Clash of the Titans

By: Joel Marino

This is a tremendously important year for soccer—and it’s not because of the World Cup.

On September 20, true fanatics of the beautiful game will mark a century since the birth of what’s been called the Battle of the South Americans, the Grudge to End All Grudges and, of course, the Great Rivalry: the moment Brazil and Argentina played their first match, setting off a bitter antagonism between both countries that to this day shows no sign of abating.

First off, full disclosure. Yes, I’m Argentine, and yes, I will always side with el Pibe de Oro in a Maradona/Pelé debate. Regardless of my background, though, this persistent rancor has always baffled me.

Argentines are taught since childhood to scorn a multitude of nations for past wrongs. The English and the whole Falklands mess? Reasonable enough. The US secretly supporting our past dictators? Fair complaint. Even border disputes between neighbors Chile and Uruguay could be understood as causes for lingering friction. But Brazil? Despite a lack of recent wars, an increase in economic cooperation and an upsurge in diplomatic goodwill (hell, the current Argentine pope was given a rock-star welcome in Rio), there’s a very special kind of bitterness Argentines reserve just for Brazil.

I suppose part of it could be blamed on good old-fashioned resentment. Back in 1914, when the burgeoning Brazilian national team stopped by Buenos Aires for that initial friendly, Argentina was a country on the rise. Immigrants flooded the southern land of plenty as progressive government reforms strengthened the economy. There was nothing this rising titan couldn’t do, and that sense of optimism extended to the soccer field. Argentina won that very first game, 3-0.

Fast-forward a century. After decades of military coups, brutal dictatorships, shaky democratic elections and an ever-drifting market, those early Argentine promises now seem like unreachable dreams. Brazil, on the other hand, has gotten its act together, stabilizing its economy and successfully boosting its middle class. If People magazine had a Sexiest Country Alive list, Brazil would top it annually, hands down.

And so Argentina must fight back in the one area it still holds some sway: the soccer field. This aggression has led to dozens of matches tainted by all-out brawls, racial slurs and dirty tricks (most infamously, 1990’s Holy Water Scandal, when Brazilian players claimed Argentines spiked their water with tranquilizers).

My dad likes to call this rivalry “a gentlemanly enmity,” because my dad is a polite, high-minded kind of guy. For others, though, each match is more like a mini Armageddon, pitting the forces of good against those of evil. It’s a yin-yang view that has persisted for a century, and will most likely burn on for a century more.

Joel Marino is a NYC-based freelance writer and editor who enjoys traveling and saying “I told you so” as much as possible. When not writing, he spends his time on a never-ending quest to find the perfect empanada.