The best derby in Europe?
“What is the best derby in the world?”
It’s a question I’m asked all the time, and one which I see many other people try to answer. It’s almost impossible to say, because what makes a derby match so special is that it means so much to the people involved. Whether it’s Barcelona vs. Real Madrid or Wrexham vs. Chester, winning it feels just the same to the supporters, and scoring the winning goal feels just as good to those lucky enough to be on the field. With this in mind, I have looked to answer the question in a slightly different way. What are the top ten factors which make for an incredible derby, and which are the fixtures which best represent them?
What follows are the ten things I look for when deciding which derby or rivalry matches to visit, and then an example of a fixture that fulfils this criteria. I would also love to hear your suggestions in the comments section for the best derby fixtures, and games that I should look to attend in the future.
Please note: I have limited my choices to Europe, as this is where the majority of my fan culture knowledge lies. If I have written an article in the past for the game in question, I will include it with the description.
At some level, all derby matches come down to hatred. If you support Sunderland for example, it makes sense that it feels better to beat Newcastle than it does to beat Coventry. Almost every club in England has sung “We all hate Leeds scum” at some point, but their supporters are largely indifferent to everyone else. Hence when they beat someone they do truly despise, like Manchester United, the feeling is all the sweeter.
Last weekend I watched Liverpool vs. Everton, a world-famous fixture with many classic matches over the years. There is of course plenty of hatred on both sides, but it is also unusual in that fans of both teams will sit together side by side when the game is on. When Everton smashed in a 92nd minute equaliser at the Kop, an Everton fan was shown standing to applaud in the home section. There are many derby fixtures around Europe that, if had attempted such a thing, the next time he would have been seen would be impaled on some kind of spike outside the city games.
This brings me to our first example, Ferencváros vs. Újpest FC. These two teams from Budapest both have deeply successful histories, but neither has lifted the championship since the 2003/04 season. With these fixtures no longer deciding the destination of trophies, they have become all about hate. Offer someone from the green side (Ferencváros) a mediocre season with two victories over the purples of Újpest, and you can be almost sure they would take it, with a similarly positive answer if the roles were reversed. These two clubs have hated each other ever since the 1930’s, and unlike many rivalries around the world, this hatred has not been sanitised by modern times. A friend of mine recalled to me a story in which a tourist was stripped naked after naively wearing a purple shirt to an area with loyalty to Ferencváros, with a very violent history to the derby on both sides. The future intensity of this fixture is currently under threat due to crazy security legislation from the Hungarian authorities (including supporters having their fingerprints scanned upon entry), but for now it remains to be a game that will forever be home to a burning hatred.
More than football
With many clubs in Europe having more than just a football team, it is not unusual to see terrific atmospheres at ice hockey, basketball, handball and even water polo matches when rival sides come together. However some rivalries run deeper still, to the point where they are almost not anything to do with football at all. You probably already know that I refer to the Old Firm between Rangers and Celtic. The vast majority of Celtic supporters identify them as Catholics, while Rangers are largely protestant. When Rangers signed the Catholic and former Celtic player Mo Johnston in 1989, it was the cause for carnage. Fans returned their season tickets and burned their shirts, while he was given the nickname ‘Judas’ by the Celtic supporters. The strength of feeling about was so strong, the story goes that the kitman at Rangers refused to lay out Johnston’s kit before matches. When you consider the fact that these are also the two biggest and most successful clubs in Scotland, it is no surprise that this fixture has been uncontrollable at times.
Of course if you were a newcomer to the sport, you would be forgiven for thinking that this fixture was not played in Scotland at all. Celtic have deep Irish roots, to the point where you are far more likely to see the Irish tricolour on a flag than the cross of St Andrews. Meanwhile, Rangers fans will commonly display the Union Flag or the flag of Ulster. The fixture has currently been away for a few years due to the relegation of Rangers to the bottom tier for financial reasons. Celtic fans now refer to their great rivals as “zombies”, with many of them refusing to recognise this club as the one they have battled with for so many years. Despite this and their promises to boycott when Rangers do eventually return to the top flight or they are drawn together in a cup competition, it is difficult to see this doing anything to change the strength of feeling in the rivalry once hostilities are finally recommenced.
Tale of two cities
A traditional derby match involves two sides coming head-to-head from the same city, with the fact that the opposition were people they lived alongside adding to the strength of feeling. However, there is something about a fixture between two separate cities which appeals to me. One of the biggest surprises I have had inside a football stadium was the intensity between Sunderland and Newcastle. I had not expected very much from it going in to the game, but these conceptions were blown away hours before kick off as I witnessed the hatred that these two have not just for each other, but the cities as a whole. This is also something I witnessed between Legia and Lech in Poland, with these two cities even further from each other, but the feelings of hatred just as intense.
There are many examples I could have chosen for this, but the one I am going to go for is Feyenoord vs. Ajax. The rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam is one that would exist even without football, to the stage where residents of Rotterdam refuse to even say the name of the capital city. Never mind calling it Amsterdam, if you’re from Rotterdam then it is simply known as 020 (the area code). While these two sides have highly successful histories, the focus on this fixture for many years was off the pitch, with violent disorder not just a possibility, but a certainty. This came to a head when Carlo Picornie, a member of Ajax’s F-Side, was killed during a brutal fight with the SCF of Feyenoord, in which he was reportedly hit with a hammer. This, along with many other incidents lead to away supporters eventually being banned from the game. This ban had been due to expire at the start of the current season, but all chance of this was gone after Ajax supporters rioted at Feyenoord’s home stadium, De Kuip, during their 5-1 cup final defeat to PEC Zwolle. As one Feyenoord supporter said to me recently “The next time that 020 supporters are allowed here, will be the last time”.
The danger factor
Many people won’t agree with this one, but when I attend a derby match, I want to feel as though it’s genuinely a risky thing to be doing. There’s something about the edge of danger which gets the adrenaline going like nothing else, and there are certainly plenty of games to choose from when it’s potential chaos you seek. Levski vs. CSKA Sofia often descends into carnage, while there won’t be many families savouring the ‘matchday experience’ when Aris meet PAOK in the derby of Northern Greece or Roma and Lazio collide in the battle for supremacy in the Italian capital. However for a truly dangerous derby day, we turn our attention to Poland and more specifically, Krakow.
When Wisla meet Cracovia, it is known as the Holy War. This is not a name exaggerated by Sky Sports to get more people to watch, but instead a feeling that the supporters here would rather see each other on the battlefield rather than inside the stadium. Riots are common, and unlike the rest of Poland where weapons would not be used by hooligans, stabbings are commonplace here. The feelings run as high here as anywhere else you can imagine in the world, this is not a game you should visit with a digital camera and a replica shirt to get a new profile picture for Facebook, and I would advise all but the most educated and aware to avoid this game for fear of being injured due to going against the local culture and customs. It’s a fantastic derby, but for most people it is one that you should stick to watching from the safety of an illegal online stream.
At some derby matches, it is almost a surprise if something completely insane doesn’t happen. One of the matches where you can almost guarantee that there will be an incredible story to tell by the end of the 90 minutes is when Red Star and Partizan square up for the Belgrade derby. In my own visit to the fixture, not only did Red Star fans parachute into the stadium before the game, but Partizan supporters set the away section on fire during the second half. I mean that literally. They didn’t set off a large amount of flares and fireworks to give the appearance of the stand being ablaze, they ACTUALLY SET IT ON FIRE. This is far from the first time something like this has happened when the sides meet, with incidents almost a guarantee whenever Red Star travel to JNA Stadium (nicknamed the washbowl by away supporters) or Partizan arrive at Marakana (given the equally as insulting nickname of the hole by the visiting fans).
You can read more on my trip to the Belgrade derby here, and I will also experience the match from the Partizan side in a few weeks time. You should really read the article to get the full sense on just how crazy it is, as this cannot be done justice in a couple of paragraphs. All you need to know if you visit it is, expect the craziest night of your life – it will be even crazier than that.
The underdog story
It is not a very common theme when it comes to the big rivalries, but one I enjoy is the idea of a true underdog. When Manchester United played Manchester City before the blues were taken over, most of the country would be firmly behind City due to the fact they were constantly in the shadow of their titanic neighbours. United would win more often than not, but when David did slay Goliath, it was a cause for celebration for more than just those who packed into Maine Road or the City of Manchester Stadium. Of course, City are now one of Europe’s elite, and the romance has gone from this fixture for the neutral.
I could mention the battle for Berlin between big boys Hertha and loveable outsiders Union, but perhaps the best example which remains is Barcelona vs. Espanyol. Barca have been dominant not just in Spain, but in Europe for a large part of the last decade, while Espanyol have never won La Liga (3rd being the highest they have ever managed), and have only finished above their rivals three times. The teams are not just different in terms of success. From the very foundations of the club, Espanyol is against Barcelona. While Barca see themselves as the club for Catalunya, Espanyol are fiercely Spanish, and it is very rare that their supports display any kind of support for Catalan independence.
For decades then, Espanyol have had to suffer the indignity of watching their rivals collect trophy after trophy, while they went with nothing. In the 2006/07 season they faced the ultimate indignity, defeat to Barca in the penultimate game of the season would see their hated rivals crowned champions with them forced to watch the party across the city from even closer quarters than usual. But, was this to be their day after all? They took the lead early in the game, offering them the chance to hand the title to Real Madrid instead. It seemed as if it was to be just another false dawn however, as Lionel Messi scored twice to give his side a 2 – 1 lead and one hand on the trophy. Literally in this case, as one of the goals was scored through a handball, in the style of another famous Argentinian I could mention.
Just as it seemed that Espanyol were going to suffer in the worst way imaginable, something magical happened for them. In the 89th minute, with the home fans already preparing to celebrate, the moment which would become known as ‘El Tamudazo’ happened. Espanyol scored, the Camp Nou fell into stunned silence, and the title went to Real Madrid. Espanyol celebrated as if they had won the league themselves, and for one night only at least, they knew how it felt to be the kings of their own city.
These types of derby may not be the best or the most exciting, but it is hard to think of one more magical when the underdog does manage to come out on top.
There are many derby matches which come around every season. While this does nothing to lessen the hatred, it can lessen the impact if you know the chance for revenge is just a few months away. I attended numerous Cardiff vs. Swansea fixtures before the bluebirds were rebranded and I stepped away, but the one where the feelings ran deepest was the League Cup fixture after nine years without the sides getting the chance to compete. With this in mind, the example I am going to provide for this factor is West Ham and Millwall. In recent years West Ham have usually been in the Premier League (with some brief ventures to the Championship), while Millwall have either been in the second or third tier. This means when they do meet, you better believe it matters.
This was shown when Millwall travelled to Upton Park in 2009 for a fixture in the early rounds of the League Cup. Usually at this stage of the tournament this would attract a small crowd made up of the hardcore who never miss a game, those with nothing better to do on a Tuesday night, and those hoping to catch a glimpse of the future talent. Not this time. The atmosphere was intense and at times, chaotic. An away supporter was stabbed outside the ground, and at least 20 other people suffered injuries (the actual number is certainly much higher, with those involved in violence not seeking treatment to avoid arrest). It looked as if Millwall were going to secure an unlikely victory,, when the Premier League side finally scored an equaliser with three minutes remaining. It sparked a pitch invasion from the West Ham fans, as well as a resumption of fighting inside the stadium. When the Hammers took the lead in extra-time, there was yet another pitch invasion, leading to the players having to be evacuated and the home side pleading for calm. It was to be no use, as West Ham scored another goal and the chaos continued.
80 people were arrested in the aftermath of the game, with 54 eventually receiving banning orders or prison sentences. There was even a brief campaign which pleaded with the FA to ensure that the sides could never be drawn together in the cup again. This was not implemented, but mysteriously these two names have never since been drawn out of the hat together. When it comes to football at least, it seems that absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
Certain derby matches have one unique factor that you won’t find anywhere else. There is the ‘political derby’ of Germany between Hansa Rostock and St Pauli, with the supporters of these sides representing the extreme left and extreme right of the political spectrum. The two cities are nowhere near each other, but it has the intensity of a derby match as the supporters are so irreversibly different. Perhaps the most unique example of a derby comes in Istanbul when Fenerbahce meet Galatasaray. In a unique geographical quirk, the teams are from the same city, but a different continent. Fenerbahce sit on the Asian side of the divide, while Galatasaray are across the water in Europe.
Perhaps this goes some way to explain the almost unbelievable levels of hatred that exist between the two clubs, with this another fixture currently without away supporters due to violent incidents. Not that this stops such things from happening, with the city often turning into a warzone when these sides meet. Galatasaray fans formed a group called ‘die for you’, with Fenerbahce responding by calling a group of their own ‘kill for you’. While Turkish football is currently undergoing a crisis due to the introduction of intrusive ID cards which all supporters must hold to be able to attend a game, you feel that not even the apocalypse could stop these two from hating each other.
The hatred between Hadjuk Split and Dinamo Zagreb is interesting for many reasons, none more so than the fact that they have despised each other in two different countries. Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but these two had been coming to blows for many years before that. The formation of the Croatian league did perhaps add some extra intensity to the rivalry, as they were now only competing against each other for supremacy. Previously, the two Belgrade sides had formed a ‘big four’ which had dominated proceedings between 1945 and 1992. Indeed, out of these 46 seasons, one of these four clubs took the title on 41 occasions, with no other Croatian club able to lift the title at all.
This dominance has continued since the split, with only NK Zagreb in the 2000/01 season able to break the monopoly since. Dinamo have been by far the more successful, winning a total of 16 titles, compared to 6 for Split. Indeed, Dinamo have been champions for the last nine successive seasons. The point I am making here is that whenever these sides have met ever since the day Dinamo were founded (Split being the older of the clubs), it has mattered. Win both derbies in the season, and there is a good chance you will win the league. For the Split supporters who have had to watch their rivals lift the title time and time again, the derby is their chance to get a large slice of revenge, both by taking the points on the pitch, and outperforming their rivals in the stands. Torcida Split are said to be the oldest supporters group in the world, a fact they are very proud of, and something they regularly remind the Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo about.
While the derby is currently a little unbalanced in favour of Dinamo when it comes to success, the history of these two ensures that even if neither side won the league for 100 years, the derby would be just as intense.
Last but of course, absolutely not least, comes fan culture. Because what is a derby if the fans are not free to express themselves however they choose? I almost chose Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke or the clash of Copenhagen between Brondby and. FCK for this one, but instead I had to go with their Scandinavian neighbours from Sweden. The fan culture in Sweden is vastly underrated, and as anyone who knows Swedish football for more than just Zlatan, Djurgarden vs. AIK is one of the best fixtures you’ll see anywhere.
Pyro? Check. Huge away crowds? Check. Constant and creative support? You better believe it. I was completely blown away by my trip to Stockholm for this one, and have to admit I have been keeping a close eye on Djurgarden’s results ever since. This game is not just special for the atmosphere, it is almost uniquely balanced in terms of victories for either side, with only the slightest of edges for AIK in terms of historical results. The two clubs were formed just three weeks apart, and long may the madness of the ‘Twin Derby’ continue. If you asked me for five fixtures in Europe that someone who loved football culture should attend, this would be one of the very first I added to the list.
So, what do you think? The chances are if I didn’t include the derby for the team you support you’re about to call me an idiot in the comments or threaten to set fire to my house, but I hope I have gone some way to answering this most difficult of questions. As mentioned at the very start of this article, please do let me know your thoughts on what makes a derby great, and which other flashpoint fixtures I should go to see in the future.
Over to you…