In this year's Brazilian championship a fascinating chapter is being written in the long history of South America's major soccer rivalry. Brazilian kids are growing up with Argentine players as their idols -- and these are players who kids in Argentina may not even have heard of.
Partly, this is a result of the dismal science of economics. Argentina's currency is weak at the moment while Brazil's is strong, making it much easier for clubs from the latter to buy players from the former. There are no high-profile Brazilians in the Argentine Championship, but a fair smattering of Argentines are in Brazil.
Bringing big-name players northwards, though, is not always a guarantee of success. "Pato" Abbondanzieri, until two years ago Argentina's first-choice goalkeeper, has not done well with Internacional of Porto Alegre, and has to be content with a place on the substitutes bench. Inter's local rivals, Gremio, brought in veteran center back Rolando Schiavi, who has since returned to Argentina with Newell's Old Boys, where he is still considered a vital figure. But he did not do well in Brazil.
Corinthians signed the left-sided Sergio Escudero -- who too was soon back home after finding it impossible to adapt to the stricter, fussier interpretation of Brazilian referees. The Sao Paulo giants still have Matias Defederico on their books. After making a huge impression in Argentina with Huracan, the little striker was hailed as an up-and-coming superstar, the new Messi. Instead he finds himself in a mess with Corinthians, where he has so far utterly failed to justify his acquisition.
Dario Conca, on the other hand, is a sensation. Now in his fourth year in Brazil, the little, left-footed playmaker has been a key factor -- probably the key factor -- in Fluminense's campaign. After 33 of the championship's 38 rounds, the Rio club is at the top of the table. Conca has played in all of the games, and his imaginative prompting from midfield has been a joy to watch. He is seen as the leading candidate for the player of the championship award.
Walter Montillo is not far behind. In fact he might be pushing Conca all the way had he played from the start. It was only after 13 rounds had gone by that he joined Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte. But he was an instant success, helping the club shake off its sadness at elimination from the Copa Libertadores. Montillo's cunning midfield playmaking carried Cruzeiro right up the table, flirting briefly with first place. They currently lie third, just a point behind Fluminense, and still have a good chance of winning the title -- which surely would not be the case without their acquisition from Argentina.
Conca and Montillo have played some of the most outstanding soccer in the current Brazilian Championship -- which many might see as very curious. The likes of Abbondanzieri, Schiavi and Defederico all made a name for themselves in Argentina. But that does not really apply to Conca and Montillo.
Conca, especially, is a virtual unknown in the land of his birth. He came up through the ranks at River Plate, where he failed to make the grade, and he also had a brief spell with a struggling Rosario Central.
Montillo's profile is higher. He was seen as a youngster of promise with San Lorenzo, and represented his country, though without much distinction, at Under-20 level in the World Youth Cup of 2003. But he soon found himself overshadowed by other playmakers.
It was in Chile that both players found some momentum, Conca with Universidad Católica in the middle of the decade, and Montillo this year with Universidad de Chile. He was their main creative force as they became the first Chilean side since 1997 to reach the semifinals of the Libertadores.
Failing to make an impact in Argentina and doing well in the less demanding environment of Chilean soccer -- these would not appear to be sound entry requirements for success in Brazil. So how have Conca and Montillo done well where the likes of Abbondanzieri, Schiavi and Defederico have struggled? Surely the position in which they play must have something to do with it. The No. 10 figure is fundamental to Argentine soccer. The man who puts his foot on the ball, surveys the options and supplies the killer pass, the "enganche" link man between midfield and attack -- this is Argentina's speciality. Many in the country fret that the tradition is dying out; that Boca Juniors' Juan Roman Riquelme is a Last of the Mohicans figure; that the "enganche" is being squeezed out of the game. Maybe so, but Argentina continues to produce this kind of player in almost industrial amounts.
Brazil produces players by the cartload, in all sorts of positions. But in recent times there has been a dearth of the type of central midfielder who makes the ball move and gets the team playing. There are enormous hopes pinned on young Paulo Henrique Ganso of Santos, who made a highly satisfactory international debut against the United States back in August. He, though, has since suffered a serious knee injury. Without him -- or, more accurately, without a player of his type -- Brazil was not as impressive in subsequent matches. This in large part helps explain the international recall for Ronaldinho, selected in the squad to take on Argentina on Nov. 17. He may well be handed the chance to be the national team's playmaker.
Brazil coach Mano Menezes has acknowledged that he has few options available to fill this position. But for Argentine playmakers in Brazilian domestic soccer, life is full of options. Athletic, attacking fullbacks charge forward down the flanks. Quick, talented strikers wait to dribble through the opposing defense. There are rich pickings for the playmaker with the vision to see the pass and the technical ability to execute it.
This was the story behind the amazing success last year of Dejan Petkovic. Considered washed up at 37, he was the key figure as Flamengo came from nowhere to win the title. The veteran playmaker was the main supply line for striker Adriano, and he was seen as the most decisive player in the championship. Petkovic was once on Real Madrid's books, but even in his prime he made little impact on the major European leagues. But then, in his soccer senescence, he had the skill set to tip the balance in Brazil.
Conca and Montillo have company. Another Argentine playmaker who has resurrected his career in Brazil is Andres D'Alessandro. Once seen as a future great, the 29-year-old has fallen short of fulfilling his early promise, and was a disappointment when, after five years in Europe, he returned to Argentina in 2008 to join San Lorenzo. These last two years with Internacional, though, have been something of a triumph. He was a key player as the Porto Alegre club won this year's Copa Libertadores, and he has even been rewarded with a recall to the Argentina squad.
It is hardly surprising that local rivals Gremio are being linked with D'Alessandro's old River Plate colleague, Pablo Aimar, now of Benfica in Portugal. They want to get in on the new winning trend, and bring in an Argentine playmaker to call their own.