Adversity and uncharacteristically poor form means the always electric atmosphere between Argentina and Brazil is likely to be more intense than ever when the two clash in a World Cup qualifying tie in Buenos Aires this Thursday.
Geographical proximity plays a part, as does history–the teams first met in 1914, and the central role that the game plays in the cultural and social development of both countries helps explain much of the passion that surrounds the fixture.
But what really makes Brazil vs. Argentina special is that it is a feud based largely on sporting pedigree, rather than the settling of historical or military scores. Unlike England vs. Scotland or Netherlands vs. Germany, Brazil vs. Argentina matters so much simply because the two nations have for so long dominated the South American and the world game.
Between them they have won seven out of 20 World Cups, and a list of the greatest players produced by both countries, from Garrincha and Di Stefano to Messi and Neymar, would dominate any global Hall of Fame, either past or present.
While many derbies are merely squabbles over local bragging rights, Brazil vs. Argentina often feels like a battle for global supremacy.
And in countries often troubled by social conflict and political upheaval, the grandeur of their national teams, and the mythic status enjoyed by their two greatest icons, Pelé and Maradona, are sources of tremendous pride. The debate over who is the best pumps through the blood from the terraces to the Vatican.
But there will be no Pelé and Maradona on show at a combustible Estadio Monumental this Thursday. And the dismal recent form of their modern day equivalents–if that is the right word–will turn the pressure cooker atmosphere up a notch or two.
For Brazil, which lost away to Chile in its opening qualifying tie and then beat Venezuela at home, the period of painful self-scrutiny that began with that humiliating 7-1 dismantling by Germany at the World Cup shows no sign of coming to an end.
The unhappy choice of Dunga as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s retread replacement removed any hope of a genuine overhaul of a soccer culture that had become complacent and insular.
Sure enough, after a few decent friendly results, the Seleção’s not-exactly-new clothes were ripped off by Paraguay at this summer’s Copa America, leaving a decidedly scrawny-looking body underneath.
Brazil was no match, either tactically or physically, for Chile and Alexis Sanchez in Santiago last month and, with 35-year-old Santos striker Ricardo Oliveira up front, even looked labored against lowly Venezuela.
With South American World Cup qualifying arguably more competitive than ever, some–either heretics or soothsayers–have suggested that Dunga’s squad may struggle to make it to Russia 2018.
“Many people believe that Brazilian football hasn’t yet reached rock bottom, and the next disaster will be failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup,” wrote Brazil's 1970 World Cup winner Tostão last July.
On a brighter note, help is on the way, and what a cavalry it is. Neymar missed Brazil’s first two qualifiers through suspension, and his country has never needed him more.
The argument that rumbled on at the Copa America over whether Brazil was overly dependent on its young Hector has now fallen silent–after all, the blindingly obvious can only be debated for so long.
Neymar himself certainly seems up to the task. The stupendous sleight of foot of his goal against Villarreal last weekend showed the confidence, composure and exuberant talent of a player who, like those other Barcelona idols Ronaldinho and Messi, is now beginning to operate at level of intuitiveness, vision and creativity that few will ever reach. Afterwards, Marca described him as a “genius at 23”, while Mundo Deportivo christened him “Neymardinho”.
The Neymar of Barcelona has not always been the Neymar of Brazil, though. The negative side of the player’s importance to his team is that a fearful amount of pressure is heaped upon his slim shoulders. With an often listless supporting cast around him, such pressure can often give way to frustration and ultimately petulance.
That was certainly the case when he was sent off following an altercation with Jeison Murillo and Carlos Bacca at Copa America. If the Colombia players had a plan to needle Neymar throughout the game, it worked, for, obviously frustrated by the lack of assistance he was given by the likes of Diego Tardelli and Roberto Firmino, his was a snapping, snarling performance from the outset.
The pressure will be on Neymar again on Thursday at a sure to be raucous Monumental, and it remains to be seen to what extent Gerardo Martino’s team will attempt to provoke him, and how much his teammates, notably in-form Chelsea midfielder Willian and Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa, can help him out.
Unfortunately for Martino, pressing Neymar’s buttons might be his team’s only chance of success. Argentina has made a woeful start to qualifying, losing at home to Ecuador and then drawing away against Paraguay, and currently sits seventh in the CONMEBOL table.
Even at this early stage, defeat against Brazil has to be avoided. After this match, Argentina takes on Colombia in Baranquilla next Tuesday, meaning there is a real possibility that the Albiceleste could end up with a solitary point after four qualifiers.
To make things worse for the beleaguered coach, he has had to deal with a fearsome injury list, including Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and, most painfully of all, Lionel Messi, whose absence has added a new twist to the long debate over his performances for the national team.
Often unfairly criticized for not reproducing his Barcelona miracles when wearing blue and white stripes, the paucity of Argentina’s play without him suggests that rather than underperforming, Messi may instead have been papering over the limitations of his teammates.
In the absence of his three first-choice attackers, Martino has suggested he will go with Ángel Di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi alongside Napoli center forward Gonzalo Higuaín, upon whom much will depend. Martino faces a further tactical challenge, as playing in front of its home fans, the pressure will be on Argentina to go on the offensive and break its World Cup scoring duck. That, however, may leave the team, which can be ponderously slow at the back, open to Brazil’s most potent attacking weapon–blistering pace on the counter attack from the likes of Willian and Neymar.
It is that partisan crowd that should make Thursday’s contest special, for full strength Brazil vs. Argentina clashes on South American soil are growing increasingly rare. The last time the two sides met in a World Cup qualifier was in 2009, when two goals from Luis Fabiano helped Brazil to a 3-1 victory in Rosario. Since then there have been friendlies in Doha, Beijing and East Rutherford, as well as the modestly named Superclásico de las Américas semi-competitive contests, which typically feature only players from the countries’ domestic leagues.
Out of form and under pressure, with rivals such as Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador and Colombia eager to elbow them out of the way in the race for World Cup qualifying, there can be no such half measures for Argentina and Brazil Thursday night.