The FIFA World Cup produces rivals that are seemingly exclusive to this competition.
In international soccer, the majority of rivalries are geographical. For instance, Mexico and the United States have a heated rivalry as neighbors. Similarly, Brazil and Argentina consistently produce world class talent going head-to-head regularly. Finally, England and Germany date back to before WWII in that derby’s lore.
Geographical rivalries are great because they can be full of passion. FIFA World Cup rivals may lack some of that passion because of a lack of consistency. However, there are certain nations that do not have the opportunity to play each other regularly, but still possess animosity towards one another.
The following list focuses on rivalries with nations in different confederations. However, it is hard to ignore the dominance from CONMEBOL and UEFA, the only two confederations to have teams win a World Cup.
FIFA World Cup rivals – Intercontinental
5. Nigeria vs. Argentina
These two sides played five times at the sport’s biggest tournament. Most recently, in 2018, the game held great significance. With Croatia already topping the group, Nigeria and Argentina battled for a spot in the round of 16. Marcos Rojo’s winner in the 86th minute pushed La Albiceleste into the knockout stage.
Argentina won all five games in this rivalry. However, each win came by one goal. Plus, it is something fresh. The two sides played each other in 1994, 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018, all in the group stage.
4. Italy vs. Brazil
These two nations combine for nine World Cup wins. Therefore, it is no surprise that they play each other with relative frequency on the world’s stage. On five occasions, these two teams played in the World Cup. Moreover, two of these meetings came in the World Cup Final. In both matchups, Brazil beat the Italians. The 1994 meeting came with Roberto Baggio famously missing Italy’s fifth penalty, giving the trophy to Brazil.
Each time these two meet, it has been in the knockout stages or the second group stage. The losing team eliminated from the tournament with the winner going on to win the tournament. The one exception is in 1978, when the two played for third place.
3. Brazil vs. Sweden
Based solely off the number of times these two countries played, this is certainly a rivalry. On most occasions, Sweden gets the short end of the stick. Of the record seven times these two countries played, Sweden has no wins. Meanwhile, Brazil has five wins and just two draws.
The most famous of those wins came in 1958 in Stockholm. A 17-year-old phenom scored a hat trick against the hosts in the Final to give Brazil its first of what would become five World Cup wins. Safe to say that young player had a strong career at the club and international level.
2. USA vs. Iran
Much of the disdain in this rivalry stems from the political side of these two countries. Hostile relations between Iran and the United States following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 made the two nations’ meeting in 1998 significant. In fact, the Supreme Leader of Iran ordered his players to wait for the U.S. to shake hands with them. This is despite the fact that Iran was designated as ‘Team B’ before the tournament, making the Iranians walk over to shake hands with the U.S. before the game.
Iran’s win in 1998 knocked the U.S. out of the World Cup. The two countries meet again at the 2022 World Cup in the same group. There will be similar intrigue to that fixture.
1. Argentina vs. England
Look no further than 1986. Diego Maradona scored perhaps the two most famous goals in World Cup history in the same game. The ‘Hand of God’ goal sent England players irate. Then, four minutes later, Maradona scored the ‘Goal of the Century,’ dancing through England defenders before slotting home the eventual winner.
The two sides played a role in eliminating one another from the World Cup in 2002, 1998, 1986 and 1966, splitting the triumphs at two for each side.
Photo: STAFF/AFP via Getty Images
Continental rivals at the World Cup
5. France vs. Italy
The 2006 World Cup Final is memorable for a number of reasons. Most significantly is the fact that France’s captain and leader Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in extra time, yielding a red card. Zidane scored France’s only goal of the game. In a poetic way, Materazzi scored the game-winning penalty for the Italians.
The World Cup win over France was more than enough solace for Italy after the French eliminated the Italians on a penalty shootout eight years earlier in the quarterfinals.
Italy and France played a total of five times in the World Cup. France has two wins, including the 1998 penalties. Italy has three wins, with the crucial penalty win in 2006.
4. Mexico vs. USA
Mexico and the United States have a storied rivalry that includes some bitter encounters. The only time the two sides met in the World Cup came in 2002 in South Korea.
Landon Donovan and Brian McBride scored the goals in the now-famous, or infamous for Mexican fans, scoreline of 2-0. The result continued a run of Mexico exiting the World Cup in the round of 16. In fact, Mexico reached the first knockout stage in every World Cup from 1994 to most recently in 2018. However, the Mexicans cannot overcome that hurdle, losing dramatically on several occasions.
For the U.S., this is the best finish at a World Cup since a semifinal appearance at the inaugural World Cup in 1930.
3. Germany vs. the Netherlands
Many of the rivalries in Europe come from the conflicts during World War I and World War II. That persists for these two sides.
Three World Cup meetings are highlighted by the 1974 Final in Munich. Gerd Muller’s winner prevented the Netherlands from its first title, which eludes them to this day.
In 1990, a contentious meeting in the round of 16 included red cards for Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard, as Germany won the match and eventually the tournament. In 1978, four years after the final in Munich, the Netherlands knocked out Germany with a 2-2 draw after René van de Kerkhof scored the equalizer in the 84th minute.
2. England vs. Germany
This rivalry, as stated previously, is one of the more historic in the terms of international soccer. At the World Cup, the sides first met in the 1966 Final in London. England claimed its first, and so far only, World Cup win after an extra time game at Wembley.
These two sides played to some controversial calls. Most recently, England thought Frank Lampard scored the equalizer against the Germans in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals. Even though the ball clearly crossed the line, the goal was not given. Germany stormed away in the second half, winning 4-1.
The most memorable moment from this might be the 1990 semifinal. Paul Gascoigne’s tears for picking up a yellow card preceded a penalty shootout loss for England, while Germany went on to win the tournament.
1. Brazil vs. Argentina
It would be cruel to leave off the biggest rivalry in international soccer when it comes to passion on the field. The two soccer giants met four times over the course of the World Cup’s illustrious history. Brazil holds the slightest of edges with two wins, a draw and a loss.
Controversy exists among these meetings. For example, Argentina booked its place in the 1978 World Cup Final by beating Peru in a suspiciously comfortable way, 6-0. The result came after Brazil won its final game in the second group stage hours before the Argentina game started. Therefore, Argentina knew how much it needed to win by.
In 1990, the ‘Holy Water’ incident where a Brazilian player accused Argentina’s training staff of giving him water laced with tranquilizers caused a stir. Argentina knocked Brazil out of the World Cup that year, but the mystery exists today as to what happened with the water.