The Pele vs Maradona debate is one that will perhaps continue to split the fan world till the beautiful game is played.
It’s a rivalry that is steeped in history.
Diego Maradona and Pele (Twitter Photo)
In the 1925 edition of the tournament now called Copa America, Argentina, who at that time had two different and rival footballing associations, thrashed Brazil 4-1 in a league match. The two heavyweight teams went toe to toe again on Christmas day in the summit clash, which picked up the nickname of ‘The War of the Barracas’ (the match was played at the Estadio Sportivo Barracas in Buenos Aires, which was inaugurated in 1920 and demolished in 1937).
That final on December 25, 1925, was one that saw all hell breaking loose on the pitch and in the stands. It became a free for all and police officers had to rush in to try and calm things down. Some reports suggest that the visiting Brazilians feared for their wellbeing – so much so that they capitulated after taking a lead, fearing the outcome of a win and the backlash from the locals that was almost inevitable. Argentina went on to win the title, but the player and fan violence was one of the worst scenes witnessed on a pitch involving two of the giants of world football.
The two teams didn’t play each other again for 12 years.
Similar violent scenes were witnessed in the 1978 World Cup in a match that ended 0-0 and was dubbed ‘The battle of Rosario’.
Needless to say, there is a certain romance that this rivalry carries with it. It’s so much more than just a football match. There is just too much at stake whenever these two teams clash – and it’s not always the trophy they are fighting for. It’s bragging rights, pride. That’s the real prize for these two teams and their supporters, spread across the world.
16,513 kms from Buenos Aires and 15,366 kms from Brasilia is Kolkata. Visit the ‘city of joy’ someday if you haven’t already and you will see how it is divided into Brazil and Argentina camps, with the South American rivalry (amongst fellow Kolkatans) also reaching fever pitch.
When it comes to Brazil vs Argentina, a similar frenzy can be witnessed in Kerala. Before the Qatar edition kicked-off, videos of fans of the two teams clashing in a violent brawl in the Kollam district went viral. A Twitter user summed it up nicely in a post, asking – ‘Who won this? Brazilian Mallus or Argentine Mallus?’
It’s a romance laced with violence and aggression, like so many other great sporting rivalries, but it’s romance nevertheless – a passion that drives fans even halfway across the world. And that really is the essence of the Brazil-Argentina rivalry and its fan following- it’s limitless, not contained by geographical boundaries.
I very clearly remember the first FIFA World Cup that I watched from beginning to end. It was Italia ’90 – the 1990 edition in Italy. Diego Maradona was every football loving kid’s idol at that time. We were all busy collecting the player cards that came free with a certain brand of bubble gum that was available only in a few shops in the ‘paara’ in Kolkata. And of course Maradona cards were most in demand. If anyone had multiple cards of the same player they would be traded for others. Not so with the Maradona cards. Even if you had ten of them, you kept them all. This was (for many) the ‘God of football’ after all.
Maradona had, almost single handedly, taken Argentina to the title in the previous edition in 1986 in Mexico and millions in Argentina and across the world were looking to the original ‘little magician’ to weave his magic once again in Italy.
And he did – taking the Albiceleste to the final. But waiting for them there were once again the West Germans (Argentina beat West Germany in the 1986 final). It was a fiercely fought contest, but ultimately there was heartbreak in store for Maradona and Argentina, thanks to a very late goal by the West Germans.
Andreas Brehme is a name no Argentinian fan would want to remember. The left-back scored the only goal of the game off a 85th minute penalty kick in front of a crowd of over 73,000 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, taking West Germany to the biggest prize in world football.
The Argentinian goal-keeper – Sergio Goycochea – was one of the best of that edition, especially when it came to keeping out penalty kicks. He played a huge role in ensuring Argentina made the final of Italia ’90 – denying the Brazilians a goal in the Round of 16 match and then keeping out penalty kicks in the quarter-finals and semi-finals against Yugoslavia and Italy respectively. Interestingly, Goycochea was the second choice keeper for Argentina and got his chance only when first-pick Nery Pumpido broke his leg in the second round match vs the USSR.
File pic – Sergio Goycochea (Twitter Photo)
Goycochea was destined to play in that World Cup. But he wasn’t destined to keep out that kick by Brehme.
It just wasn’t in the stars for Argentina, who became the first defending champions to reach the final and lose. It was also the first time that an European team had beaten a South American team in the final of the World Cup. Maradona never won another World Cup and Argentina’s wait for the holy grail of world football also continues.
Looking back, perhaps the only silver lining for Argentina fans was the fact that their fierce continental rivals, Brazil, couldn’t clinch the 1990 title either and that they were responsible for the Samba boys’ exit. Brazil had been knocked out by Argentina in the Round of 16, thanks to a solitary goal scored by Claudio Cannigia in the 80th minute, after trademark dribbling brilliance by Maradona.
For Brazil, that was a loss they just couldn’t stomach. They were billed as the best team in the tournament. The players themselves believed that and then they lost to their arch-rivals and that too after creating many more chances than the Argentines, who pounced on the one good chance they got. Argentina had no real high profile names in their defense at that time, while Brazil had strikers like Bebeto, Careca and Romario, amongst others.
Now, you have to understand that for teams like Brazil and Argentina and some of the other traditional footballing powerhouses, a Round of 16 exit is not just a failure – it’s a disaster. And when that happens because of a loss to a team considered to be their most bitter rivals, it shakes up the whole system.
Years later, Brazilian goal-keeper Claudio Taffarel, who is currently the goal-keeping coach of the Brazilian national team as well as that of Liverpool FC, told FIFA in an interview – “Every player that was in that team still goes on about the 1990 World Cup… We were, from 1 to 11, the best side at that tournament.”
Former Brazilian midfielder Paulo Silas told FIFA – “…in the 1990 match there was just that Maradona run and virtually nothing else. The Seleção were far and away the better team… The Seleção beat themselves at that World Cup.”
According to many former Brazilian players, including some who were part of the ‘disaster’ in 1990, the shockwaves that were sent across the Brazilian footballing system after that edition, and the changes that were brought about as a result of that, is what led to their title triumph in 1994.
Brazil haven’t won the World Cup since 2002. Argentina’s wait for World Cup glory of course is a much longer one. They last won the Cup in 1986 – 36 years ago.
Now, as things stand, a Brazil vs Argentina semi-final clash is very much on the cards in Qatar. The Selecao will take on Croatia in the quarters, while the Albiceleste play the Netherlands.
They are the last two South American teams left in the fray at Qatar 2022 and share the same goal – win the Cup and end Europe’s hegemony. Brazil were the last South American team to win the World Cup, 20 years ago, in 2002.
Imagine a Brazil vs Argentina semi-final at the World Cup – it could very easily break a viewership record or two.
Argentina won the 2021 Copa America final, beating Brazil 1-0. The white and sky blue shirts ended a 28 year wait for the title and Lionel Messi won his first major international trophy in what was his tenth major tournament. They carry the bragging rights.
The ongoing World Cup in Qatar is likely to be Messi’s last appearance at the showpiece event and just like the Indian cricket team wanted to win the 2011 ODI World Cup for Sachin Tendulkar, Messi’s teammates want to do that for him this time in Qatar.
Neymar and Lionel Messi
But standing in their way could well be Neymar and his band of merry men, who are picking up steam at just the right time. Brazil’s 4-1 win against South Korea in the Round of 16 was perhaps their best showing so far – in both attack and defense.
At the World Cup, Brazil and Argentina have played each other only four times. And they have not had a face-off in this tournament since that Round of 16 match that Argentina won, way back in 1990.
There will be no Argentina vs Brazil final in Qatar. But if the dream semi-final does happen, it will be the biggest game of this World Cup.
And it will be one for the romantics.