An Argentine Army Grows in Brazil

As the Albiceleste goes deeper into the tournament, its fan base gets bigger, louder, and even more unbearable to Brazilians

Until recently, the biggest fan mobilization in Brazilian soccer history arguably came on September 5, 1976, when 70,000 Corinthians fans travelled the 300 miles from São Paulo to the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro to see their team beat Fluminense in the Brazilian championship playoffs.

Twenty-eight years after the Invasão Corintiano, another fan invasion is making headlines in Brazil. There were an estimated 20,000 Argentinian fans at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro for Alejandro Sabella’s team’s opening game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, including 50 or so ticketless gatecrashers who jumped over a wall into the stadium. The number had swelled to 30,000 when Messi and co. reached Belo Horizonte for their second game against Iran, and 70,000 hermanos, as Brazilians call their neighbors,swarmed across the border into Rio Grande do Sul for Argentina’s final group stage game against Nigeria.

By the time last Tuesday’s round of 16 win over Switzerland in São Paulo rolled around estimates of the number of Argentina fans in Brazil ranged from between 80,000 to the country’s entire 41 million population. The vast car park of the Sambódromo do Anhembi in the city was filled with hundreds of tents, caravans, and campers of varying vintages, and local authorities struggled to erect enough makeshift bathrooms to keep the visiting fans happy.

Then there were an estimated 100,000 supporters in Brasilia on Saturday for Argentina’s quarterfinal against Belgium. The city’s infrastructure, from metro lines to interstate bus travel, creaked under the strain.

“The Brazilians have treated us really well,” one Argentina fan told TV Globo news in São Paulo. Yet in this most partisan of World Cups, with 200 million Brazilians driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown by their obsession with claiming the hexa (a sixth World Cup title), how are the locals truly welcoming their most traditional rivals? What is the state of the Brazilian–Argentinian soccer guerra fria in the midst of this remarkable World Cup?

The answer recalls the old story of Curate’s egg: it’s not all bad. First of all, this 100-year-old rumble is at its essence a footballing rivalry. There is little bloody backdrop of war or invasion here, unlike, for example the bitter disputes between the Balkan nations, and little culture of violence among fans. Instead, the most heated Brazil vs. Argentina soccer debates often revolve around whether Maradona (or even Di Stefano) is better than Pelé (or Garrincha), or vice versa. Which is not to say that games are always good-natured affairs. In a 1939 game, after Brazil had been awarded a dubious penalty, Argentina player Arcadio López verbally abused the referee and was removed by police. Furious, the entire Argentina team walked off the pitch, and Brazil kicked the penalty into an empty net.

Then in 1946, Brazil’s Jair Rosa Pinto fractured the tibia and fibula (and ended the career) of Argentina captain Jose Salomon in a game in Buenos Aires. The game descended into a mass brawl before Argentina ran out 2–0 winners.

And Brazil fans still bear a grudge over the events of the 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina. After both teams, drawn in the same second round group, had struggled to a violent goalless draw in Rosario, Argentina needed to beat Peru by four goals to qualify and eliminate Brazil. The Peruvians collapsed with (Brazilians say) suspicious ease, and Argentina won 6–0 and went on to lift the cup. Brazilian coach Cláudio Coutinho afterward maintained that his team were “moral champions.” Some kind of karmic revenge was obtained four years later when Maradona was sent off for kicking João Batista in a second round game as a 3–1 Brazil win sent Argentina home from Spain.

The rivalry remains an essential part of the soccer culture of both countries. Brazil television is full of good-humored, Argentina-mocking commercials, such as the one where a chuckling Romario sends Maradona a single left foot sandal from a pair of new Havianas (a famous brand of Brazilian beach flip-flop). “The right foot is ours,” runs the slogan.

Argentinian fans, in response, have created a Brazil baiting, Creedence Clearwater Revival-inspired World Cup anthem, entitled Decime que se siente, (or “Tell Me How It Feels”): “Brazil, tell me how it feels, to have your daddy in your house… we’ll never forget how Diego dribbled past you… how Cani (Claudio Caniggia, who scored the goal that knocked Brazil out of the 1990 World Cup) killed you off… we’re going to see Messi… he’s going to bring us the Cup… Maradona is better than Pelé.”

The high stakes at this World Cup have made the rivalry crackle with increased intensity. Given the close distance (and therefore the relatively cheap travel costs), the huge numbers of traveling fans, plus the earthy soccer culture across the border, the Argentinian supporters are perhaps the most working class of visitors, and therefore (with no class prejudice intended) have been the more passionate and rowdiest away fans at the World Cup.

Before the tournament, the Brazilian newspapers were full of stories how Argentina’s notorious barra brava fan groups (or hooligans, depending on one’s perspective) were planning to invade Brazil to battle with local torcidas organizadas. In the end, police banned over 2,000 Argentina fans with a history of troublemaking from entering the country, and apart from a bottle-hurling battle between Brazilians and not-so-brotherly hermanos in Belo Horizonte on the evening after the Iran game, things have passed off relatively peacefully, though there has been no shortage of intense verbal jousting between fans in the stadiums, such as the Argentinian supporters who brought an imitation plastic spine to a game to mock Brazil’s injured hero Neymar.

Marcelo Lopes, a soccer coach from Buenos Aires, standing with his friend Fabiano Carusco and Fabiano’s sons Gonzalo and Franco outside the Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia before the quarterfinal against Belgium, had only good things to say about Brazil. “The people are really friendly and welcoming,” Lopes said, “and the new stadiums are great.”

When asked about what the rivalry between the teams, he stresses that it is first and foremost a sporting duel. “It’s a soccer rivalry,” he said. “It started because we’re neighbours, and because the two teams have always been strong. When there is violence, it’s usually among the younger fans.”

Juan Ignácio, a teacher, and his friend Alejandro, who works in tourism, were confident of Argentina’s chances. “I’m feeling euphoric,” Alejandro said. “We haven’t been playing well, but today we’re going to take off.”

In a rare moment of unity between the two fan bases, both Juan and Alejandro expressed their sadness over the injury to Neymar. “It’s terrible,” said Juan, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a map of the Falklands/Las Malvinas, the islands Argentina disputes with the United Kingdom. “We didn’t want that. We wanted to see Neymar and Messi play against each other in the final.”

Just as suddenly as it appeared, however, the mood of entente cordiale (“friendly understanding”) was soon gone. “But we still want Brazil to go out,” Alejandro said, laughing. “We want to play Germany in the final.” Neutrals, perhaps, will respectfully disagree. For there can be few more enticing prospects than that of the latest episode of this most dramatic of soccer rivalries taking place at the World Cup final—even if it may take the tension between these great soccer superpowers to combustible, possibly dangerous, levels.