For Brazilians, not claiming this year’s FIFA World Cup would be bad enough, but even worse would be bitter rivals Argentina winning in Brazil, where 200 million locals are expecting to celebrate in June.
“This would be every Brazilians worst nightmare,” said Newton Cesar Santos, the Brazilian author of a 600-page history of the Brazil-Argentina rivalry titled: Brazil X Argentina: Stories of the Biggest Classic in World Football. “Let anybody win, but not Argentina.”
There are many intense soccer matchups, such as the Netherlands versus Germany, or England against Scotland, but none rivals a tie between Brazil and Argentina.
Some of Brazil’s national self-esteem rests on being the world’s lone soccer superpower. They are the only side to have played in every World Cup and have won the most titles with five. The South American side have set the standard for flair and 73-year-old Brazil great Pele remains the game’s most famous brand.
Yet it was not always this way. In the early days of the sport, Argentina was the soccer power in South America. The game arrived there before it did in Brazil, but Argentina’s leading role changed when Brazil won the 1958 World Cup, long before Argentina won their first of two — a highly disputed victory — 20 years later.
“Argentina was always much more developed than Brazil,” Santos said. “Argentina didn’t have slavery, we did. They had industry. They had everything first. As a country, we admitted we were a kind of second-class country compared to Argentina.”
Soccer seems to have delivered where politicians have failed. Both countries have suffered economic instability, dictatorships, coups and runaway inflation, but their soccer has usually been world-class.
Brazil has Pele, Argentina has Maradona and the debate about who is better never ends, partly because the record of wins varies depending on whose keeping score. The Argentine Football Association and the Brazilian Football Confederation have slightly different results.
“Brazil and Argentina records disagree about what is an official match or not,” Santos said. “Of course, each has a record that favors its national team.”
The author calculates that from more than 99 matches, Brazil has won two more than their rivals. He said that the first official match was Sept. 27, 1914, in Buenos Aires, which Brazil won 1-0.
According to Santos, Argentina fielded their first national team in 1902, 12 years ahead of Brazil.
“Amazingly, people have not paid that much attention to the numbers,” he said. “Everyone knows it’s very even.”
Santos said there is a sector of Brazilian society hoping their side will lose the World Cup.
“They are against this government and they figure a loss could create instability, more demonstrations and force social changes,” he said.
The reality of this year’s tournament is that while Argentina may have a better team and an easier draw, Brazil have the advantage of playing at home.
Brazil are placed among the favorites along with Spain, Argentina and Germany, in part because they are the hosts. Brazil’s problem is the draw and, although the team led by young forward Neymar are good, few rank them as one of the country’s best sides. Their chances of winning are given at about 25 percent — not great odds.
Brazil have a relatively easy four-team group with Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon, but are likely to face either Spain or the Netherlands in their first game of the knockout stage, while next up could be one of three former World Cup champions: Uruguay, Italy or England.