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Brazil anxious over Argentina's quest

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Disgruntled Rio de Janeiro voters are fearing the inevitable, although mayor Eduardo Paes was definitely joking last year when he said he would "kill himself" when answering a question about what he'd do if Argentina won the World Cup in Brazil.

But on Sunday, when Germany and Argentina lock horns at the Maracana, the majority of Brazilians will be fellow countrymen of Joachim Low & Co. -- for two hours at least. As nightmare scenarios go, few could look more daunting than the vision of Lionel Messi raising the golden World Cup trophy under the Rio de Janeiro sky.

The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is a curious one thanks to its almost exclusive sporting nature. In fact, over the past few years, Brasilia and Buenos Aires' relations have been marked by projects of regional integration. Brazil even led the diplomatic efforts to defend their neighbours in their tussle with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands -- also known in Brazil as Las Malvinas, the name given by the Argentines.

Then last Thursday, Argentina appeared to have received the endorsement of no less than Neymar: In a news conference, he said he would support his Barcelona teammates Messi and Javier Mascherano in Sunday's game. Neymar, however, added a little caveat. "I am not supporting Argentina, but rooting for two teammates I have learned to admire. Let's say I'm a fan of Messi FC," the Brazilian striker explained with a cheeky smile.

Why is it so difficult for Brazilians to take their neighbors' side in much more trivial matters than a geopolitical dispute with London? The reason is simple: While Uruguay may have broken Brazilian hearts in 1950, and the Germans pretty much threw Brazilian football into disarray with the 7-1 thumping on Tuesday, there is no love lost between the two South American nations when football comes to town.

Brazil went into a state of shock and mourning after their 7-1 defeat to Germany.
Argentina winning the World Cup in Rio's Maracana would compound a tournament that's become a nightmare for Brazil.

In fact, the first reports of a proper pitch scuffle in Selecao history come from 1925, when a South American Championship decider descended into a fist fight. Argentina were also Brazil's first official opponents in 1914, with a 3-0 win for the Albiceleste. Since then, they have played 95 games according to official FIFA stats, and the equilibrium is blatant: 36 wins for Argentina, 35 for the Selecao and 24 draws.

"I don't really know how to explain why the rivalry is so fierce, but when I started playing for the Selecao in the '70s, we were already indoctrinated that losing to Argentina was not an option. And I am happy to say I have never had that experience in my Brazil career," Brazilian legend Zico giggled.

The origins, however, are perfectly explainable according to historians. They're linked to the whole process of colonization in South America -- more precisely, the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, a document that divided newly found America between the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal.

Initially, the split was heavily in Spain's favour, who kept most of the territory, leaving a stretch of what today is Brazil's northeastern coast to Portugal. As years and centuries went by, however, the Portuguese quite literally pushed the boundaries inward, and the advances in the South toward the River Plate would soon be a reason for attrition.

In the 19th century, the Empire of Brazil went to war with the provinces that would form Argentina, but a stalemate occurred when both countries lacked the resources for a more sustained push. Ironically, Brazil had to abandon their territorial claims to the Cisplatine province, which would become Uruguay and decades later floor their former oppressors at the Maracana.

"Regrettably, Brazil and Argentina would compete for continental hegemony throughout the 20th century, and in these more democratic days, where both countries are engaged in a political and economic block [Mercosul], the rivalry has since transferred to sports. Football in particular is where the rivalry is still morally justified," Argentine historian Alejandro Grimson explained.

And, boy, don't both sides believe it. Players, fans and even the media engage in banter that often descends into mild thuggery. It is quite predictable, then, that passions would be fierce in the first World Cup in South America for almost 40 years. Which is why despite the 7-1 defeat in Belo Horizonte, there must be some Brazilians actually relieved that the mother of all finals isn't taking place.

"It would have been a logistical nightmare demanding a massive security effort," a source linked to the World Cup organising committee told ESPN FC.

The worries still linger, though, and while FIFA has not confirmed the amount of Argentines who hold tickets for Sunday's final, the Argentine government estimates that 70,000 "hinchas" (fans) have crossed the frontier to follow the action. It's enough to put the Brazilian authorities on massive alert -- after all, the Maracana will only hold 74,000 people for this final.

What both countries have in common is a passion for football and a respect for each other, even if they won't admit it. Argentines obviously envy Brazil's World Cup record (five to two in favour of the Selecao); Brazilians certainly wish Diego Maradona and Messi were born on "the right side of the border" and that they had an Olympic gold medal (the Albiceleste have two).

The Argentine government estimates there are some 70,000 supporters in Brazil for the tournament.

Argentina, nonetheless, will score a massive point in any bragging war if they are to stop Germany at the Maracana, only a year after Argentine and San Lorenzo fan Francis I was chosen as the first Latin American pope ahead of Brazilian Odilo Scherer, reportedly a sympathiser of Atletico Paranaense.

It is no surprise that every single one of the six Argentina games so far has featured Brazilians beefing up the opposition fans. Some Brazilian pundits have actually argued that such jinxing attempts may have spurred the Albiceleste on, a thesis endorsed by right-back Pablo Zabaleta in an interview with the BBC after their win over the Netherlands on Wednesday.

"Playing a World Cup final at the Maracana is a huge motivation for us, and the fact we've had a lot of people rooting for the opposition in all our matches so far has made us push harder," Zabaleta said, also mentioning the fact some Brazilian fans went to the extent of wearing rival teams' shirts.

The practice did give the World Cup some colour, though, leading to hilarious songs that invariably finished in one side worshipping or rubbishing Maradona or Pele. Now, however, Zabaleta and his fans have not only a massive chance to cover themselves in glory, but they also have an absurdly insane last laugh at their neighbour and rival's "football temple."

It's a thought that makes a lot of people shiver. With few exceptions, Germany will count upon an extra 200 million fans come Sunday.

Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.