The 8 biggest rivalries in international football

Nick Ames
FourFourTwo

England vs Scotland

It may not quite hold the lustre of old, but the history of this fixture more than makes up for that. These sides first met on November 30, 1872, drawing 0-0 in Glasgow; 111 clashes later, the ‘Auld Enemy’ were still going strong in the same city, in front of rather more than the 4,000 fans who'd witnessed proceedings almost a century-and-a-half before.

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Famous encounters have included Scotland’s 3-2 win at Wembley in 1967, making them the self-appointed ‘unofficial world champions’, and their 2-1 victory a decade later, upon which visiting supporters pulled down the goalposts.

England have held the more recent bragging rights in a match that was played annually until the mid-1980s, salvaging a late draw in their most recent encounter at Hampden Park in June 2017, after winning the home clash 3-0, prevailing in a Euro 2000 play-off and triumphing 2-0 at Euro '96. They have 48 wins to Scotland’s 41 and at the current glacial rate of progress – the two have only met twice this century – it will take some time for that margin to be turned around.

Brazil vs Argentina

They don't get any bigger than this. These powerhouses have met over 100 times and the only shame is that there has – somehow – yet to be a World Cup final between the pair. But they meet regularly enough on other stages and the temperature is rarely far below boiling.

When they played in the second round of Italia '90, in a match eventually won by a Claudio Caniggia goal, it was alleged that the Brazil left-back Branco had drunk from a water bottle infused with a tranquiliser.

“I’m not saying it didn’t happen,” said Argentina’s coach that day, Carlos Bilardo, several years later. It did little to clear up the fallout from a game that had become known as the ‘Holy Water’ match.

Diego Maradona was in action that day, just as he had been in Spain 1982 when he was sent off for an outrageous studs-up foul on Joao Batista (below, 40 seconds in) during a stormy Group C fixture.

Football has broken out in these games too, and there are often plenty of goals – Argentina won a friendly (if there can be such a thing) 4-3 in 2012, and thrashed their neighbours 6-1 back in 1940. It is Brazil, though, who have the upper hand, winning 45 games to Argentina’s 39.

Serbia vs Albania

This fixture had never been played prior to October 14, 2014 – but what followed ushered it into the pantheon of incendiary clashes immediately. Serbia’s claim over Kosovo, most of whose population is ethnically Albanian, is a longstanding cause of antipathy between the two and the potential for flashpoints had been high.

But nobody would have predicted that Ismail Morina, an Albanian based in Italy, would succeed in piloting a remote controlled drone into Belgrade’s Partizan Stadium while hiding in a nearby churchyard – and that it would be trailing a flag depicting Kosovo as part of a ‘Greater Albania’.

All hell broke loose as violence erupted on the pitch and in the stands; when the dust settled, Albania were awarded a 3-0 win that contributed to their qualification for Euro 2016.

Fears of reprisals at the rematch in Elbasan a year later were unfounded thanks to a tight security operation. Serbia won that game 2-0, but it's difficult to see these two being paired again.

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Japan vs South Korea

Regional tussles don't get much more politically loaded than this. Japan exerted colonial rule over Korea between 1910 and 1935, at which point North and South Korea were born.

There has been a sharp edge to their meetings on the football pitch since, particularly Japan’s 87 games against the South. Such was the degree of tension in 1954 that the Japanese weren't allowed to enter South Korea for a World Cup qualifying play-off between the two, meaning that both legs were contested in Tokyo. The Koreans still won overwhelmingly.

Even more famous is the ‘Miracle of Doha’ (or ‘Agony of Doha’, if you are Japanese), when a late Iraq goal against Japan meant they lost out to South Korea in the race for a spot at USA '94.

NEXT PAGE: An actual 'Football War'... 

Egypt vs Algeria

“It was a battle, not a football match,” said the Algeria forward Ayman Younes after his side had lost a tempestuous winner-takes-all Italia '90 qualifier to their bitter rivals in Cairo. That tends to be the case when these two African powerhouses, separated geographically by Libya, lock horns. Exhibit B – in fact, Exhibits B, C and D – materialised in 2009.

They were drawn together in another set of World Cup qualifiers, Algeria winning the first encounter 3-1 before, on another intensely charged night in the Egyptian capital, Egypt won 2-0 to set up a play-off between the two for a place at South Africa 2010.

The Algerians had been shaken badly by the stoning that their team bus took upon arrival in Egypt, injuring three players and an official; there was no such misbehaviour when they met again in Omdurman, Sudan, and Algeria exacted revenge by winning an impossibly tense game by a single goal.

Germany vs Holland

The enduring image of this tete-a-tete is, of course, Frank Rijkaard’s spit into the curly locks of Rudi Voller at Italia '90. That the two bizarrely appeared in a television commercial together several years later is evidence of a wider thawing in footballing relations, but this is still one of Europe’s most fiercely contested rivalries – even if 42 games since 1910 is not an especially high tally.

Much of the enmity in the second half of the 20th century stemmed from the Second World War, during which Germany occupied the Netherlands; there has been a common perception that feelings about the rivalry run higher on the Dutch side.

On the pitch, the wonderful Dutch side of 1974 – including the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink and Ruud Krol – was outdone 2-1 in the World Cup final by a Gerd Muller-inspired Germany in the most famous meeting between the teams.

Honduras vs El Salvador

Such is the fame of these teams’ meeting in 1969, and the political situation which followed it, that it comes as a surprise to see that they've faced off an incredible 53 times since.

That match flung the two nations into the wonderfully named ‘Football War’ – a conflict that in reality had deeper causes after long-term tensions between the two but flared up after a three-game series for 1970 World Cup qualification.

A violence-plagued first two fixtures preceded a play-off, in Mexico City, where El Salvador prevailed 3-2 after extra time. Enough to keep the winners happy? Not quite: El Salvador severed its diplomatic ties with Honduras the same day, and within two-and-a-half weeks it had invaded its Central American neighbour.

A ceasefire was announced on July 20 after six days of war that cost more than 1,000 lives and displaced many more. Whatever the extent of football’s involvement, this was a tragedy that made sport pale into insignificance.

USA vs Mexico


This one never needs too much building up and has added edge nowadays with USA’s increased standing in the world game. Mexico have won 37 meetings to their rivals’ 20, although the scales have been more evenly balanced in recent years – after winning the teams’ first encounter at the 1934 World Cup, USA proceeded to lose 22 of the following 25 and didn't claim their second victory until 1979.

As recently at 1975, Mexico defeated them 8-0 in a friendly. Scandal has hit some subsequent meetings, with Landon Donovan vilified in the build-up to an Olympic qualifier in 2004 after being accused of urinating on the Mexican pitch during training.

Donovan became a classic arch-villain to fans of El Tri, but the lighter side to their antagonism was shown in 2010 when he appeared – wearing a sombrero, a poncho and a fake moustache – in a Mexican TV advert for a new lottery called GanaGol. It is fair to say that the reaction was mixed.

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