Many outsiders regard Latin America as monolithic about soccer. But as the World Cup begins in Brazil, a closer comparison of the region's top two teams might surprise you.
SAO PAULO — As the World Cup begins today, the old spirit of Marcanazo is haunting Brazil's collective memory.
For the unhaunted, Maracanazo is the term used for Uruguay's unexpected victory over Brazil in the 1950 FIFA World Cup final played in Rio de Janeiro. This time, the question is: Will we lose to Argentina?
After all, the groups seem to be designed to make this scenario happen.
The fact that Brazil is the host country of this year's World Cup is an added reason for Brazilians to covet the title. And Brazil knows that the Argentine team is capable of miracles. There was, for instance, the 2010 game when the team nearly lost its chance to qualify for the World Cup. That's when Argentine player Martin Palermo scored the winning goal in the last minute of the match against Peru, despite a heavy rain and a formidable opponent.
In European or North American eyes, all South Americans share the same visceral attitude toward soccer. But if we take a closer look at Argentinians and Brazilians, starting with sports journalists, we'll see that's not true.
Experience with my Argentinian counterparts tells me that they have an incredible knowledge, great critical skills and clarity of thought, but their blind support for the national team seems almost childish. Brazilians, on the other hand, tend to criticize everything about their national team.
During the America's Cup in 2011, for example, I remember an Argentinian journalist asking a Brazilian to pick the team that would win the title. The Brazilian replied without hesitating: Uruguay. He based his prediction on technical arguments. In response, the wide-eyed Argentinian journalist asked indignantly, "How can you not support your own team?"
When I moved to Argentina for the first time, I went to San Juan, a city in the Andes mountain range close to the Chilean border. It had nothing in common with the hectic capital: the food, customs, the accent, everything was different. One cold night, I went to see the match between the Boca Juniors, Buenos Aires" most iconic team, which played against a Brazilian team in the Copa Libertadores. I was very surprised to see that San Juan residents were ardent fans of Boca, a team created in an Italian district of Buenos Aires.
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A Brazilian fan tries to bury a legend (Adenilson Nunes)
When I began chatting with one of them, I learned that he had never been to the Argentinian capital, but that didn't stop him from being a fanatical Boca supporter. After thinking about it, I realized that we Brazilians never had a team with a nationwide network of blindly supportive fans. What does seem similar, though, is that both nations feel more connected with their local teams than with their national teams.
Guga Chacra and Ariel Palacios, both journalists and argentinophiles, have written a book called Os Hermanos e Nós ("The Hermanos and Us") that sheds some light on the differences between the two country's attitudes about soccer. According to the authors, Brazilians see Argentina as their greatest rival, whereas Argentinians have the same competitive attitude towards Brazil as they have towards Uruguay. Contrary to popular opinion, Argentinians have fewer prejudices about Brazilians than we do about them. This is especially true in recent years. And thanks to a booming Brazilian economy, Argentinians have been regarding us with more admiration and curiosity for our music, culture and politics.
Finally, ever since the Falklands War began in 1982, the Argentinian public regards enemy No. 1 as England. That's why the victory over the English during the 1986 World Cup is almost legendary to them. Thanks to two goals that are considered among the most brilliant in soccer history, Argentina eliminated England and continued its path to its second World Cup victory.
One of those goals, the "Hand of God" by Argentine player Diego Maradona in which he used his hand to score, leaves much to consider. Beyond the personality of Maradona and his capacities, it reveals the Argentinian tendency to trickery. Juan José Sebrelli, an Argentinian philosopher and sociologist, says that his countrymen believe laws are made to be broken, and therefore they can idolize an arguable deceit — because soccer does not allow hands to touch the ball — as the most famous goal in the history of soccer. "To admire Maradona symbolizes our decadency," he says.
In both countries, the relationship between politics and soccer is very strong. Argentinians won their first World Cup title in 1978, under great pressure from the military regime of General Videla. The Brazilian national team had to bear the same political burden in 1970, during the military government of Emílio Médici. In both cases, competition on the field was an instrument of regime propaganda.
According to journalist Ariel Palacios, the governments of both countries still "approach the topic as if it was a matter of state, a type of national epic, a saga of life and death."