World Cup 2018: The Biggest Rivalries

The 21st FIFA World Cup will kick off on June 14, with the best soccer players on the planet heading to Russia to showcase their skills.

Russia is a controversial choice to host the tournament, and the bidding team has been accused of bribery to secure the votes needed. But despite the controversy—and no World Cup is complete without some scandal—Russian soccer fans will have June 14 circled in their calendars.

Stanislav Cherchesov’s side begin their bid for glory in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, though most observers think the team, considered one of the weakest host nations in World Cup history, won’t even get through the first round.

RTR3YH65 Germany players celebrate with their trophy after winning the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 13, 2014. This year, the soccer world turns its eyes to Russia. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The most popular sport in the world, national soccer teams carry a cultural and political gravitas of their own. No tournament is purely about sport—international events are also a chance to settle old scores.

Russia’s opening game against Saudi Arabia—one of the least-anticipated opening matches in World Cup history—has an extra edge thanks for current events in the Middle East, with the two nations finding themselves on either side of the ongoing civil war in Syria.

The soccer match-up will be an opportunity to boost national pride and prestige without the risk of anyone getting killed, assuming the Kremlin keeps Russia’s infamous hooligan fans in check.

Among the multitude of possible matchups throughout the month-long contest, historic grudges would give some a little spice. Here are some examples of fixtures that would be bigger than soccer alone.

Read More…World Cup for Dummies: Everything You Need to Know About the World's Most-watched Event

Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

One of the most bitter rivalries in global politics today, the Middle East is currently experiencing its own Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with their various proxies.

The conflict pits the world’s foremost Shiite superpower against its Sunni rival in conflicts including Syria and Yemen. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has even described Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as “the new Hitler.”  

Although the beautiful game is widely followed in both countries (Saudi Arabia recently opened stadiums to women) neither is a soccer powerhouse, and both are unlikely to progress beyond the group stages. But if, by some miracle, the teams do meet, it will be one of the most politically-loaded fixtures of the tournament.

RTR3BEA2 (1) Ahmed Al Fraidi of Saudi Arabia (R) challenges Yaghoub Karimi of Iran during their WAFF Championship soccer match in Kuwait City on December 9, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

Serbia vs. Croatia

As the U.S. hosted its first World Cup in 1994, Serbia and Croatia were locked in a bloody civil war that only ended the following year.

The violence, which brought sieges, massacres and genocide to southeastern Europe, was actually foreshadowed by a 1990 soccer riot between Serbian and Croatian club sides, when a game between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb descended into pitched battles between fans. By the time police restored order, more than 60 people were wounded.

The clubs have met in tournament qualification games since, and not without incident. The national teams were in the same group for the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, and away fans were banned for both fixtures due to security concerns.

Both have a good chance of progressing through the group stages, but will have to make it to the semi-finals—admittedly highly unlikely—if they are to meet.

RTX13AFM Croatia's Josip Simunic (shirt number 3) receives a red card during the 2014 World Cup qualifying match against Serbia in Belgrade on September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Poland vs. Russia

Poland was behind the Iron Curtain until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989,  and forty-four years of dictatorship left Poles bitter and distrustful of their eastern rivals.

This has continued into the modern era, not helped by death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński in a plane crash in Russia in 2010. Many Poles still believe the Kremlin was behind the accident.

But despite Vladimir Putin’s prominence in the global geo-political arena, on the soccer field it is Poland that has the edge over Russia. Though some of its key players are getting on in years, the Polish squad still packs a punch, and they have a good chance of getting out of their group.

The two would not meet until the semi-final, and making a clash between them about as likely as the U.S. team turning up in Russia.

RTR33HZF Polish and Russian soccer fans clash outside the National Stadium in Warsaw, June 12, 2012. There is no love lost between the neighbors on or off the soccer field. REUTERS/Jerzy Dudek

Sweden vs. Denmark

Although they are now close allies—and in the past have even been part of the same kingdom—things were not always so rosy between Scandinavian neighbors Sweden and Denmark. Between 1521 and 1814, the two nations fought a total of 11 wars.

Things may have been less tense politically in the modern era, but they can still get a little tasty on the pitch. During a 2007 game, a Danish fan attacked the referee after he awarded Sweden a penalty kick with minutes of the game remaining and the score deadlocked at 3-3.

RTR1QDYV Denmark's Michael Gravgaard (C) tries to intervene as a Danish supporter attacks referee Herbert Fandel (L) for giving Sweden a late penalty during a match in Copenhagen on June 2, 2007. REUTERS/Anders Wiklund/Scanpix

The referee abandoned the game, awarding Sweden a 3-0 victory. As punishment, Denmark were forced to play their two subsequent matches at least 87 miles from the capital Copenhagen. The incident caused national outrage, and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark said it was “terrible and a very embarrassing behavior on the Danish side.”

To write the next chapter of the historic rivalry, both teams will have to reach the semi-finals, a big ask.

England vs. Germany

Ever since Germany was founded in 1871, the English have looked upon their continental cousins with suspicion and fear—and the nations were on opposing sides in two of the worst wars in human history.

There is no love lost on the soccer field either.

It was against West Germany that England won its only ever World Cup title in 1966. In the 1990 tournament, English hearts broke as the team were dispatched by the German team in a penalty shootout, on Die Mannschaft’s journey to its first world title since reunification.

Just six years later, the English were denied European Championship glory on home soil as the ruthless Germans once again beat them on penalties. Germany went on to lift the trophy at Wembley Stadium, the very heart of English soccer where England had lifted the World Cup 30 years before.

RTX68R96 England captain Bobby Moore on shoulders of teammates holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy after England's victory over West Germany to win the 1966 World Cup final on July 30, 1966. Action Images

More recently, 2010’s World Cup in South Africa saw England thrashed 4-1 by the tournament’s eventual winners, but not before English midfielder Frank Lampard had a goal incorrectly disallowed—a blow the underdogs struggled to come back from.

With Brexit pitting the U.K.’s leaders against the German-dominated European Union, a new chapter of the rivalry has been born, with relations between Angela Merkel and Theresa May having been described as almost non-existent.

Though German fans probably rate their rivalry with the Netherlands above that with England, defeat to the Three Lions would be embarrassing for the world champions.

Of all the clashes, this is the most likely. The teams could meet as early as the quarter-finals. If this was to happen, Germany would be strong favorites over England, who have been undergoing a transitional period, introducing new players and limiting expectations. The Germans are a tough prospect for any opponent, having won the World Cup four times (in 1954, 1974 and 1990 as West Germany, and 2014 as a unified country).

Updated | This article has been updated to provide additional information about Germany's World Cup history.

Join the Discussion