Anatomy of the greatest football rivalry

Every football fan’s wait for the world’s biggest sporting event is going to be over in a few days. The eagerly awaited inaugural match of the 2018 World Cup at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium will get underway on June 14. Hosts Russia will fight it out with Saudi Arabia, the first Asian team to be part of an opening match of football's greatest show.

Football fans all over the world, especially in India, will look forward to the matches of teams like Brazil and Argentina. In fact, Indian football lovers will be divided into two groups, one will support Brazil and the other will be vying for Argentina. However, there will also be supporters for other teams, even if they are smaller in number.

Just like the rivalry between India and Pakistan in every sphere of life, after both the countries got independence from British Rule, same is the case with Brazil and Argentina on the football pitch.

In the early nineteenth century, both countries achieved independence from their Iberian Crowns. Along with independence they also inherited several unsolved territorial disputes from their colonial rulers. Worst of them was the Cisplatine War (1825-1828), led by the Brazilian invasion and annexation of the Banda Oriental.

However, unlike India and Pakistan, in spite of extended cold war, the relationship between the two countries was never defined by open hostility. True, competition between themselves and their defence policies betrayed mutual suspicion. But, the rise of the Brazilian economy in the 1980s, somewhat paradoxically, set the platform for increased cooperation between them. The historic Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Material in 1991 turned their nuclear competition into cooperation through mutual confidence.

Football first

Today, hardly does any citizen of the two countries remember the political hostilities. Instead, Argentines and Brazilians remember matches, victories and goals. Like India and Pakistan, their rivalry is found in almost all sporting events but a men’s football match is an altogether different experience. When they play each other, they must win the tie even if they lose the tournament.

For the South American powerhouses, football rivalry is very serious business. The extent of the rivalry could be gauged from just one incident, when they met in the Copa final in 1946. While challenging a loose ball, Brazilian Jair Rosa Pinto fractured Argentine captain José Salomón’s tibia and fibula. It was a free for all after that. Argentine and Brazilian players fought each other. Even the police, who had been sent in to control the situation, got involved. Spectators invaded the ground and both teams were forced to return to their dressing rooms.

When peace was restored and the game started, Argentina won the match 2–0. In playing terms, there was a tragic fallout. Argentina and Brazil would not play each other for the next ten years. To avoid facing each other, they declined to play several tournaments during those years.

Since 1914, when the two teams met for the first time, the national teams of both countries have faced off in 104 matches including friendlies, FIFA World Cup matches and other FIFA approved competitions, excluding youth side matches. Argentina have won 49 matches and Brazil 40 with 15 matches ending in a draw. Argentina have scored 178 goals, while 162 have been scored by Brazil. In the World Cup matches Brazil is slightly ahead of Argentina. While Brazil have won two encounters, Argentina have won one. One remained a draw. In Copa America matches Argentina is way ahead of Brazil with 14 wins and 8 draws while nine matches have gone in favour of Brazil. Out of 50 friendly matches played, Brazil won 19 matches while 17 matches went to Argentina and 14 remained draws.

As far as the FIFA World Cup is concerned, Brazil is the most successful country in the history of the tournament. A five-time title winner, Brazil have made the Jules Rimet Trophy (the trophy that was given to the winner of the tournament till 1970) its own by winning the championship three times before any other team (in 1958, 1962 and 1970). Apart from winning the trophy five times they earned second, third and fourth place finishes twice each. Brazil have won the competition away from its continent and are also the only team to have participated in all FIFA World Cup editions without any need for playoffs.

Argentina are not far behind and have appeared in all but four FIFA World Cups. The Argentines have won the trophy in 1978 and 1986 and been runners-up thrice -- in 1930, 1990 and 2014.


Several matches have been marred by onfield incidents. In the South American Championship in 1937 (the predecessor of Copa America), with the rivalry between both teams becoming something of national pride, there were verbal abuses between the supporters of both the teams. Argentine fans taunted Brazilians with monkey sounds and called them macaquitors. The final match, played at Buenos Aires, remained goalless after regulation play. Argentina won the match by scoring two goals during the extra time. Questioning one goal, the Brazilians became concerned about their safety and left the pitch before the final whistle. The Brazilian press titled the match “jogo da vergonha” (the shame game) as, according to them, Argentina had won it by questionable means.                                                                                                                                               

In the 1939 Roca Cup, the two teams met twice within a week. The first match ended 5-1 in favour of Argentina. The second match, a revenge match for Brazil, was a pulsating exhibition as much of South American football as it was of the football rivalry between them.

Brazil went ahead first, then Argentina scored twice and went ahead. Brazil then leveled the score at 2-2 and shortly before the end the referee gave a dubious penalty to Brazil. Furious over the incident the Argentina players verbally attacked the referee and finally left the ground. Brazil won the match 3-2 scoring via penalty. Interestingly, the penalty was scored without a goalkeeper as the whole Argentine team had left the field.

The match between Argentina and Brazil in the 1978 World Cup, popularly known as “A Batalha de Rosario” (The Battle of Rosario) was played out in a tense atmosphere. It ended in a goalless draw. Both teams, with three points each, went for their last round match with Argentina having the advantage of playing their match after Brazil finished. Brazil beat Poland 3-1, and having known the result, Argentina managed to beat Peru 6-0. People suspected something wrong as Peru, trailing 2-0 in the first half, just collapsed in the second half and conceded four more goals. Incidentally the Peruvian goalkeeper, Ramon Quiroga, was born in Argentina.

The 1982 World Cup saw three big teams in one group. Group C, called the group of death, had Brazil, Italy and Argentina. In the opener, Italy beat Argentina 2-1. Argentina now needed a win in the second match against Brazil, but it was mismatch as Brazil went on the win with a 3-1 margin. So frustrated was Maradona because of poor refereeing and the loss that he kicked Brazilian player Batista -- and exited the tournament as he was handed a red card immediately.

'Holy water' for Branco

The “holy water” scandal grabbed the attention of the fans when for the last time these two team met in the World Cup in 1990. Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 and the goal was scored by Caniggia from a Maradona pass. The controversy came to light when Brazilian player Branco accused the Argentine training staff of giving him a bottle of water laced with tranquillisers. The Argentines later denied the allegation.

The 1991 Copa America final pool match at Santiago saw five players being sent off. Mazinho and Caniggia after tangling in the 31st minute. Carlos Enrique and Marcio Santos for another fight in the 61st minute with one player leaving on a stretcher and finally Careca Bianchezi in the 80th minute, two minutes after coming as substitute. Argentina beat Brazil 3-2.

The 1995 Copa America saw the “hands of devil”. In the quarter final stage when the two teams met, Tulio of Brazil while scoring a late equaliser controlled the ball with his left hand. Match referee Alberto Tejada Noriega of Peru ignored the obvious foul saying he didn’t see it. The game finished 2-2 and Brazil went on the win via penalties. The Argentina media drabbed the incident as “Hands of Devil”.

Apart from the onfield rivalry there is off-field rivalry as well. One concerns the debate over who is the best: Pele or Maradona. It is a matter that divides football fans the world over. It endorses the belief that when it concerns the legends of the game, the players belong to all the world.

From Maradona to Pele, the battle moves on to Messi and Neymar. But, can they recreate the effect that saw those two men dominate football. True, Messi and Neymar are legends. Yet, they will always be compared to Pele and Maradona, and it will repeatedly be asked whether they can carry the weight of their teams on their shoulders.

This time around, in Russia, it is still not known whether the two teams will meet in the competition or not. But what we can see from the qualifiers is that while Brazil reached the final stage with ease, Argentina had to struggle till the last match to reach the finals. Even then, if the two team meet at all, if the former Barcelona team mates, Messi and Neymar fight it out against each other, it will be a blockbuster.