Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Angels and Demons

"Argentina or Brazil" OR "Argentina and Brazil" ? "Brazil vs Argentina" OR "Brazil and Argentina" ? Do you call the Seleção your team ?  Or is your team's name La Albiceleste ? Do you think of Brazil and Argentina automatically when you hear the words "World Cup" ? Do your thoughts instinctively turn to Argentina and Brazil when someone talks about football ? Do you support one or the other when it comes to football ? When you support one, do you automatically start hating or ridiculing the other ? Do you support Brazil because you think Pele is the greatest of them all ? Or do you believe with all your heart that Maradona is the one true God and he is the best there ever was ? What do you think about Romario ? Or Ronaldo or Ronaldinho ? Do you think Messi could be the greatest ever when it all ends ? Did your heart stop when Veron and Riquelme had the ball at their feet and looked for the pass ? Did you get up on your feet when Roberto Carlos or Rivaldo stood waiting to take a freekick ? Are you the type that gets nostalgic about Garrincha even though you never saw him play live ? Do you remember Kempes and Passarrella  or even Crespo and Batistuta ? 

Why do so many of us, from a land far, far away from the continent of South America, get so involved, so emotionally invested, in the World Cup in general and these two teams in particular ? Do Brazil and Argentina come together for us as a collective ? Do the two teams represent something together that is unique ? When we look at Argentina and Brazil do we look at these two together - versus the rest of the world ? Do we look at them as The Angels of football - playing the beautiful game vs the methodical, efficient, result oriented European football ? Or do those of us from a distance: think of Argentina vs Brazil - the contest itself - about being better than other and winning at all costs ?

What is it that comes to our mind, when we think of Brazilian football ? Chris Mann writes this in Soccerlens
Brazilian football, unlike any other cultural interpretation of a particular sport, has the ability to conjure up in one’s mind an essence of mystery, of carnival, of rhythm, of unadulterated joy and freedom.Futebol is so deeply, so passionately interwoven into the fabric of Brazilian culture that the two entities are inextricably linked, they define each other and share an intrinsic identity, an instantly recognisable global image....... The philosophy which underpins Brazilian football is, as has been demonstrated since football’s genesis in the country, based around exuberance, enjoyment and individual brilliance within the team collective. As Gilberto Freyre wrote in 1959, “The Brazilians play football as if it were a dance…for [they] tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike"
And what about Argentina, how do they like to play the game ? Simon Kuper (describing the logic of the mistake behind appointing Maradona as coach in 2010) explains on FT.com:
Almost every country has its own nationalist view of how its national team should play. The Argentine view was explained to me one morning in Buenos Aires in 2002 by the late, great Argentine football cartoonist and novelist Roberto Fontanarrosa. Sitting in a smoky café, in a city that was then pretty much ruined, drinking coffee at US$0.40 a cup, Fontanarrosa said that the only bit of Argentina that had consistently been first-world was its football team. It had won prizes, and played with a certain style that was somehow inherently Argentine. “Maradona could never have come from Belgium,” said Fontanarrosa.
Other things had gone wrong in Argentina – “it’s the only undeveloping country on earth,” says Jorge Valdano, Maradona’s old Argentine teammate turned writer – but the Selección almost always stood proud. Those 11 young millionaires in blue and white shirts embodied the nation, more tangible than the flag, not ridiculous like the president.
Argentines wanted the Argentine team to play Argentine football: an attacking game featuring the undersized pibes, or boys, who epitomise the national style. The pibes would play with ganas, desire, and not be mere professionals. They would love Argentina.
So there we have it, both countries want to play with great passion, imagination, to play the game which reflects their national identity. And since, this joyful Latin American style was such a contrast to how (most of ) the rest of the world  played the game, it is quite obvious that it became so popular. Add to that perhaps, a common identity of these countries being from the developing world, fighting against imperialist powers and going on to win, and it is no wonder that the popularity of these two teams is what it is.

But have they always been Angels of Beautiful Football vs the Demons of physical, functional football ? Of course not. For the debate of Futeball Arte vs Futebal Force is a long running one. And the flowing, artistic styles of football have often been curtailed for a much more pragmatic approach from time to time. 

While in 1958, the whole world celebrated Brazil and Pele winning their first ever world cup, Argentine football also changed for ever. Argentina lost a match which had far reaching consequences.  Jonathan Wilson writes here:
There they were hammered 6-1 by Czechoslovakia, and the shock changed the mentality. Through the 60s, Argentinian football became increasingly negative, culminating in Osvaldo Zubeldia's thuggish Estudiantes side, who won three straight Copas Libertadores, and beat Manchester United in a famously brutal Intercontinental Cup final.
Up until then, Argentina enjoyed great success on the pitch (in non World Cup events) playing a brand of thrilling attacking football best exemplefied by the legendary story of The Angels with Dirty Faces. Since, then, they have oscillated between the sides of darkness and light. César Luis Menotti, the coach of the 1978 world cup winning side is remembered for his side which played entertaining football, while Carlos Bilardo coached his side pragmatically to victory in 1986 and up to the finals of 1990. The team had one Diego Maradona of course to win them the games, but they were also coached by someone who was a Master of the Dark Arts - perhaps it was the pragmatism of the rest of the team which kept the opposition at bay, while allowing Maradona to flourish and win.

The story is somewhat similar too in the case of Brazil. The won three world cups  and the 1970 team is know perhaps for producing probably the greatest football the world had ever seen. And then in 1982 - they had a team which played perhaps the most beautiful football of them all - led by Zico and Socrates - a team talked about in glowing nostalgic terms - even today. But then - they came up short against Italy losing 3-2 when only a draw would have been enough to take them to the next round. As Jonathan Wilson writes here :Italy 3-2 Brazil, 1982: the day naivety, not football itself, died
It was a game, moreover, that lay on a fault-line of history. It may not have been the day that football died, but it was the day that a certain naivety in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible simply to pick the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for. 
So, Brazil and Argentina - both have had to temper their flair based, individual styles, compromise with their ideals of the beautiful game to try and achieve success. Argentina's win in 1986 (despite Maradona's individual genius) and Brazil's ugly win in 1994 are illustrations of this pragmatic approach, having worked to some extent. And the functional midfields of both the teams on display even in 2014 demonstrate the same. 

But what about the rivalry itself ? I tried to think of it in terms of how we view the India - Pakistan rivalry in cricket - and how the contest boils down to Indian batting vs Pakistani bowling. That is what defines an Indo-Pak contest. Perhaps the attack vs defense narrative doesn't quite work historically in a Brazil v Argentina contest - for both countries are supposed to play attacking football. It would perhaps get down to individual players and formations on the given day - perhaps a Messi vs Thiago Silva could decide the world cup final this time. What about style then,  even within their flair based games,  are their differences to be observed ? Very difficult for me to answer as I am no football tactics expert, but there are two distinct positions to be highlighted. And who else, but football guru Jonathan Wilson (yet again) to write about it. For Brazil it is the position of the full back and its attacking use while for Argentina it is the position of the enganche: the hook, the playmaker (Read this incredible story of Maradona's idol: Ricardo Bochini  a true master). And finally, my little reading seems to suggest that perhaps there is just that bit extra focus on individual skill and brilliance in the case of Argentina, while there is more emphasis on collective team work when it comes to Brazil.

Angels and Demons
So how do we end this ? Will Brazil play Argentina in the final this time ? Can Brazil and their fans survive a defeat at the hands of Argentina in the finals on their home turf at the Maracana ?  They certainly have struggled to get over their 1950 defeat to Uruguay, as beautifully illustrated in this brilliant NY Times feature. On the other hand, time ticks away for perhaps the greatest player of this generation - Lionel Messi, (a man Argentines are strangely ambivalent towards). Does he need to win the world cup to ascend to the highest pedestal of footballing greats, currently occupied only by Pele and Maradona ? As this blog asks: What does this World Cup mean for the legacy of Lionel Messi ?

They may have played over 150 games against each other in internationals, but to me the defining game for this rivalry is still to come. Brazil and Argentina have reached the semi finals together only once in a world cup ( in 1978). It appears that both rarely, if ever, play well together in the same tournament.  A Brazil - Argentina match in a World Cup Semi Final or Final, which lights up the footballing world and goes down as one for the ages, is still awaited. Here's hoping it happens this time.

PS: 1) For bonus reading, download this superb pdf made on the occassion of a Brazil v Argentina friendly match in New Jersey, 2012.
2) Most of the links for this blog take us to articles by Jonathan Wilson.  Reading him write about football has been an absolute pleasure.


  1. Does not being enamoured by neither Argentina/Brazil make me a footballing Nihilist? :D
    Jokes Apart - its a very good point that you make about there never having been a Defining Bra-Arg Footballing Match. this world cup certainly deserves one.. and if I had to root, I'd root for Argentina - My earliest memory of world cup is 90' Italia - and that was the Maradona Show.

    as an aside - don't you think that in the list of Pele and Maradona, Zidane deserves an honorable mention??

  2. @Shabeer - Of course for me, Zidane is right up there with the Gods and you know it :)


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