The 10 greatest rivalries in international football
With the U.S. and Mexico set to resume their historic feud on Saturday, ESPN FC's editorial desks voted on the 10 greatest rivalries in international football. Nick Miller explains what makes each one so special.
10. France vs. Italy
It's hardly a surprise, given that they're two of the great European powers, but France and Italy have faced each other in a remarkable number of high-profile and high-stakes games over the years. Games at the 1938, 1978, 1986 and 1998 World Cups brought various shades of drama to the tournaments. The latter, for example, was settled on penalties in favour of the French, who would go on to win the whole tournament.
And then there are the two finals at Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup, which saw one win for each team after both were decided in cruel and dramatic fashion. The second of those had the spice of Zinedine Zidane's sending off to add a little something to it.
Two years later, after Italy got over a poor start at the European Championship to win a game between the two sides 2-0, Gigi Buffon said, "Beating France was the best way to apologise to our supporters."
Key game: 2000 | France 2-1 Italy (AET) | The second European Championship final in a row to be decided by a golden goal saw France snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sylvain Wiltord levelled in the last moments of normal time before David Trezeguet's strike sealed it in extra time.
9. Chile vs. Peru
The Pacific Clasico, as with any number of rivalries both international and domestic, has its roots in something other than football. In this case, it's a war between the two countries in the late 1800s.
There is also some dispute over slightly more trivial matters than military conflict, specifically who invented the bicycle kick. The Chileans insist Ramon Unzaga, a Spanish-born player who is said to have perfected the move nicknamed La Chileana, whereas a Peruvian will tell you it was pioneered by players of African descent in their country.
"A player has got to be prepared for hostility," Peru assistant coach Nolberto Solano said earlier this year before the two sides faced each other in the Copa America. "We can't expect the Chileans to applaud us."
Key game: 1997 | Chile 4-0 Peru | Perhaps the height of the antagonism, as the Peruvian players were subject to some pretty hefty intimidation before and during the game. And it seemed to work, too, as Marcelo Salas scored a hat trick in a convincing 4-0 win.
8. Denmark vs. Sweden
A relatively even rivalry -- of 103 games played, Denmark have won 40 and Sweden 45 -- dating to 1913, it's one that has nonetheless seen plenty of controversy. One match that sticks out is a qualifier for Euro 2008, when the Swedes went 3-0 up, only for Denmark to draw level at 3-3.
In the last minute, referee Herbert Fandel gave Sweden a penalty. This didn't go down well with a Danish fan, who invaded the pitch and attempted to punch Fandel, who promptly abandoned the match. A 3-0 default victory was awarded to the Swedes.
"It was incredibly stupid of me," the fan said. "I want to apologise to Denmark, Sweden and the referee for my inhuman behaviour."
Key game: 2004 | Denmark 2-2 Sweden | Going into this, the final group game at Euro 2004, both teams knew a high-scoring draw would send them through ahead of Italy. Lo and behold, it came to pass with Mattias Jonson levelling the score for Sweden in the 89th minute.
7. Germany vs. Netherlands
In England, many people seem to think Germany's big rivalry is with them, but of course the Germans' real antipathy is toward the Dutch. The wider rivalry might be rooted in broader social issues but has obviously played out on the pitch many times, too.
For example, the two nations famously clashed at the 1990 World Cup, when Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voller exchanged both pleasantries and phlegm.
However, the big game between the two will always be from 1974, when West Germany beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Going into the match, the Dutch didn't just want to win but to humiliate their opponents. "It was a perfect example of Dutch arrogance," Netherlands international Johnny Rep said.
Key game: 1974 | West Germany 2-1 Netherlands | The World Cup final in Munich, where the Netherlands were supposed to realise their great promise and took the lead with a penalty in the second minute, only to become complacent and lose to goals from Paul Breitner and Gerd Muller.
6. Japan vs. South Korea
Back in the 1950s, not long after Japan's occupation of South Korea had ended, the sporting rivalry between these two countries was so fierce Korean President Rhee Syngman would not allow a World Cup qualifier between the two countries to take place in Seoul.
He then suggested that, should his team lose in Tokyo, they might be best advised not to return home. Relations between the countries have thawed over the years to the point where they happily co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, but there is still a fierce atmosphere when the two face each other.
Key game: 1954 | Japan 1-5 South Korea | That pep talk from President Rhee seemed to work. In the first game, the Koreans cantered to a convincing win in Tokyo. And after drawing the second leg 2-2, they progressed to the World Cup in Switzerland later that year.
5. Serbia vs. Croatia
After the split of Yugoslavia, national divides have extended to any number of sports, from tennis to basketball to water polo and football.
The rivalry has often been played out at club level, notably between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb, with one game in 1990 seeing Zvonimir Boban achieve national hero status when he kicked a policeman following rioting in the stands.
The two teams have only actually played each other twice, but both encounters have been, shall we say, rather spicy. The second featured this hefty foul by Croatia's Josip Simunic.
Key game: 2013 | Croatia 2-0 Serbia | The first game between the two since the war saw Serbian players greeted with chants of "Kill the Serbs" from the home fans. Croatia won thanks to strikes from Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic.
4. Egypt vs. Algeria
The sort of rivalry that makes the authorities genuinely nervous, Egypt and Algeria's enmity goes beyond mere sporting matters. At a recent game between the two, no fewer than 15,000 policemen were on duty to keep the peace.
In 1989, after violence broke out following a World Cup qualifier, Algerian star Lakhdar Belloumi allegedly took a bottle to the Egyptian team doctor, who lost the sight in one eye.
Subsequently, Belloumi was convicted despite denying any involvement in the attack, and an Interpol arrest warrant hung over him for more than 20 years before charges in Egypt were eventually dropped. "It was a battle, not a football match," Egypt midfielder Ayman Younes said.
Key game: 1989 | Egypt 1-0 Algeria | On the pitch in that famous game, Egypt ran out winners thanks to a goal from Hossam Hassan and qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
3. England vs. Scotland
The oldest rivalry of them all, indeed the oldest international fixture of them all. England and Scotland have faced each other 112 times since first meeting in 1872, and most of the contests have fizzed with the nationalistic fervour that comes from an historically oppressed nation facing their oppressors.
Both sides have their favourite encounters, from Scotland's "Wembley Wizards" who shocked England with a 5-1 victory at the old stadium in 1928, through Paul Gascoigne's brilliant volley at Euro 96, to the 1977 encounter in London that saw the Scots arrive in droves and leave with large chunks of Wembley, having invaded the pitch after their 2-1 win.
The rivalry will recommence next year, when the pair duke it out for a place at the 2018 World Cup, marking the first time they have ever been drawn against each other in non-playoff qualifiers for a major tournament.
Key game: 1967 | England 2-3 Scotland | A year after England had won the World Cup on the Wembley turf, the Scottish team of Denis Law, Jim Baxter (who famously played "keepie-uppie" on the pitch during the game) and Billy Bremner scored a famous victory to make them the "unofficial" champions of the world.
2. USA vs. Mexico
A rivalry of two halves. Of the first 24 games between the U.S. and Mexico, between 1937 and 1980, the Americans won just one. Admittedly it was an important one, a qualifier for the 1934 World Cup in which the U.S. claimed a 4-2 win.
However, with the sport barely taken seriously in the U.S. for decades thereafter, the "rivalry" was so one-sided -- Mexico scored seven goals on no fewer than three occasions -- that it barely qualified for the title.
However, since then, the tide has turned. Since 2000, the U.S. have lost just five of the 23 games they played against Mexico. Most recently, in a friendly in Texas earlier this year, Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo gave the Americans a 2-0 victory.
Key game: 2002 | USA 2-0 Mexico | The only time these two countries have faced each other at a World Cup, the Mexicans were favourites in this round of 16 game, but goals from Brian McBride and Landon Donovan won the encounter for the Americans, sending their old rivals home.
1. Brazil vs. Argentina
The best rivalries need geographical proximity and a history of controversy, but perhaps an underrated element is that it's better when both teams are good and they compete for the big prizes.
This has been the case with Argentina and Brazil, historically two of the giants not only of South American but world football. Between them, they have seven World Cup and 22 Copa America titles.
Plus, there is the simmering and frankly quite amusing running argument between Pele and Diego Maradona over who was the greatest of them all. It's the rivalry of their countries in microcosm.
Key game: 1990 | Argentina 1-0 Brazil | Argentina won this World Cup second-round game thanks to a Claudio Caniggia goal, but the Brazil players believed their water had been spiked, leading to it being known as the Holy Water game.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.