After beating Peru in the Copa América semifinals earlier this week, Neymar Jr., the undoubted star of Brazil’s national team, was asked who he wanted in the final, gleaming from postgame sweat. He smiled and added, “I want Argentina,” without missing a beat.
Despite the fact that part of it was because he wanted to confront his buddy and former teammate Lionel Messi, Neymar was speaking on behalf of everyone who loves the beautiful game around the world, not just the squad or the country.
Brazil vs. Argentina, three words that come out of any fan’s mouth with ease, a rivalry that transcends statistics and is fueled by history, creating a proverbial photo album of who’s who of South American royalty over the years, has granted Neymar’s wish and will play the protagonist at Maracan Stadium on Saturday night.
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Not only is this a strong way to end this summer’s Copa América, which began with controversy and reasonable criticism, but CONMEBOL is probably thanking the football Gods that this is the final to end it all, as Euro 2020’s triumph makes it nearly impossible to top. It’s not to say that the average soccer fan won’t watch both finals or competitions, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to a tournament held in a continent still recovering from the impacts of a pandemic.
But, alas, the performance must go on, and if there’s a chance to make Hollywood-style headlines on Saturday night, it’s by exposing the world to international football’s most fierce rivalry. It doesn’t hurt that these are nations that have produced some of the world’s most talented footballers. From Pele, Zico, and Garrincha through Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona, and Adolfo Pedernera, the list of football legends is long. The stoic beauty of Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Roman Riquelme, and Fernando Redondo contrasts with the brilliance of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaka. The shirts themselves are visually striking (shining canary yellow and golden green against the sky, light blue and pure white), but they’re also functional.
The sun and sky are a metaphor for the best of what nature has to offer. As a result, this game represents the pinnacle of what we can imagine, and it provides the ideal spectacle thanks to the interesting football paradox.
Before we get into this Saturday’s game and the importance of the championship for both teams, it’s crucial to know the rivalry’s history. For starters, you should be aware that the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is based on more than just soccer. This match, like any other in South America, is influenced by the people’s cultural composition. Soccer is a part of every society’s political prism, and in South America, the national teams bear the burden of these voices. Kneeling before kickoff to speak out for social and racial justice, or the simple yet powerful statement of donning a rainbow armband, are examples. Before that,
Players, for example, expressed their feelings about playing in this event and condemned playing in the first place because of the continent’s troubles with COVID-19, to the point when Brazilian members considered boycotting.
“The history of soccer is a sorrowful trek from beauty to duty,” writes Eduardo Galeano in “Soccer in Sun and Shadow.” This is a true tribute to what these athletes represent, just like his passing in South America. At the end of the day, they’re all just street kids trying to make their country proud. Brazil and Argentina have a history of stormy electricity, and by that I mean both positive and harmful shocks to the system. The South American continent is also known as
The 1925 encounter, which took place on Christmas Day in Buenos Aires, was so bad that they had to wait more than a decade to meet again and reignite the rivalry. A vehement foul by Argentina’s Ramon Muttis on Brazilian Arthur Friedenreich ignited a melee between the two, followed by the rest of the squad, and then it escalated with supporters brawling in the stands. There were no red cards, as Argentina fought back from a 2-0 deficit to win the competition that day. It would take until 1937 for the two sides to meet.
Argentina dominated from the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, with some contentious Brazilian victories. In 1939, as part of the Copa Roca, which was a one-off competition organized by ex-Argentina president Julio Argentino Roca 26 years earlier, two matches included devastation in Rio de Janeiro — where this Saturday’s final will take place. Argentina won the first match 5-1, prompting Brazil to seek vengeance a week later. They got it, but not without drama, as Brazil was granted a penalty with the score tied at 2-2 right before the final whistle. Arcadio Lopez, Argentina’s captain, was so enraged that he verbally attacked the official.
He had to be carried off the field, followed by the rest of the team, leaving an empty goal for Brazil to score and win 3-2.
More matches have come and gone over the years, creating more dramatic moments and stoking the never-ending fire. It’s as if both of these countries knew something the rest of the world didn’t: no matter what happens on the field, they despise each other.
Then there was Pele and Diego Maradona, who dominated for a long time. Between 1958 and 1970, the former provided Brazil a new identity by winning three World Cup titles. Argentina, obliged to accept Brazilian royalty, awaited their own as Maradona led them to a new chapter: one of international acclaim. Both countries wrote their own chapters in this rivalry, where it was no longer about competing against one other, but about leaving a legacy.]
In other competitions, the fighting persisted as the volcano continued to explode. In the 1990 World Cup, Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in the round of 16, but the encounter was dubbed the “Holy Water Game” when Brazil’s Branco blamed Argentina’s training staff for passing him a poisoned bottle of water laced with tranquilizers. Or, a year later, in one of the most amazing Copa America encounters, in which five goals and five red cards were scored. Brazil and Argentina repeatedly demanded the spotlight in the most spectacular of ways, and we, like lions to prey, yearned for more.
So fast forward to Saturday night, and the spotlight is once again on these two aged world football colts. Neymar Jr. is aware that his country is in town to defend its title, but he wants to be a part of it this time. On the other hand, Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen, returns to a familiar environment (his first final was in 2007, when Brazil defeated Argentina 3-0) knowing that the end of his career is staring him in the face, patiently waiting to see when the curtain will come down. This tournament has never been won by either of them.
Messi and Argentina are well aware that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win it for Diego Maradona, whilst Brazil will do everything it can to prevent that from happening on home soil.
Whatever team you support this weekend, remember that this is a match between two enemies that serves as a metaphor for football. It’s both beautiful and chaotic, filthy and spotless, just and unjust. Most importantly, this is a fixture
that requires two world-class opponents to take the weight of their countries on their shoulders and triumph on the field. And no matter how much you believe they despise one other, there’s no denying that one without the other is a no-win situation. And it’s for this reason that this venerable institution, which has a long and illustrious history, always begins with reverence.