Initially, the idea was to set up a tournament that would strengthen relations between South American nations Argentina and Brazil, but the Copa Roca, conceived by General Julio Roca in January 1914, ended up taking on a much greater dimension.
Indeed, right from its first edition in September of that same year, the Copa Roca not only served to decide which of the two powerhouses were currently the stronger, it also became symbolic of one of the most passionate rivalries on the world football scene.
“The Copa Roca was for many years a kind of argument settler, a unique ranking tool to decide who was doing better than the other,” said former Brazilian international Clodoaldo, speaking to FIFA.com. “And with it being between Brazil and Argentina, it really meant a lot.”
The FIFA World Cup™ winner thus neatly summed up the importance of the Copa Roca and the story of a clash that can now be traced back nearly 100 years. What is more, this Wednesday a fresh chapter in this tale will be written for the first time in 35 years, under the new name of O Superclássico das Américas.
A vital cog in midfield for A Seleção which thrilled its way to victory at Mexico 1970, Clodoaldo played in just one edition of the Copa Roca – the tenth in 1971 – which ended with both sides sharing the trophy after two drawn matches. “It always used to be controversial,” said the ex-player. “That’s because it brought together two powerful sides and neither wanted to lose.”
Rivalry with a dash of fair play
Taken out of context, sharing the trophy may seem odd, but given the competition’s prior history, the organisers’ decision was a sensible one. They would certainly have wished to avoid a repeat of the events in 1939 and 1940, when controversial results such as Brazil’s 3-2 win in January 1939 – which featured a penalty taken when the opposition were off the pitch – led to a series of extra games. This resulted in a host of delays and organisational issues for both nations, who ended up going head-to-head no fewer than seven times in 14 months.
During that period it was Argentina, spearheaded by Antonio Sastre in attack, who held sway. Despite the emergence of Brazilian icon Leonidas and A Verde e Amarelo’s third-place finish at France 1938, La Albiceleste won the tournament twice in a row and recorded resounding 6-1 and 5-1 victories – their most emphatic in the competition. The latter defeat came at the Sao Januario stadium in Rio de Janeiro and was Brazil’s first ever reverse on home soil.
Those events helped fuel an already fierce rivalry, with the games growing ever more intense and often ending in unsavoury brawls. Yet it was also in 1940, in the second match of that year’s Copa Roca, that Argentina proved that fair play is still possible in such a heated clássico. After a penalty was given against Brazil, even the local fans in Buenos Aires voiced their disagreement with the decision, which led to Albiceleste captain Arico Suarez deliberately sending the spot-kick wide.
Many years before, in 1914, Argentina’s Leonardi did something similar, by owning up to a handball in the build-up to an equalising goal for his team. Intriguingly, the incident had been missed by the Brazilian referee, who had to reverse his decision having already allowed the goal. Leonardi’s honesty proved key in A Seleção claiming the inaugural edition of the trophy, though General Roca would surely have been delighted by his compatriot’s show of sportsmanship.
Going down in history
Having had to endure their rivals taking three consecutive editions of the Copa Roca, Brazil wrestled back control in 1945 with a 6-2 win at the Sao Januario – their biggest victory in the competition. Twelve years later came another landmark moment when, at the age of just 16 years and 257 days, Pele made his debut in the Canarinha jersey on 7 July 1957 at the Maracana, when he scored his side’s consolation in a 2-1 defeat in the tournament opener.
That match was followed by a second clash, again in the Maracana, where Brazil took the title via a 2-0 win that featured another strike from Pele, who thus began cementing his place in a side that became world champions for the very first time the following year at Sweden 1958. Boasting a hugely talented squad, A Seleção continued to reign, though isolated defeats in the 1960 and 1963 Copa Roca, the latter in a match in Sao Paulo, were hard to swallow despite the trophy staying in Brazilian hands.
After an eight-year break, the tournament started up again in 1971. The Brazilian squad featured 11 players that had lifted the FIFA World Cup the previous year in Mexico, though O Rei Pele was not among that number. Clodoaldo, however, was still involved and his performances in the two games at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires even drew praise from Argentina manager Juan Jose Pizutti.
“I remember that I was one of the best players on the pitch,” said former Santos star Clodoaldo. “And their coach came over to me to say he’d love to have a player like me in his team. But they were very tough games. Brazil were on a high but Argentina were very strong opponents and we ended up drawing.”
In 1976, Brazil picked up their eighth Copa Roca from a possible 11 by winning both their encounters against an Argentina side including Mario Kempes and Daniel Passarella, both of whom were key figures in their nation’s FIFA World Cup success at Argentina 1978.
But having lost its former lustre, time was called on the Copa Roca until 2011, when representatives from both countries’ football associations got together to lay down a new set of ground rules. Wednesday’s first game will therefore take place in Cordoba, Argentina, while the second will be held on 28 September in Belem, Brazil, with only domestic-based players eligible to take part.
“It was a really good idea to get this rivalry going again. Of course the Copa Roca wasn’t as big as the World Cup, but it was something that motivated us and filled us with pride,” continued Clodoaldo who, in only his fourth game in a Brazil shirt, supplied an assist for Pele in a 2-1 win over Argentina in March 1970.
“I was young and that game had a big impact on me,” said the former player as the interview drew to a close, on what Brazil-Argentina games mean to those involved. “I hope that these encounters will also prove decisive for those players that come in to replace the foreign-based internationals. What advice would I give them? I’d tell them to give it everything they’ve got, because Brazil versus Argentina is always special.”