One day not long ago, before the madness of the World Cup descended on Brazil, a group of families gathered on the terrace of a Rio restaurant for Saturday lunch. Parents were drinking and chatting and not paying much attention to the children, who were were engrossed in a football match on the restaurant’s television set. It was a game between next-door Argentina and the obscure national team from far-off Côte d’Ivoire. Midway through the game, Argentina scored – and the children cheered.
The parents whipped around, stern frowns fixed on their faces, and swooped in to scold their delinquent offspring: “Nao pode! Nao pode!” You can’t! It was a critical lesson in the life of a Brazilian child: You cannot – even when you are four years old and simply excited about a goal – you cannot cheer for Argentina at any cost.
It’s like that around here.
In the list of the world’s great rivalries, Brazil versus Argentina in football (the only sport that particularly matters in either nation) is one of the most fierce and enduring. It dates back nearly a century, and it has come into sharp focus in recent days as tens of thousands of Argentine football supporters have poured across the border into Brazil to cheer on their team at a World Cup close to home.
“We have a complex relationship that traverses the poles of love and hate, rejection and attraction,” Pablo Alabarces, a sociologist with the University of Buenos Aires who studies football culture, said about Argentina and Brazil. “It’s a relationship of societies and cultures that are competitive but complement each other. The rivalry is crucial, because it’s our identity … Argentines are Argentines because they are not Brazilian. The opposite is also true.”
Argentina beat Switzerland in the knockout stage Tuesday, advancing to the quarter-finals and coming one step closer to squaring off with Brazil in the final, a match that nearly everyone in either nation would love to see. An Argentina-Brazil showdown is a FIFA marketer’s dream scenario – but a potential nightmare for Brazilian security forces.
Argentina’s football fans include a core group known as the barras bravas. There is no good English equivalent for the Spanish term, but they are roughly equivalent to English hooligans, linked with organized crime and blamed for the country’s violent fan culture. Ninety-three people have died in football violence in Argentina since 2000, 14 of them last year, according to an advocacy organization called Salvemos al Futbol, or Save Football. (Brazil, it bears noting, has its own football violence problem; 30 people were killed last year alone.)
An estimated 70,000 Argentinians are in Sao Paulo for the match. The city has thrown open its Sambadrome and its racetrack to accommodate their camper-vans and tents, and likely to try to make it easier to control any possible outbursts of conflict with Brazil fans.
The Brazilian government worked with Argentine security forces before the Cup to draw up a list of 2,000 known offenders, some 32 of whom were turned back trying to enter Brazil. And Argentina sent a special squad of police officers, trained in controlling the barras bravas, to travel alongside the fan caravan watching for trouble. To date, the Argentines have caused some minor conflicts (scrapping with Brazilians outside stadiums, and attempting to steal tickets before the last game in Porto Alegre), but nothing of the order feared. But then, they haven’t played Brazil yet, either.
Ronaldo Helal, who studies sport and culture at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says the media in both countries play an active role in stoking the rivalry. But he discovered when doing research on the other side of the border that it is Brazilians – who outnumber Argentines five to one and have a vastly larger economy – who spend more time trash-talking their rivals. Argentines are constructed as arrogant, snobs, people whose football is technically good but is irredeemably lacking in romance, he said. Argentines envy the “sexiness” of Brazilian football (and indeed Brazil) but are confident of their ultimate superiority.
Prof. Helal is anxious about a potential Argentina-Brazil final, because the Argentines coming to Brazil are discovering the depth of enmity Brazilians nurse towards them. “I’m afraid this rivalry can transcend this joking relationship and become something more serious. And these supporters who come to Brazil from Argentina – some, not all of them – are people with a history of violence.”
A Brazil versus Argentina final would pit two of the biggest stars in the world of football today against each other – Brazil’s lithe 22-year-old Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. versus Argentina’s 27-year-old Lionel Messi, both of whom play for Barcelona FC in the regular season but who now embody all of the hopes of their respective nations.
Going by the numbers, the teams are evenly matched: Brazil has far more World Cup titles (five to two), but Argentina has won many more of the other international contests (such as the Libertadores Cup, the Latin American competition that is fiercely important to football fans), of which it has 22 compared to Brazil’s 16, plus Olympic gold, which Brazil never has never won.
While Argentines and Brazilians will debate these figures endlessly, it is generally accepted that Argentina has defeated Brazil 36 times, with 151 goals, while Brazil has been the victor 35 times, with 145 goals. (And 24 ties). Should Argentina advance Tuesday, they will be the only team left in the World Cup that has defeated Brazil more often than Brazil has beaten them.
Historically both Brazil and Argentina had rivalries with Uruguay – and Argentina also nurtured particular bitterness for England, after the Falklands war. But the Libertadores Cup matches between Argentina and Brazil have fostered this rivalry – and the competition was honed as Brazil’s economy took off, surpassing the lead role Argentina once held, with Sao Paulo arguably ousting Buenos Aires from is position as the continent’s most sophisticated city.
Roberto Perfumo, a legendary Argentine footballer who played at the height of his career for a club team in Brazil, wrote an essay in the Argentinian sports newspaper Olé in 2002 in which he tried to encapsulate the difference between the two football nations. “We are mutually envious,” he wrote. “We have 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, to a way of being. For us football is tragic. For them, it’s not.”