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Mexican fans gather before the 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match between Brazil and Mexico in Fortaleza June 17, 2014.

Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

It's Brazil versus Mexico Tuesday on the World Cup pitch, and it will be a closely watched contest because Mexico snatched Olympic gold from favourites Brazil in 2012.

Off the field, the competition between the two Latin American heavyweights is also increasingly fierce. It has been a see-saw contest for decades over which country will have the largest gross domestic product (although Brazil has been in the lead since 2005).

Both countries are also seeking regional dominance, but they are choosing markedly different strategies to get there.

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Brazil is looking primarily at internal factors to fuel its growth: the development of its massive offshore oil fields, and the consumption habits of a new middle class. But it has done little to loosen its traditionally highly protected economy, or to streamline the process of foreign investment.

Mexico, on the other hand, has been a market darling in recent years. It has a skilled work force and proximity to the United States. Investors have not been deterred by the ongoing drug war or the fact that the rule of law remains weak.

And Mexico has thrown open its commercial doors – winning particular praise for promising unfettered international access to its energy sector. (Brazil insists that investors partner with the national firm Petrobras.)

Mexico's free-trade agreements expand far beyond NAFTA: It has deals with Japan and the European Union, and most recently formed the Pacific Alliance with Chile, Peru and Colombia, countries that share its pro-market view. That alliance is making friends fast: Just two years old, it already has a multilateral pact with the EU.

(To give you a sense of the regional view: Emir Sader, the renowned Brazilian Marxist sociologist, remarked recently that the Pacific Alliance is a realization of a U.S. imperialist vision of Latin America, with Mexico, rather than Brazil, as its leader.)

Brazil, of course, has a regional club of its own: Mercosul (or Mercosur, as it's called in the Spanish-speaking countries). It began 30 years ago as a partnership with Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, then Venezuela; other countries, including Chile and Ecuador, have since sought "partner" status. But Mercosul has been plagued by scandals and has been painfully slow to grow trade – and it has not managed to ink a EU deal despite years of stalled negotiations.

So, which approach is paying off?

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Each side has its advantages. Mexico's exports were $380-billion (U.S.) in 2013, while Brazil's exports were substantially lower, at $242-billion. But then, Mexico is still more reliant on imports and finished the year with a $1-billion negative balance of trade. Brazil, on the other hand, remains a strong trade surplus of $2.5-billion, although the 2013 figure was the lowest surplus since 2000.

Mexico gets the win on inflation, that traditional Brazilian weak point: Mexico's consumer price index went up just 3.8 per cent last year, while Brazil's rose 6.2 per cent and prices are climbing swiftly. (In Mexico, on the other hand, they are falling.)

Mexico has a lower deficit, and much lower interest rates (3 per cent, compared with Brazil's 11).

And as Brazil's Valor newspaper noted today, Mexico wins the billionaire contest too: Tycoon Carlos Slim remains the world's richest person, while Brazil's Eike Batista flamed out spectacularly, filing for bankruptcy last year.

The International Monetary Fund sounded a note of caution on Brazil last week, noting its high external vulnerability and expressing concern in particular about inflation.

Mexico, on the other hand, got a glowing report card.

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But it's important to note that neither of the differing approaches is paying off spectacularly well. The two nations posted nearly identical GDP growth in the first quarter of this year: Brazil's grew by 1.9 per, and Mexico's by 1.8 per cent.

The IMF forecasts 3 per cent growth for Mexico this year, but sticks with that 1.8 for Brazil.

On the football field Tuesday, the competition will be fierce, but Latin American economists have been saying for years that the best scenario for the region would be overt co-operation between Mexico and Brazil. There was a first small sign of progress early this year, when Mercosul and the Pacific Alliance agreed to try to work out a trade deal of their own. But a bilateral Brazil-Mexico deal has been stalled for years, and formal ties, while friendly, are limited.

Either way, the results of Tuesday's game are unlikely to improve matters.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Mexico has had a larger gross domestic product than Brazil since 2005.

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