Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dunga and Diego to shape the next Battle of the Americas

Be it a clash in the World Cup finals or a domestic under-17 game, Argentina versus Brazil always gets the pulse racing. The two nations line up this weekend in the north of Argentina for a match which holds the key for the hosts making it to South Africa for next year's World Cup.

The two proud countries have enjoyed contrasting fortunes ahead of this clasico. Dunga’s Brazil were crowned Confederations Cup champions a few months ago. Before heading off to South Africa the seleção picked up maximum points in two qualifiers. A 3-0 win over Peru in Porto Alegre was followed by a 4-0 demolition of Uruguay in Montevideo.

Diego Maradona was called to take up the reigns for Argentina after previous coach Alfio Basile endured a less than inspiring start to the country’s qualifying campaign.

In Diego’s first competitive match Venezuela were dispatched 4-0 in Buenos Aires but this early optimism was dashed with a crushing 6-1 defeat away in La Paz to Bolivia five days later. In the next round of games a nervous looking Argentina edged past Colombia with a single goal in River Plate’s El Monumental before another away defeat. This time a 2-0 reverse away to Ecuador in Quito.

With derbies all over the world the formbook goes out of the window and The Battle of the South Americas is no different. After all Brazil were unfancied in the 2007 Copa America but stunned Argentina with a 3-0 win.
As well as upsets these matches have been liberally peppered with all that is good, bad and plain ugly in the game of football.

In the first knock round of Italia 90 Argentina took on Brazil in Turin. The clasico coming earlier than expected due to Argentina’s poor showing in the group stage, including the holder’s defeat in the opening game in Cameroon. After the game it was alleged that the Argentine trainers gave the Brazilian Branco a bottle of water laced with tranquilisers while he was down injured.

Maradona himself blew the lid on the ‘holy water’ scandal years later during a television appearance. Carlos Bilardo, the Argentine coach at the time, still maintains his innocence in the case.

Eight years earlier at the World Cup in Spain the two teams were placed in the second round with Italy in a true group of death. Italy beat Argentina in the first match before the Albiceleste faced Brazil in a must win game for both sides.

The technically superior Brazil played Argentina off the park in Barcelona racking up a three goal led before Maradona was sent off for a petulant kick on Joao Batista. Argentina did manage to pull one back in the last minute but the holders were nonetheless sent packing from Spain.

Maradona’s inspiration for changing the venue of this latest match from River Plate’s El Monumental to Rosario Central’s Estadio Gigante can be traced back to a game he watched when his homeland played host to the 1978 World Cup. En route to their triumph in the final Argentina were forced to play their second round games outside Buenos Aires due to a defeat against Italy in the first round.

Grouped together with Brazil, Peru and Poland the hosts won their first game in the second round before meeting their old foe next. A tense goalless draw was played out in the game which has since become known as A batalha de Rosário (The battle of Rosario). In the final round of games Brazil beat Poland 3-1 letting the Argentines know that they had to beat Peru by four clear goals when the two played later the same night.
Argentina led 2-0 at halftime but in the second half Peru collapsed and Argentina netted another four times without reply.

Like England four years later Brazil went out of the World Cup without losing a game and their coach Cláudio Coutinho called his team moral champions, accusing the Peruvians of not trying their best in the game against Argentina. Argentina’s military government were especially keen on victory in the tournament and Peru’s goalkeeper Ramón Quiroga had a lot of family in the Argentina, the country of his birth.

Further incidents of a game between the countries spilling into bad feeling are numerous. US President Ronald Reagan had to step in after trouble at a game between Argentina and Brazil almost led to a full blown conflict between the countries in 1986.

A couple of matches in the mid forties were particularly heated, on both occasions bad tackles and broken bones led to full scale riots in the stadia.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War back-to-back games ended in disgrace when in the second encounter the entire Argentine team left the pitch after the referee awarded Brazil a penalty. Brazil won that match 3-2 after the penalty was scored into an empty net.
Two years before the walk-off it was Brazil’s turn to grumble after many Brazilian players were subject to racist abuse from the Argentine fans. The game is still referred in the Brazilian media as jogo da vergonha (the shame game).

Amongst the violence and the skullduggery the game has also played host to some of the finest pieces of skill ever to grace a football field.

Both nations now have a former World Cup winning captain at the helm for this fixture which could guarantee Brazil’s passage as well as denying Argentina a place at the World Cup.

Surely its no overestimation that anyone lucky enough to catch the game can expect fireworks from start to finish.

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