The 10 football derbies you must experience once in your life

Why not combine a love of football and travelling, and catch some of the best derby matches on the planet?

I love football. I love travelling. If I’m in a new city and there’s a chance to take in a local game, what’s not to like? Hey, some people even use it as the reason to visit somewhere. Liverpool fans will come over from Scandinavia to catch their adopted team in action; Germany has become a popular weekend trip for British football fans wanting something a bit different; and, of course, Manchester United fans have to drive up from Surrey.

But this isn’t a guide to your typical big derbies – there’s no room for Inter versus Milan, Arsenal versus Tottenham or Real versus Atlético – but more a look into some you might be less aware of, and which will add a chance to see some cool and interesting places into the bargain.

Sampdoria vs Genoa

Sampdoria against Genoa is one of the truly great derbies – Paolo Bona / Shutterstock football derby experience
Sampdoria against Genoa is one of the truly great derbies – Paolo Bona / Shutterstock

Samp legend Marcello Lippi described this derby and the rivalry between the two sets of fans as: “mickey-taking, pranks, like organising mock funerals for the opposition. It’s the least nasty of all the derbies.” The Derby della Lanterna as it’s known – due to the presence of the Torre della Lanterna, the 76m high lighthouse that stands in the port – is a clash between Italy’s oldest club, Genoa Cricket and Football Club, and its newest professional club. Sampdoria were formed in 1946 with the merger of Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, and barged shamelessly into Genoa’s home at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, which the two clubs share to this day.

It’s a fantastic place to watch football as well. Built in a typically English style with four straight stands right up against the pitch, you’re right on top of the action. Claustrophobic and intimidating, it’s one of the best places in Italy to watch football, and during a derby the intensity is cranked up to eleven, with the Samp ultras at the southern end, and Genoa occupying the Curva Nord.

Genoa – the city itself – is often forgotten about as a tourist destination, and that makes it all the more worthwhile. Narrow lanes lead to monumental squares with elegant landmarks, and its arts scene led to it being crowned European Capital of Culture in 2004. With buildings and styles spanning 500 years but very little that looks incongruous, no wonder the city is nicknamed la Superba.

Budapest derby – Ferencváros, Honvéd, MTK and Újpest

Budapest is not only a beautiful city, it is also the host to a number of excellent derbies – Laszlo Szirtesi / Shutterstock football derby experience
Budapest is not only a beautiful city, it is also the host to a number of excellent derbies – Laszlo Szirtesi / Shutterstock

I have a huge amount of love for Budapest so I have no qualms whatsoever about throwing this onto the list. Admittedly the quality of the Hungarian league leaves something to be desired when compared to Europe’s bigger leagues, but a city derby involving a pair of these four holds as much passion and meaning as any other.

Controversially, Ferencváros have introduced biometric scanners that mean you need to be registered in order to get a ticket. This hasn’t been a popular move among a section of the crowd normally seen sporting balaclavas and dubious political sentiment, but it has brought a drop in violence.

None of the grounds are difficult to arrive at, and Budapest doesn’t tend to sprawl to the extent of other major cities, so getting around is never a problem anyway. Otherwise, enjoy the city for what it is: a stately blend of wide boulevards, cool coffee shops, palatial buildings and ruined dive bars.

Seattle Sounders vs Portland Timbers

Seattle and Portland may be miles apart geographically, but in North American terms it's a derby – Keeton Gale / Shutterstock football derby experience
Seattle and Portland may be miles apart geographically, but in North American terms it’s a derby – Keeton Gale / Shutterstock

The newest derby on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less passionate. Seattle and Portland may lie around 175 miles apart, but in terms of US sports that’s virtually being in the other’s back garden.

These games are always very well attended, and the rivalry is very 21st century. There’s very little hint of any threat of violence, although the atmosphere can be intimidating with both sets of fans instead trying to outdo each other in colour, noise and giant tifos (coordinated fan displays usually involving giant flags or banners) that would put many a European club to shame.

The two sets of fans, the Emerald City Supporters and the Timbers Army have regularly set attendance records, and the quirky Providence Park in Portland and Seattle’s CenturyLink Field are regularly voted as having some of the best atmosphere in American sport.

Of course, you’d be wise to take something waterproof – rain is, let’s say, not unknown in the Pacific Northwest – but both cities are worth getting to know. Seattle’s famous coffee scene is a reason in itself to go, and Portland’s reputation as an off-the-radar refuge for bearded, craft beer worshipping types is well-founded. Whichever city you choose, go for the sport and stay for the friendly, laid-back stylings of the USA’s coolest region.

Dynamo Moscow vs Spartak Moscow

Moscow derbies are visceral affairs – Paparacy / Shutterstock football derby experience
Moscow derbies are visceral affairs – Paparacy / Shutterstock

At the time of writing, Moscow has four teams in the Russian Premier League – CSKA, Spartak, Lokomotiv and Dynamo – so there are quite a few derbies played every season. But the oldest Moscow derby involves Spartak and Dynamo, and there are fewer more passionate or charged.

Spartak was formed by a trade union in 1922, while in 1923 Dynamo – originally a factory team – found themselves under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior and the Cheka, the Russian secret police. They also had a powerful president in Lavrenty Beria who, after Spartak won league and cup doubles in 1938 and ‘39, was furious.

Beria had been a decent player in his younger days and had played – and come off worst – against Nikolai Starostin, who was now player-manager of Spartak. Beria, as you may know, became head of the secret police and, in 1942, Starostin, his three brothers who also played for the club, and a number of their team-mates were all arrested and charged with a plot to assassinate Stalin. Two years of interrogation followed, leading to convictions of “lauding bourgeois sport and attempting to drag bourgeois mores into Soviet sport”. The sentence was 10 years in the gulags.

So, as you can see, the rivalry runs bitterly and deep. Also, if you fancy this one, it might take some planning. Russia still requires visitors to have a visa and this can be a bit pricey; if you do go, however, you’ll find Moscow an almost aggressively exciting place. Beautiful and brutal in equal measure, it’ll leave you exhausted. It’ll also be an experience you’ll never forget. As a former resident, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Bohemians 1905 vs any other Prague team

Czech fans come with a love of beer and atmosphere – Marco Iacobucci EPP / Shutterstock football derby experience
Czech fans come with a love of beer and atmosphere – Marco Iacobucci EPP / Shutterstock

I’m being a little less specific about this one, because I’d like to focus on one particular team. Bohemians are one of the smaller clubs in a city dominated by the rivalry between the might and historic success of Sparta and Slavia, but for a slightly off-the-wall football watching experience, they’re a good choice.

Their ground – stadium is far too grand a word – sits in the Vršovice district of Prague, a stone’s throw away from Eden, Slavia’s shiny new home. Vršovice is home to a lot of achingly hip bars, independent clothing and music stores and underground clubs. Bohemka fit that mould perfectly. A socially-conscious, left-wing club, their ramshackle, two-and-a-half-sided ground sports “refugees welcome” graffiti, and the fans’ pub next to the ground is a heady mix of students, kids, anarchists and hipsters, with a healthy number (by Czech league standards) of female fans.

Prague is a favourite European destination for millions of travellers every year and, yes, the Old Town is a bit of a tourist trap, but get out into the suburbs a bit into areas such as Vršovice and neighbouring Žižkov (home to second division Viktoria if you want to go wilfully obscure) and you’ll find a side to Prague that few tourists ever get to see. It’s the side that knows there’s a world famous city just over there somewhere, but is perfectly happy within its own world of coffee houses and second-hand bookshops.

Corinthians vs Palmeiras

Not only do Brazilians play sexy football, they have stylish stadiums – Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock football derby experience
Not only do Brazilians play sexy football, they also have stylish stadiums – Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock

Away from the glamour of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s largest city is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in South American football. São Paulo’s Paulista derby is the contest between these two giants of Brazilian football; in fact, no other rivalry in the country can boast two teams with more trophies between them.

Corinthians were founded in 1910 as the ultimate people’s club. When English team Corinthian FC visited Brazil, a band of railway workers were inspired to start a football club and to name it after the trailblazing English amateurs. Four years later, however, Torino and Pro Vercelli toured Brazil, and a bunch of club members of Italian descent broke away and formed their own club. Initially called Palestra Italia, Palmeiras was born. This betrayal has never been forgotten.

When it comes to the city, São Paulo is a real melting pot, with large populations from the Middle East, Japan and Italy, among many others. In fact, according to a 2016 survey, people from 196 different countries call the city their home, a remarkable figure. This leads to the city being known for its openness, culture and gastronomy. It’s also known for its unreliable weather, having been given the slightly underwhelming nickname of Terra da Garoa, or the Land of Drizzle!

Saint-Étienne vs Olympique Lyonnais

The blue-collar city of Saint-Étienne is reinventing itself as a home of modern art, and it has a fierce rivalry with Lyon – Shutterstock football derby experience
The blue-collar city of Saint-Étienne is reinventing itself as a home of modern art, and it has a fierce rivalry with Lyon – Shutterstock

This rivalry, known simply as Le Derby, is a typical example of footballing class warfare. The blue-collar Saint-Étienne and the middle-class Lyon are only 20-odd miles apart and both have had their golden eras. Saint-Étienne were a major force in French and European football in the 1970s, before Lyon took over in the 2000s by stringing together a series of seven back-to-back title wins with a series of wonderful teams.

Now they’re both competing at roughly the same level, the rivalry has never seemed fiercer. One player, Anthony Mounier, had his loan from Genoa mutually nullified due to threats both he and the head coach received because of the fact that Mounier, a former Lyon youth player, had made some less than complimentary remarks about Saint-Étienne in the past. Supporters have long memories.

Although very different, both cities have their charms. Lyon, home of the French silk industry, is a hub of art, cinema and science. Saint-Étienne, historically known for coal-mining and bicycle manufacture, is reinventing itself as a centre of both education and modern art. Lyon is the larger of the two, but visiting both is a nice way to compare and contrast two of France’s most interesting cities.

Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates

Soccer City in Soweto was the site of Nelson Mandela's first speech in Johannesburg upon his release from prison – Pranesh Luckan / Shutterstock football derby experience
Soccer City in Soweto was the site of Nelson Mandela’s first speech in Johannesburg upon his release from prison – Pranesh Luckan / Shutterstock

Any time these two play, there’s a huge crowd. South Africa’s two most popular clubs are both from the township of Soweto in Johannesburg, and even though friends and family are divided by which of the teams they support, historically any trouble at games was directed at the authorities as opposed to rival fans.

Now, these two teams are so popular that anywhere games between them take place – be it in Soweto, or as a friendly game in another city – it’ll be a sell-out. It’ll also be more like a party than a football game. As mentioned above, there’s rarely any trouble, with people more likely to be concerned with dressing in ridiculous costumes and blowing those vuvuzelas that lent such a – let’s be kind and say unique – atmosphere to the 2010 World Cup.

With the majority of the league’s 16 teams located in eastern South Africa, and roughly half of those in the vicinity of Johannesburg, if you visit the city there’s every chance you’ll be able to catch a game. A lot of urban renewal has taken place over the last few years, meaning that new businesses have started springing up in unlikely places. A lot of these are coffee shops, meaning that Johannesburg now has one of the most vibrant coffee scenes in the world.

Nacional vs Peñarol

The beaches of Montevideo are the perfect place to chill after catching the oldest derby in the world – Shutterstock football derby experience
The beaches of Montevideo are the perfect place to chill after catching one of the oldest derbies in the world – Shutterstock

These two clubs based in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, can claim to contest the oldest footballing derby outside the UK. The first match took place in 1900 and the enmity continues to this day. Unusually for a South American football club, Nacional’s name gives a hint to their origins. Whereas Peñarol were founded as a cricket club by English railway workers (see the case of Corinthians above), Nacional were the first club on the continent – so they claim – to be set up without any European involvement.

Having played each other over 500 times throughout their long and storied history, might not a certain mellowing have taken place? Not a bit of it. Over the last few years, due to a lack of success at continental level, the domestic rivalry between the two has been ramped up, if anything. The rivalry between the supporters can occasionally get a bit feisty, but more than anything, it’s the players that need to be controlled. In a game in 2014, four players were sent off, nine were arrested for fighting in a mass brawl after the game was over, and the two clubs had 17 players banned by the Uruguayan FA. And that was in a friendly.

The city is wonderful too, with a huge beach that’s home to some fabulous bars and nightclubs (yes, actually on the beach), while the city centre has buildings that draw from architectural styles both local and European. There’s neoclassical, art deco and an odd smattering of mildly oppressive Soviet-style tower blocks. The music and dance scene is as good as you’d expect from a South American city; whether you’re looking for techno or tango, you’ll find it here.

Velež vs Zrinjski

Mostar is the place to go if you love your football to include a heady mix of politics and history – Shutterstock football derby experience
Mostar is the place to go if you love your football to include a heady mix of politics and history – Shutterstock

Want a derby involving two teams divided along as many lines as possible? Mostar is the place to be. The city is physically divided by the Neretva River, spanned by the iconic bridge, with the predominantly Croat, Christian population on the western side, and the Bosniak Muslims mainly on the east.

Zrinjski are named after a Croatian viceroy who was killed defending his country from the Ottoman Empire, and have long stood as a symbol of Croatian nationalism. Velež, meanwhile, were formed by a group of multi-ethnic anti-royalists representing the working class as a whole, regardless of ethnicity.

These political stances meant that when the fascist Independent State of Croatia was extant in the 1920s, Zrinjski flourished and Velež as an organisation were banned. However when World War Two ended and the Communist Party took over, within 10 days Velež had been reformed and Zrinjski closed down, and their archives destroyed. Nowadays, they still stand in stark contrast to each other, Zrinjski remaining vehemently nationalistic and politically right-wing, while Velež’s support is mostly Muslim and left-leaning (their Red Army ultras group often uses images of Che Guevara in their tifo).

This is, obviously, a simplified version of the long and intricate story of the two clubs, but it’s the city in microcosm. It’s a fascinating place. Stunning buildings abound as the town climbs cobbled streets into the surrounding hills, while both churches and mosques are well-represented. Restaurants selling grilled local foods mean the narrow passageways between the ancient houses smell as good as they look, and all the while you can see the bullet holes and scars that riddle the walls, a reminder that not so long ago, this was the centre of a conflict of terrible proportions. Thankfully, that’s all over now, and Mostar remains glorious.