Though the power base of Brazilian football lies in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, one of the country’s most venerable and esteemed derbies is to be found up in the north east, where Recife rivals Nautico and Sport play out O Clássico dos Clássicos (The Derby of Derbies).

At first sight that title might seem a little grand for a rivalry between two clubs who have made relatively little impact outside their home state of Pernambucano. Yet given the fact that the fixture has a history stretching back over a century and has been played more than 400 times, with some sources talking of more than 500 meetings, it is hard to begrudge it its lofty billing. 

When you consider that a fixture of its standing is contested in a city that lies some distance from the nation’s main economic centres and is only its ninth-most populous conurbation, then it easy to understand why Brazil is regarded as o país do futebol (the country of football). And as the supporters of Recife’s other big club Santa Cruz will no doubt tell you, they are another very good reason why the northeastern enclave should be considered a hotbed of football.

The origins
The game took root in Recife thanks to the efforts of a student by the name of Guilherme de Aquino Fonseca, who followed in the footsteps of Charles Miller, the great Brazilian football pioneer, by returning from a trip to England with two complete kits, balls and boots. In doing so he would lay the foundations for Brazil’s third-oldest derby, behind O Vovô, played out by Rio rivals Botafogo and Fluminense, and O Gre-Nal, between Porto Alegre adversaries Gremio and Internacional.

In 1905 Aquino approached the sports association Clube Nautico Capibaribe and asked them if they would be interested in incorporating football into their activities. His request was turned down, prompting him to found his own club, Sport Club do Recife. It was not long before the city’s inhabitants began showing an interest in the game and its popularity started to spread, with even Nautico overcoming their earlier reluctance and setting up their own team. All they needed now was some opposition, which was where Sport came in. 

The first meeting between the two sides took place at Recife’s British Club on 25 July that year, Nautico running out 3-1 winners. The venue was an appropriate one. Brazilian football had a strong British influence in its early years, with players referred to as “goalkeepers” and “full-backs” and the like and occupying different positions in the same game. In that inaugural match for instance, Nautico centre-forward Rolland Maunsell ended up in goal after scoring twice for his side.

Tales of derbies past
Having met over 400 times, Sport and Nautico have many a derby story to tell, the rivalry acquiring an edge from the very start thanks to the circumstances in which Sport were founded. 

In terms of victories, Sport have the upper hand, having also won the national title once, in 1987, and collected more Pernambucano championship titles than Nautico, 39 to 21. That said, Nautico entered the state competition at a later stage and did not win it until 1934, by which time their Recife rivals had already been crowned champions on seven occasions.

Nautico, also known as O Timbu, won six consecutive state crowns between 1963 and 1968, going unbeaten in two of those seasons. It was during that period of domination that they recorded their biggest ever victory over Sport, a 5-1 win in the 1965 Pernambucano final. Sport, who also go by the name of O Leão, finished runners-up in every one of those six seasons, a luckless run that culminated in an agonising extra-time defeat in the 1968 final. 

Though O Leão have never matched that sequence, they have achieved five titles in a row on two separate occasions: between 1996 and 2000 and again between 2006 and 2010. Sport also have the better record in state finals between the two, winning 17 out of 25, including the 2010 showpiece. 

The fixture has been graced by some great names over the years, among them Ademir Menezes, the leading goalscorer at the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Vava, Dario Maravilha, Ze Maria, Manga and Juninho Pernambucano for Sport, and the Carvalheira brothers (Zeze, Artur and Fernando), Manoelzinho, Bita, Marinho Chagas and Jorge Mendonca for Nautico.

O Leão play their home games at the Ilha do Retiro, a venue used at Brazil 1950 and one of South America’s most imposing stadiums, while Nautico run out at the Estadio dos Aflitos, where many a visiting side has also come to grief. O Timbu will be decamping next year to the Arena Pernambuco, which is currently under construction and will host matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.

The attendance record for O Clássico dos Clássicos was achieved at another stadium, however, with 80,023 fans congregating at Santa Cruz’s home ground, the Arrudao, to see Sport win a 1988 meeting 2-0.

The rivalry today
Nautico and Sport have served up some spectacular derbies in recent years, their last five encounters producing 20 goals, including a 4-3 win for O Leão at the Ilha do Retiro in January this year.

Sport have won four and lost three of the last ten meetings between the two, one of the most thrilling of those games being the 3-3 draw they played out in a topsy-turvy 2009 Brasileirão clash.

Both clubs were relegated from the national top flight that season but bounced back this year, ready to continue their local tug-of-war and add to the lustre of a fixture with a long and proud history.