If you want to know what Brazil thinks of Argentina you only need to switch on the television here. One World Cup beer advert has Brazilians using a crane to lift a house full of partying Argentinian fans on to a ship to send them back home, and then threatening to fire a straggler home by cannon. In another slot, Romario buys a pair of Havaiana flip-flops. He puts on the right shoe, signifying good luck, and sends the left one to Diego Maradona in Buenos Aires.
Brazil’s antipathy to its South American neighbours means that most locals will be supporting Germany in the World Cup final, an attitude constantly reinforced by the media. The day after Argentina won their semi-final against the Netherlands, daily sports paper Lance! published a front-page picture of Lukas Podolski and an indigenous Indian child with the headline: “We’ve supported the Germans since we were little kids.”
Fans of one country taunting the fans of another is an inevitable part of football culture, but worries are being expressed this World Cup that the playful antagonism between Brazil and Argentina has overstepped its mark.
“Definitely the rivalry has got deeper in the last few years. I think that maybe it has gone too far,” says the TV comedian Helio de la Pena, who once went to Argentina to film a sketch of how to teach them to play football. “The rivalry used to be just a bit of fun. But it has started to get more serious, and when people take it too seriously it gets dangerous.”
Brazilians, in fact, have been shocked by hostility of the Argentinian fans towards them in the stadiums over the last few weeks. The most popular Argentinian chant this World Cup is a provocation to the hosts: “Brasil decime que se siente” – “Brazil tell me how it feels” – which goads locals for their 1-0 loss to Argentina in the last 16 of the 1990 World Cup. The song says the Brazilians have been crying ever since, and ends with the line: “Maradona is better than Pele.”
In response, the only new Brazilian chant that has energised the fans this World Cup has been a direct response: “Mil gols, so Pele; Maradona cheirador”: “A thousand goals, only Pelé; Maradona snorts”. Judging by the passion invested by each side, you might think that the rivalry between both nations is as ancient as the Sugarloaf Mountain. Yet the antagonism between Argentina and Brazil is only a few decades old.
“Argentina’s rivals used to be Chile, Uruguay, England because of the Malvinas, with Brazil in fourth place,” says Ronaldo Helal, professor of anthropology at Rio State University, who has a post-doctorate in the football rivalry between Brazil and Argentina. “Brazil’s rival was always Uruguay, because of the 1950 World Cup. But once Uruguay was no longer a football power, Brazil needed a new rival, and from the 1970s they invested in Argentina.”
Helal says that in the 1970s and 1980s Argentina had great affection for Brazil: “The Argentinian press supported Brazil in the 1970 World Cup and Clarin [the main Argentine newspaper] employed Pele as a columnist in the World Cups of 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990.” He added that in 1998 Clarín published a book about the World Cup, and in the centre spread “the image clearly showed Pele as the king and Maradona as the heir.” The bickering about whether Pele is better than Maradona, which has become a personification of the rivalry, only dates from 2002.
Helal believes that Brazilians started to cheer Argentinian defeats only in the 1990s, years before the opposite happened. “I have no doubt that our provocation predates theirs and is more intense. Now they are responding to it.”
As an example, he says that when in the 1998 World Cup the Brazilian media ecstatically applauded Argentina’s elimination by Holland, Clarin’s Brazil correspondent was confused by the reaction: “I don’t know if it is because they don’t want to play Argentina or if they really are capable of supporting a European country against us, their Latin American brothers.”
As nations, Brazil and Argentina have had a largely peaceful relationship, with the only war between them a short one at the beginning of the 19th century. Brazilians barely saw any Argentinians until towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of mass tourism.
Around 100,000 Argentinians are expected today in Rio de Janeiro because of the World Cup final – most without tickets – meaning that about 10 per cent of the annual number of Argentinian tourists to Rio will be here on a single day.
Helal says that a pivotal moment in Brazil-Argentina relations was the launch of the Argentinian sports daily Olé in 1996, which brought a much more playful, teasing attitude to sports journalism.
He said: “The irony now is that Brazilians are complaining that they are victims of Argentinian chants. But we are reaping what we sowed. My fear is that the rivalry has created too much of an atmosphere of intolerance.
“I’m worried, because among football fans – like everywhere – you get delinquents. I hope that whatever happens on Sunday, the result is peaceful.”
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