Soccer  

Why the world is hoping for an Argentina vs. Brazil World Cup match

Let’s begin this with an apology to fans of Croatia and the Netherlands: no hard feelings here. Given the courageous respective paths your teams have traveled to get to the quarterfinal stage of the 2022 World Cup, remaining undefeated is a commendable act.

However, the truth is that as much as I appreciate Luka Modric’s artistry or Cody Gakpo’s infectious energy, this is where I hope it ends for you both, and I think it’s fair to say that most of the neutral fans agree with me, especially South Americans.

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It’s time to see the greatest rivalry in international football. It’s time for history, where Albiceleste grit meets Brazilian swagger. Where the ghosts of 1939-40 (Argentina won 5-1, 6-1 and 5-1) and 1963 (Brazil victorious with a 5-2 result, a year after winning the World Cup, Pele scoring a hat trick) resurface to remind us of the matches that painted this tumultuous encounter.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed the action and storylines from this tournament, from Morocco’s heroic display against the chess-playing Spain to the prodigious performances of Kylian Mbappe, but the World Cup is at its best when it also gives us a match that transcends the subtleties of technical ability or managerial face-offs. In this day and age, with technology infiltrating the game more than ever before, when the action stops at every given opportunity merely so the referee can look at the screen and check if a player’s eyebrow has been checked for offside, we need this matchup more than ever.

“This is the biggest rivalry. There is no bigger match for Brazil than playing against Argentina,” says my colleague Gustavo Hofman, reporter for ESPN Brasil, who has been covering the Brazilian national team throughout the World Cup from Qatar. “This is our Clasico, they are our neighbors, and they are our biggest rivals.

“I can already sense the tension and anxiety from both sides for this type of semifinal. But at the end of the day, the great players are there for a reason and journalists from both sides want to see Brazil vs. Argentina.”

The great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “Whether a shared celebration or a shipwreck that takes us all down, football counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else, even if the ideologues who love humanity but can’t stand people don’t realize it.”

This rivalry is the ultimate definition of Galeano’s sentiment: two nations whose footballing rituals exemplify their love for who they are.

When Vinicius Junior dances alongside Neymar and Lucas Paqueta after scoring, he is demonstrating a cultural act of Brazilian and Afro-Latino folklore. It’s the purest way for Brazilians to express public emotion. When Lionel Messi and his teammates cry during the national anthem, they do it because they know they’re not just playing a match. They’re representing Argentina’s will.

So, my friends and fellow soccer masochists who can’t do anything but witness the relentless ride of 90 minutes, it’s time for fireworks. It’s time for the Superclasico de las Americas. It’s time once again for Brazil against Argentina at the World Cup. Now pray with me in the hope that it becomes a reality.

Brazil, as it’s been discussed before the tournament had even started, are a clear favorite for the title. Thanks to a deep squad, a manager who also acts as a father figure and a style of football so intoxicating that opponents can only slow down the avalanche, not deny its arrival, the Selecao feel extremely confident that a sixth World Cup trophy is not just possible — it’s inevitable.

“There is absolute confidence and people in Brazil feel that it’s possible to win this,” says Hofman. “But they’re not favorites because of their history or what they represent. They’re favorites because they are playing very well. They were already playing well before the World Cup.”

Neymar’s ankle has healed and after scoring his 76th international goal, he is one goal away from matching Pele’s all-time scoring record, who was watching the game from hospital as he deals with a respiratory lung infection caused by COVID-19. After the victory against South Korea, the team walked back to the pitch with a banner for Pele — a tribute to the legendary player. In a way, that moment was an example of how this team is using the memories from past heroes as emotional fuel.

Ronaldo Nazario, for example, is in Qatar alongside members of the 2002 team (the last time Brazil won the title) watching every match. Ronaldo also has his own show where he interviews some of the players as part of his ambassador role with FIFA. On Monday after the win, the two-time World Cup champion interviewed the team’s top scorer in the tournament and Golden Boot chaser Richarlison. Upon meeting, the Spurs attacker could not control his emotions and started tearing up.

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Sebastian Salazar reacts to an underwhelming Argentina win vs. Australia in the round of 16.

“I feel emotional to see him,” he explained to the camera, “because he is my idol, just like Neymar. For me you [Ronaldo] were a childhood inspiration.”

In order to win it all, however, you need more than nostalgia and this Brazilian side has it. But Croatia, runners up in Russia 2018, are not here once again in a quarterfinal because of good fortune. This is a very strong, irrepressibly stubborn team.

“Brazil is the favorite, let’s face it,” said Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic. “Brazil is the most powerful and the best national team at the World Cup. What I’ve seen so far, when you take a look at their selection of players, their quality, skills and value, then it is indeed terrifying…I think we have a great exam ahead of us, a tough task against the team which plays great soccer with so many good quality and fast players.”

Croatia are also not afraid of anyone at this World Cup, so I expect this matchup to be somewhat similar to Brazil’s first opponent in the tournament, Serbia, where a physically uncomfortable fixture might ensue. The difference between Croatia and their Balkan counterparts, however, is that Dalic’s team is a side with much stronger technical ability, led by the incomparable Luka Modric. His ability to break up opponents with his vision is not a highlight, it’s a piece of moving art. This is where they can cause Brazil some serious headaches so veteran midfielder Casemiro (Modric’s former Real Madrid teammate and good friend) will have to be extremely alert.

“We need to enter the match with much faith, self-confidence and looking for our chances…enjoy the occasion of playing Brazil,” says Dalic. “It’s a great team, but I believe that we can challenge them, we need to be smart.”

Croatia’s defender Dejan Lovren is slightly more direct when it comes to stopping Brazil. “Our goal is to try and stop the whole team.”

Good luck with that.

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Gab & Juls debate how Croatia will look to set up against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina have been experiencing this tournament the only way they know how: by fighting their way out of the abyss.

It’s fair to say that the Copa America defending champions have inspired their fan base without being overwhelmingly impressive. Losing the opener against Saudi Arabia was a gut-wrenching uppercut, but to their credit, La Albiceleste fought back and won their remaining matches in the group stage, with the final one against Poland serving as the best performance so far.

Against Australia, however, some of their most basic issues crawled back out. Graham Arnold’s team made it difficult for the South Americans and it took a beautiful opener in the 35th minute from Lionel Messi to calm the nerves. After conceding an own goal in the 77th minute but ultimately winning 2-1, Argentinians exhaled as much as they celebrated when the final whistle came, and they know they need to be much better in order to defeat a much stronger, smarter Netherlands.

Speaking of Messi, there are not enough superlatives to describe how impressive it is to witness a man who is only six years younger than me perform at this level. He is dynamic, a potent weapon, reenergizing himself after every touch. There is no singular position for him on the pitch: he fulfills multiple roles and whoever is unfortunate enough to chase him has to think five seconds ahead in order to keep up. It’s like chasing the wind. No player in the world does what he does.

Frenkie de Jong, one of the most technically gifted midfielders in the game, knows Messi well from his Barcelona days and is aware of his upcoming task. But he still doesn’t have a solution. “I don’t know how to stop him,” De Jong said to reporters earlier this week. “He’s been making the difference for 15 years and there is not one way to stop him!”

We feel for you, Mr. De Jong. Truly.

The fact that this could be Messi’s last attempt at a World Cup trophy is both melancholic and reflective of our own mortality and his teammates know this too, and so they protect him with every fiber of their being. That’s why Rodrigo de Paul never lets him out of his sight. Argentina have a warrior-like persona where their strengths are also their Achilles heel. They let their heart dictate frustration and that can be counterproductive, but when it clicks, it’s mesmerizing football. It’s passionate, it’s rock and roll.

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Ale Moreno recaps Brazil’s emphatic 4-1 win over South Korea in the FIFA World Cup round of 16.

The Netherlands under Louis Van Gaal, however, are the complete opposite. They are precise, studious and subtle. You may think you’re watching boring, reactionary football, but it’s quite calculated. Under Van Gaal, the Dutch team is a mirage. You think you’re facing one image when in fact it’s another. To better describe it, I guess they are Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s counter punching. They hit the opponent right after a missed uppercut… and then they’re gone.

The United States men’s national team is all too familiar with this strategy.

That’s why Messi to them is just part of one problem. Sure, it’s a big problem but it’s just part of the overall task. “We are not playing against Messi, we are playing against the whole team,” said defender Virgil van Dijk, who also added that it was an honor to face him. “You have to be so very sharp in terms of defensive organization. They always look for him to try to make it difficult for us on the counter…No one can do it on his own, we will have to come up with a good plan.”

He’s right. The Netherlands need a master plan to stop Argentina, but Scaloni will need more than Messi to win this match as he is facing a team coached by one of the most iconic, experienced masters in the game. It will be Scaloni’s biggest challenge.

So there you have it. A quarterfinal feast where the hope — at least from this South American — is that Brazil and Argentina conquer their European hurdles and offer a World Cup audience a matchup we haven’t seen in the tournament since 1990.

What obviously makes this possibility even more enticing is that both teams are not just strong against each other, they are tipped as top contenders to win it all, regardless of who they face. The only blemish to this scenario is that we’re talking about a semifinal as opposed to the final. Had that been the base, Qatar would not have been large enough to contain the euphoric anxiety from both fanbases.

This is a rivalry that awaits for heroes and villains. From the violent, goalless Battle of Rosario in 1978 to the Holy Water scandal at the aforementioned Italia 1990 when Brazil’s Branco accused Argentina’s training team of handing him a bottle of water filled with tranquilisers as they were helping an injured player (years later, Maradona would call it Holy Water) this is a fixture worthy of an orchestra playing besides it.

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The only remaining question to ask is whose fate is more golden? Argentina’s? The chance to finally hand Lionel Messi his coronation as the greatest ever player the game has ever seen? At the same time, a victory could pay an ode to their other hero, the late Diego Maradona, who will surely be looking from above. Or how about Brazil? As the ultimate footballing nation, omnipotent against any other side, they could win their sixth trophy and claim this tournament as their own.

Brazil against Argentina is the ultimate clash. All that we ask, therefore, as beggars of this beautiful game, is to see this fixture once again on the biggest sporting stage of all.