A true fight for regional supremacy

Two fiercely contrasting cultures at the heart of one of football's greatest rivalries. Two opposing ways of seeing the one game. South America's two biggest nations in a fight for regional supremacy. Both claim the greatest player of all time as their own. Both exhibit  some of the world's best players.

When Brazil and Argentina play each other the world stops to watch because there is great rivalry and great quality on show. Anything can happen. Red cards, fights and a lot of goals. 

"Argentinians like to fight. They are battlers on the pitch. Brazilians are more artistic. Put these together and it creates problems," said the late Brazilian great Socrates.

At the start of the 20th Century the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina was almost non-existent.

In a visit to Brazil in 1909, Roque Saenz Pena, who one year later would become President of Argentina, ended a stirring speech on the relationship between the two South American countries with a sentence that appeared to make perfect sense: “Everything unites us. Nothing separates us.”

At the time it did indeed make sense. The conflict for control of the Cisplatina Province, which led to the independence of Uruguay, had ended decades ago, and Brazilians and Argentinians had even fought alongside one another as allies in the Paraguayan War in 1864. Years later, the diplomatic dispute in 1895 to precisely define the borders between the two countries had been settled. Despite the tensions one would naturally expect between neighbours and the two largest countries of the continent, it seemed that the similarities and common ground outweighed the differences that could generate rivalry. It was against this backdrop that football was thrown into the mix. 

Rivalries originating in major historical events often permeate footballing occasions, but in the case of Brazil and Argentina the quarrel is almost exclusively the result of what has happened on the pitch. Upon the inception of football in the two countries at the start of the 20th century, the relationship was as cordial as could be. The Copa Roca, created in 1913, was as a regular fixture between the two countries played in a spirit of brotherhood and was far from being a source of tension. Argentina’s rival was Uruguay, who had defeated them in the final of the Football Tournament at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 and also in the first FIFA World Cup, in 1930.

Brazilian football only turned professional in 1933 so they played a supporting role to their more illustrious neighbours.

Football historian Roberto Assaf says: "Argentinian football was always more important for them than Brazilian football was for us."

The intensity of the rivalry was slow to take root, as Newton Cesar de Oliveira Santos explains in his book released in 2008 entitled Brasil x Argentina, histórias do maior clássico do futebol mundial (Brazil-Argentina: stories of the world’s greatest football rivalry). To begin with, the powerhouses of the continent were Uruguay and Argentina, with the Brazilians merely part of the supporting cast. When Brazil got going, however, they made up lost ground, winning three World Cups and leaving Argentina so far behind they were not considered rivals. “And that was when the historical turning point occurred,” says the author.

After Brazil won their first World Cup in 1958 the Copa America suddenly became more important for Argentina as it was their opportunity to show the world that they were the better team.

And so it proved as by 1959 Brazil had lost all seven of their South American Championship finals against Argentina. Even their World Cup winning side couldn't get the better of their rivals in the south.

Brazil's Copa record is underwhelming when compared to their World Cup exploits. They only won their first title outside Brazil in 1997.

Elio Rossi says: "We always looked at Brazil with a mixture of admiration and jealousy. They made the dream of winning many World Cups a reality while we think we've won it before a ball has been kicked."

The rivalry began to be defined in other ways. Watching the footage of Pele scoring his one thousandth goal, from the penalty spot against Vasco in 1969, one thing stands out: the goalkeeper gets his hand to the ball, but realising that he failed to stop it, he furiously punches the ground in frustration. It is a small but revealing detail. The goalkeeper was Edgardo Andrada, and Brazilian fans never tire of saying that goal number 1,000 had to be scored against an Argentinian. Andrada himself said that for years the fact he had played a role in such an iconic moment of Brazilian success was hard to bear. The rivalry between Brazilians and Argentinians does that to people. It is purely restricted to football, but that does not diminish its ferocity.

The Andrada incident is no exception. While the list of Brazilians who have made a mark in Argentinian football can be counted on one hand – Domingos da Guia, Paulo Valentim, Silas, Iarley – there is a rich tradition of Argentinian footballers doing well in Brazil. Initially, the “imports” came mainly to plug a traditionally perceived gap as regards the quality of Brazilian defenders and especially goalkeepers.

Goalkeeper Jose Poy joined Sao Paulo in 1948, and stayed there until 1963, becoming one of the biggest idols in the club’s history. In his wake came Andrada who was between the sticks for Vasco, Agustin Cejas for Santos behind his compatriot Ramos Delgado, Ubaldo Fillol for Flamengo, and at centre-back another player who would become a club icon, Roberto Perfumo, the boss of the Cruzeiro penalty area in the 1970s. 

Talking to the Argentinian newspaper Olé in 2002 Perfumo encapsulated the difference between the Brazilian and Argentinian schools of football with such clarity that it backed up the cliché about one set of players having the creativity and lightness of a samba; the other has the unbridled passion and technical precision of a tango. “We are mutually envious,” said the former archetypal Argentinian central defender, who was as tough as they come but at the same time brimming with class. “It’s a different relationship with the ball. We use it more to achieve our goals, they use it more for personal pleasure. This is linked to life, a way of being. For us football is tragic, for them it’s not.”

When the second wave of Argentinians arrived in Brazil, it was the likes of Juan Pablo Sorin, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano in the 2000s as the Brazilian economy boomed.

On the pitch the two did not meet in the World Cup until 1974 which was as much a psychological battle as a physical one. Brazil won 2-1 playing a rather ugly type of football.

As beaten rivals Argentina had a lot of soul searching to do and turned things around under the leadership of Cesar Luis Menotti.

They met again in 1978, in a World Cup Argentina were desperate to win as hosts. Both knew victory in the second round round-robin format would almost guarantee a place in the final. It was the Battle of Rosario and ended goalless.

"Much more war than a football match. There was dirty play by both sides. That was more or less how the game was played back then," remembers Argentine midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles. 

Edinho says: "As soon as I came on I started giving them retribution. You can't be a good boy against Argentina."

What happened next took the rivalry to a new dimension. Brazil faced Poland while Argentina played Peru. Both needed to win and goal difference would be crucial as was the timing of the matches.

"Everyone knew six months before the time of the matches and that one team would go on the pitch knowing how much they needed to win by."

Brazil beat Poland 3-1 and Argentina knew they needed four goals to win. That's where the great conspiracy started.They got six and 20 years layer Peruvian keeper Ramon Quiroga, born in Argentina, admitted the game was fixed.

Rivelino's opinion is that Argentina can take no pleasure from their first World Cup win.

The fall-out was that the South American Clasico was now a real grudge match.

They met again in the 1982 World Cup with Argentina staring elimination in the face after being beaten by Italy.

A rampant Brazil won 3-2 but an ugly foul by Maradona triggered the next chapter in the rivalry.

Argentina used that pain four years later in Mexico where they won their second World Cup.

They met again in 1990 in Italy and after doing everything but score, Brazil had their pockets picked by a Claudio Canniggia goal and went home in the second round.

Commenting on this Argentina win in Italy, Diego Armando Maradona, whose pass led to Canniggia’s goal, stated: “My country loves beating Brazil more than any other team. The same goes for them! They get more pleasure from a victory over us than from one over the Netherlands, Italy, Germany or anybody else. Like us. Like me. Nothing is as beautiful as beating Brazil.”

Midway through the first half in 1990 Argentine midfielder Pedro Trollio was fouled. Their physio rushed onto the pitch distributing drinks to both sets of players. Some 15 years later Maradona claimed in a tv interview that Brazilian fullback Branco had been drugged in what became known as The Holy Water Scandal..

"The Brazilians were all around the physio. I could see Branco drink the water and then Valdo arrived. I was thinking please drink it, please drink it.And then I saw Olarticoechea  go and drink some and I said no."

Careca says that at halftime Branco certainly complained about feeling unwell and weak and then we found that someone from Argentina had put something in the water.

The Argentine players dismiss it as gossip.

Yhe next two decades belonged to Brazil with  further World Cup wins in 1994 and 2002.

The rivalry that started out as being about neighbours is now about trophies.

The football history between Brazilians and Argentinians is brimming with admiration, whether it be for the character traits on the one side, or the creativity on the other, but what it boils to is a pure rivalry. Or as the Argentinian sociologist Pablo Alabarces put it, repeating the words of a friend of his who lived in Brazil: “Brazilians love to hate Argentinians, and Argentinians hate to love Brazilians.”

Definitely more than a game.

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