In a visit to Brazil in 1909, Roque Saenz Pena, who one year later would become President of Argentina, ended a stirring speech on the relationship between the two South American countries with a sentence that appeared to make perfect sense: “Everything unites us. Nothing separates us.”

At the time it did indeed make sense. The conflict for control of the Cisplatina Province, which led to the independence of Uruguay, had ended decades ago, and Brazilians and Argentinians had even fought alongside one another as allies in the Paraguayan War in 1864. Years later, the diplomatic dispute in 1895 to precisely define the borders between the two countries had been settled. Despite the tensions one would naturally expect between neighbours and the two largest countries of the continent, it seemed that the similarities and common ground outweighed the differences that could generate rivalry. It was against this backdrop that football was thrown into the mix. 

Rivalries originating in major historical events often permeate footballing occasions, but in the case of Brazil and Argentina the quarrel is almost exclusively the result of what has happened on the pitch. Upon the inception of football in the two countries at the start of the 20th century, the relationship was as cordial as could be. The Copa Roca, created in 1913, was as a regular fixture between the two countries played in a spirit of brotherhood and was far from being a source of tension. Argentina’s rival was Uruguay, who had defeated them in the final of the Football Tournament at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 and also in the first FIFA World Cup™, in 1930. 

The intensity of the rivalry was slow to take root, as Newton Cesar de Oliveira Santos explains in his book released in 2008 entitled Brasil x Argentina, histórias do maior clássico do futebol mundial (Brazil-Argentina: stories of the world’s greatest football rivalry). To begin with, the powerhouses of the continent were Uruguay and Argentina, with the Brazilians merely part of the supporting cast. When Brazil got going, however, they made up lost ground, winning three World Cups and leaving Argentina so far behind they were not considered rivals. “And that was when the historical turning point occurred,” says the author.

“When Argentina finally got themselves organised, won a World Cup and began to be respected all around the world and were considered one of the favourites in every competition they entered, the Brazilians began to redress the balance of the results in their favour and gain the upper hand at the turn of the century. That was when the rivalry became explicit and fierce on both sides.”

First exports
Watching the footage of Pele scoring his one thousandth goal, from the penalty spot against Vasco in 1969, one thing stands out: the goalkeeper gets his hand to the ball, but realising that he failed to stop it, he furiously punches the ground in frustration. It is a small but revealing detail. The goalkeeper was Edgardo Andrada, and Brazilian fans never tire of saying that goal number 1,000 had to be scored against an Argentinian. Andrada himself said that for years the fact he had played a role in such an iconic moment of Brazilian success was hard to bear. The rivalry between Brazilians and Argentinians does that to people. It is purely restricted to football, but that does not diminish its ferocity.

The Andrada incident is no exception. While the list of Brazilians who have made a mark in Argentinian football can be counted on one hand – Domingos da Guia, Paulo Valentim, Silas, Iarley – there is a rich tradition of Argentinian footballers doing well in Brazil. Initially, the “imports” came mainly to plug a traditionally perceived gap as regards the quality of Brazilian defenders and especially goalkeepers.

Goalkeeper Jose Poy joined Sao Paulo in 1948, and stayed there until 1963, becoming one of the biggest idols in the club’s history. In his wake came Andrada who was between the sticks for Vasco, Agustin Cejas for Santos behind his compatriot Ramos Delgado, Ubaldo Fillol for Flamengo, and at centre-back another player who would become a club icon, Roberto Perfumo, the boss of the Cruzeiro penalty area in the 1970s. 

Talking to the Argentinian newspaper Olé in 2002 Perfumo encapsulated the difference between the Brazilian and Argentinian schools of football with such clarity that it backed up the cliché about one set of players having the creativity and lightness of a samba; the other has the unbridled passion and technical precision of a tango. “We are mutually envious,” said the former archetypal Argentinian central defender, who was as tough as they come but at the same time brimming with class. “It’s a different relationship with the ball. We use it more to achieve our goals, they use it more for personal pleasure. This is linked to life, a way of being. For us football is tragic, for them it’s not.”

Brazilian ovation for an Argentinian goal
With the financial chasm between European and South American football at its peak and the creation of the European Union making it easier for clubs from the old continent to recruit foreigners, the Argentina-Brazil interchange reduced drastically. One of the few icons of the period spanning the 1990s and early 2000s was another Cruzeiro player: Juan Pablo Sorin.

Sorin’s first spell at Cruzeiro lasted just two years, but his impact was worth a lifetime, thanks to displays like the one in the final of the 2002 Copa Sul-Minas, his last game wearing the shirt, having finalised a deal to move to Lazio. In front of a 70,000 crowd in the Estadio Mineirao, the full-back played practically the whole game with a bandage around his head having cut open his eyebrow. He refused to leave the pitch and ended up scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Atletico Paranaense.

In 2004, when Argentina went to the Mineirao to play A Seleção in a qualifying match for Germany 2006, Brazil raced into a 3-0 lead with a hat-trick from Ronaldo. In the second half La Albiceleste cut the deficit through Sorin and half the stadium – the Cruzeiro supporters, of course – spontaneously stood up to applaud the goal, even though it was an Argentina goal. Juan Pablo Sorin returned to the club at the end of the decade and he was given a testimonial in Belo Horizonte. Today he continues to live in Brazil, where he will be a World Cup commentator for ESPN.

Second wave
The migratory route has recently be reopened as the Brazilian economy and currency strengthen and Mercosul has consolidated itself. Moving to a rival country remains a difficult path to take, but Carlos Tevez’s time at Corinthians in 2005 helped open the door. As well as Tevez, the Brazilian champions had Javier Mascherano and centre-back Seba Dominguez in their team, and at the start of the season were managed by Daniel Passarella. The success of the team in general, and Carlitos in particular, led to an Argentinian influx with a handful of players becoming idols in Brazil, such as Dario Conca (Fluminense), Walter Montillo (Cruzeiro and Santos), Hernan Barcos (Palmeiras and Gremio), Andres D’Alessandro and Pablo Guinazu (Internacional). 

“Argentina’s relationship with Brazilian football has changed tremendously in recent years, and the same is true regarding how Brazilians view players coming from the neighbouring country,” Guinazu told FIFA.com. “I looked at it as a challenge: the fact I was Argentinian was another obstacle to overcome in relation to the fans, and the success of Carlitos paved the way. Moreover, I think a trait of our football has always been a fighting spirit, which helps gain the respect of the fans.”

This opinion is borne out by the fact that a manager who made his name in Argentinian football has been handed an opportunity at a big Brazilian club. Ricardo Gareca, the former Velez Sarsfield manager, officially takes over at Palmeiras after the World Cup.

Even in World Cup history, a fine balance between the countries rather than an obvious supremacy is evident. The three times they have met in the World Cup resulted in a 0-0 draw: in 1978, in what became known as the “Rosario Battle”, a 3-1 Brazil victory in 1982 and an Argentina triumph in 1990.

Commenting on this Argentina win in Italy, Diego Armando Maradona, whose pass led to Claudio Canniggia’s goal, stated: “My country loves beating Brazil more than any other team. The same goes for them! They get more pleasure from a victory over us than from one over the Netherlands, Italy, Germany or anybody else. Like us. Like me. Nothing is as beautiful as beating Brazil.”

The football history between Brazilians and Argentinians is brimming with admiration, whether it be for the character traits on the one side, or the creativity on the other, but what it boils to is a pure rivalry. Or as the Argentinian sociologist Pablo Alabarces put it, repeating the words of a friend of his who lived in Brazil: “Brazilians love to hate Argentinians, and Argentinians hate to love Brazilians.”