FourFourTwo's 50 Biggest Derbies in the World: 20-11

A London derby, De Klassieker and the Derby della Madonnina all feature in our penultimate list of the greatest club rivalries...

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Words: Gary Parkinson and Chris Flanagan.

20. Arsenal vs Tottenham

Compared to some derbies, this doesn’t really matter. It rarely decides a title: Spurs come and go from the top four, while Arsenal have often finished third or fourth. They’re not even that close: the four-mile gap means that the Emirates is closer to Waterloo than to White Hart Lane (with apologies to non-Londoners for that metropolitan reference). And Chelsea’s recent accretion of domestic and continental silverware means that neither can confidently claim to be the capital’s best club.

However, it obviously matters a great deal. It’s London’s highest-profile derby, between two teams with millions of fans around the world. The teams first clashed in 1887 when Arsenal were still in Kent, but the rivalry cranked up several notches when Henry Norris moved his club from Woolwich to Holloway, and a whole heap more in 1919 when Norris’s politicking won Arsenal a controversial promotion that still rankles with the White Hart Lane diehards. The impending centenary of that decision, which confirmed Tottenham’s relegation despite the top flight’s expansion, will only restoke those flames for a new generation.  

READ THIS: Henry Norris: Spurs’ first Arsenal enemy

It soon turned nasty: a 1922 game was so violent that the FA threatened both clubs with playing behind closed doors. Hostilities lessened between 1928 and 1950 as the clubs were in separate divisions for all but two seasons, but since then they’ve only been apart for one campaign and familiarity has bred contempt, especially as the Premier League stakes have grown so high – and, arguably, as the support base has become less parochial and more geographically diverse. As Spurs fan Jim O’Neill puts it, “When Pat Jennings left Spurs for Arsenal, he got applauded when he came back to the Lane, but Sol Campbell needs an armed guard.” GP

READ THIS: FFT's 100 Best Stadiums: Emirates

READ THIS: More Than A Game: Arsenal vs Tottenham

19. Olympiakos vs Panathinaikos

Two-and-a-half millennia ago, the cities of Athens and Piraeus were linked by eight miles of siege-resistant walls. Now their teams are united in mutual loathing by a fixture known as the Derby of the Eternal Enemies or indeed the Mother of All Battles. One of Greece’s oldest clubs, Panathinaikos originally represented Athens’ high society; Olympiakos, by contrast, gathered their fans from the working port city of Piraeus.

The two are Greece’s dominant sides, winning 64 of the 82 national league titles; there has been one other champions since 1994 – AEK Athens in 2017/18. Olympiakos have the upper hand with 44 titles to 20. This inequality doesn’t seem to have had a soothing effect on the derby, which now features no away fans but plenty of riot police, fireworks and quite often tear gas. In 2015 an Olympiakos player needed treatment after being struck by a flare; in 2012 the game was abandoned after Panathinaikos fans set fire to the seats and scoreboard (in their own stadium); and in 2007 a fan was stabbed to death before the two sides clashed – at women’s volleyball. GP

READ THIS: More Than A Game: Olympiakos vs Panathinaikos

18. Flamengo vs Fluminense

Any football-match bucket lister should consider Fla-Flu in the Maracana. Rio de Janeiro’s two most successful clubs draw a big crowd, although perhaps not quite the 194,000 said to have packed into Brazil’s most iconic stadium in 1963, setting a world record for a club fixture.

Fluminense (it means ‘inhabitant of Rio state’) was formed in 1902 by aristocratic youngsters who’d seen this foot-ball thing while studying in Europe. Flamengo was primarily a rowing club until 1911, when some members who also played football for Fluminense decided to form their own team; at the first derby in 1912, nine of Flu’s line-up were facing their old colleagues. During an absurd title-deciding 1941 fixture, Fluminense tried to protect a lead by hoofing clearances into a nearby lagoon, but Flamengo’s rowers paddled out to retrieve them. GP

READ THIS: FFT's 100 Best Stadiums: Maracana

17. FK Velez vs HSK Zrinjski

You didn’t expect that, did you? But the Mostar derby is one of the world’s most fascinating and tempestuous clashes. Now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar is split geographically by the Neretva River – and that fluvial schism (plus a war or two) has helped to create an ethno-cultural partition between the primarily Catholic Croat west bank and the predominantly Bosniak Muslim east bank (it's the bridge of Mostar pictured above). Named after a Croatian aristocrat who died defending his country from the Ottomans, Zrinjski have long been identified with Croat nationalism; Velez were formed by a mixed-ethnic bunch of Communist anti-monarchists.

The sides first met in 1922, but those political convictions led to frequent closure whenever the incumbent government wanted to silence either clubs’ ethos. Nationalist Zrinjski prospered during World War Two when Mostar was part of the fascist Independent State of Croatia, but within 10 days of the war’s end the Communist party had reformed Velez while Zrinjski were closed down, their archives destroyed – whereas the aftermath of the 1990s Yugoslav wars saw Zrinjski brought back to life while Velez were marginalised.  

After 62 years, the sides were finally brought back into sporting opposition in 2000 by the merging of Bosnia’s previously separate Croat and Bosniak leagues; they remain in competition, for the time being at least. Zrinjski remain a totem of Croatian identity, but Velez is more complicated: still left-leaning (their fans carry images of Che Guevara and Marshal Tito), the club’s support is now mostly Muslim. In its history, geography, politics, ethnicity and culture, the Mostar derby is one of the world’s most fascinating games. GP

READ THIS: More Than A Game: FK Velez vs HSK Zrinjski

16. Ajax vs Feyenoord

Since its inception in 1921, De Klassieker has become a clash of two Dutch cultures. Ajax represent Amsterdam: classical, artsy and liberal. Feyenoord are Rotterdam: industrial, largely rebuilt since being flattened in World War Two, and increasingly right-wing – controversial politician Pim Fortuyn founded his anti-immigration party in the city. Ajax’s glamour contrasts with Feyenoord’s gritty populism (their stadium De Kuip has the better atmosphere).

The rivalry reached new levels in the early 1970s as Dutch football dominated Europe: Feyenoord won the 1970 European Cup but Ajax won the next three and cemented a Rotterdam-reviled reputation for graceful football. So imagine the shock when in 1983, after a 36-year-old Johan Cruyff led Ajax to the double but wasn’t offered a new contract, he jumped the divide and joined Feyenoord. Ajax promptly won De Klassieker by a record 8-2 scoreline amid riots in the stadium – but Feyenoord ended the season, and Cruyff’s playing career, by winning the double.  

The rivalry hasn’t always been quite so Hollywood, and has descended into murderous violence: a thirtysomething man was killed in 1997’s pre-arranged Battle of Beverwijk, for which hooligans arrived armed with knives, bats, bars and hammers. Unsurprisingly, away fans are currently banned from De Klassieker. GP

READ THIS: FFT's 100 Best Stadiums: De Kuip - Amsterdam Arena

READ THIS: More Than A Game: Ajax vs Feyenoord