since Phil Chisnall in 1964, such is their rivalry. Michael Owen ended up playing for both but in the process he completely tarnished his reputation among Liverpool fans.

What adds to this derby is the sheer number of people with an interest in it. Manchester United and Liverpool are two of the biggest clubs in the world, each with a fan base to match. On the down side, while Anfield can be rocking for the big occasions, Old Trafford often lacks the same kind of atmosphere. It has gained a reputation in recent years as being a tourist location full of people only going to take selfies. The decreasing proportion of die-hard fans from the stadium has made Old Trafford a far less daunting place than it used to be.

  • Club reputation: 10/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 6/10
  • Fierceness: 8/10
  • History: 5/10
  • Competitiveness: 9/10
  • Total Marks: 38

Rome Derby – Lazio v Roma

Colosseum in Rome

Paulo Di Canio was involved in many derbies during his playing days but he said that no derby aside from the Old Firm compared to this one. The Italian went as far to say that each set of fans cares more about winning the derby games than they do about where they finish in the league.

Said supporters also enjoy winning the battle of wits inside the Stadio Olimpico. In 2000, Roma fans produced a giant tifo telling their plays that only the sky is bigger than them. Lazio fans responded in superb style by painting a similarly giant canvas with “you’re right, it’s blue and white.”

Roma legend Francesco Totti was one player who embraced the derby and regularly sought to wind up the Lazio fans. In one match, after scoring, he lifted up his shirt to reveal another that said ‘I have purged you again’ (we think it might lose a little in translation!).

Furiously seeking a response, Lazio fans took to the internet after the match to spread photos of Totti on the toilet. Sadly not all tales for this rivalry are this amusing. Violence has often marred the match, with one fan dying in 1979 after being shot with a flare. In 2004 fighting continued for hours as the game was postponed, leaving more than 150 injured and 13 arrested.

  • Club reputation: 7/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 9/10
  • Fierceness: 10/10
  • History: 8/10
  • Competitiveness: 8/10
  • Total Marks: 42

Tyne-Wear Derby – Newcastle United v Sunderland

This is the least prolific or glamorous of the matches on our list but the Tyne-Wear derby is well worthy of its place. The rivalry predates football, going all the way back to the age of the English Civil War.

Newcastle remained dedicated to the royals while Sunderland was staunchly Parliamentarian. Things were deadly then and they almost were again in March 2000 as 70 Sunderland and Newcastle hooligans clashed on Tyneside. Despite there not even being a match between them, it remains one of the worst instances of football hooliganism seen in the UK, which left one brain-dead.

A more infamous case of violence flared up in 2013 but this time it was not directed at another fan. In the aftermath of a derby, Magpies supporter Barry Rogerson covered himself in glory (not!) when he was spotted punching a police horse and was subsequently jailed.

The two sets of supporters have been able to find less violent ways of expressing their dislike of the other though. Some Sunderland fans boycotted breakfast cereal Sugar Puffs in 1996 because Kevin Keegan featured on their adverts.

Sadly the derbies have been put on hold for the time being due to Sunderland’s exit from the Premier League. Should they get drawn together in a cup contest, the two sides would be nowhere near as competitive as before.

  • Club reputation: 6/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 7/10
  • Fierceness: 9/10
  • History: 10/10
  • Competitiveness: 3/10
  • Total Marks: 36

Bueno Aries Derby (Superclasico) – Boca Juniors v River Plate

Argentina Flag

We’ve saved the best till last here as the Superclasico collects near full marks on our list of biggest footballing derbies. Although not a high profile fixture in Europe, in South America its status as a massive game is widely known.

There are figures to suggest that between them, the two teams’ supporters make up about 70% of all football fans in Argentina. Their gigantic following means that the entire nation can come to a near standstill whenever they play. Clashes between them are a true spectacle to behold with a sea of colours, sounds and dancing on display. When the fans jump together, both La Bombonera and El Monumental are known to bounce.

Boca fans referrer to River supporters as ‘chickens’ while the so called chickens have nicknamed their rivals ‘little pigs’ and ‘manure collectors’. Hatred of each other runs through their fans veins like nothing seen in European football. The Observer once said that the Bueno Aires derby makes the Old Firm look like a primary school-kick about.

The pure loathing of each other led to some Boca fans spraying River Plate players with irritant in the 2015 Copa Libertadores. That saw their team disqualified from the competition.

More fan trouble arose in the 2018 edition of the competition. This time River Plate fans attacked the Boca Juniors team bus with bricks and bottles and also hurling toxic gas at the players inside. Safely hosting the fixture became such a problematic issue that CONMEBOL decided to move the final 10,000km away in Madrid.

  • Club reputation: 9/10
  • Stadium Atmosphere: 10/10
  • Fierceness: 10/10
  • History: 9/10
  • Competitiveness: 9/10
  • Total Marks: 47