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Best World Cup rivalries: Mexico vs. USA, England vs. Argentina

Martin Ainstein undergoes an unforgettable experience in Moscow as he visits the Russian Cosmonaut Training Center during his tour of World Cup host cities.

This article has been edited and originally appeared on ESPN FC on May 30, 2014.

One of the great things about the World Cup is that rivalries between some of the biggest nations in the world are allowed to fester for years, making it a special occasion when they meet.

Here are 10 of the biggest rivalries ...

10. Brazil vs. Sweden

A rivalry that stirs the blood and raises passion because of historical context, exacerbating social factors or the consistently matched quality of both teams? Well, no, but this is the most frequently played game in World Cup history, with seven encounters in the tournament through the years. West Germany/Germany against Yugoslavia and the assorted teams that have sprung from that dissolved nation have also faced off seven times, but the last of those, in 2010, was Germany vs. Serbia, so for consistency's sake, we'll say Brazil vs. Sweden is the most common. Of course, the most famous tussle came in the 1958 final in Stockholm, when the 17-year-old Pele extraordinarily won the tournament for Brazil, but they also played each other in 1938, 1950, 1978, 1990 and liked each other so much they met twice in 1994, once in the group stage and once in the semifinals. Bad news for the Swedes, though: They have won none of those meetings, with five Brazil wins and two draws.

Brazil and Sweden are familiar foes at the World Cup.
Brazil and Sweden are familiar foes at the World Cup.

9. Mexico vs. USA

One of the older rivalries in international football, obviously largely down to geography, but for a long time this was more of a feud than a true rivalry. Between 1937 and 1980, the two countries faced each other 24 times, and the U.S. didn't win a single one of them, as Mexico prevailed on 21 occasions. Since then, things have started to swing in the other direction, including the only time the pair have faced each other at the World Cup finals. That was in the 2002 World Cup, when the pair faced each other in the first knockout round in South Korea, and the U.S. beat their rivals 2-0, with goals coming from Brian McBride and Landon Donovan. Still, at least Mexico coach Javier Aguirre took it well, saying his team were "unlucky" for conceding the two goals, suggesting Bruce Arena's men "didn't want to play, they didn't let us play" while also blaming the referee for an "unfortunate" decision after Mexico were denied a penalty.

8. Brazil vs. Uruguay

Can something be regarded as a true World Cup rivalry when the two teams in question have actually faced each other only twice in the finals? In this case, almost certainly yes, given the magnitude of one of those games. Uruguay's shocking win over Brazil in the 1950 final resonated through the ages, scarring Brazilian football for years in a way that five World Cup victories since has only just managed to heal. "You know, sometimes I feel like Brazil's ghost," Alcides Ghiggia, the man who scored the winning goal in that final, told Alex Bellos in his book "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life." "I'm always there in their memories." The only other encounter in the finals came 20 years later, and it looked for a while like another upset was in the cards as Uruguay took the lead in the 19th minute of the 1970 semifinals, but goals from Clodoaldo, Jairzinho and Rivelino sent Brazil through to the final.

7. England vs. Argentina

While political history spices this particular rivalry up, there have been enough footballing controversies to cause debate, ire and annoyance through the years. Take Alf Ramsey calling the Argentinians "animals" and preventing his players from swapping shirts with their adversaries in 1966 after captain Antonio Rattin was sent off but found himself reluctant to leave the pitch. Or perhaps the Hand of God goal in 1986, when Diego Maradona cheated to score, then embarked on a brilliant, slaloming, wonder goal from inside his own half a few minutes later. Or can we interest you in 1998, when (after Michael Owen announced himself to the world) Diego Simeone tumbled under the smallest of kicks from David Beckham, prompting the English nation to turn on their once favourite son. And then, of course, 2002, when the headline was all about Beckham's redemption (and let us not forget John Motson's fine surrealist commentary), but it would not have been possible without Owen's dive.

Iran's 1998 World Cup clash with USA was expected to be politically charged, but was ultimately a peaceful affair.
Iran's 1998 World Cup clash with USA was expected to be politically charged, but was ultimately a peaceful affair.

6. USA vs. Iran

Some rivalries are informed by social and political factors, but this is one completely defined by them. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, relations between the USA and Iran had been, shall we say, "difficult," so when the two were drawn together in Group F of the 1998 World Cup, diplomats around the world gulped. The New York Times called the game "as intriguing for the expected nationalistic and political tension as it was for whatever outcome occurs on the field," which was true given this was a game between two midranking international teams. The problems were wide and varied for the authorities, from Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the Iranian players couldn't approach the Americans for the prematch handshakes (a compromise was worked out which saw the Americans approach Iran instead), to threats of protest from terrorist groups and terrorism. Interestingly, Iran coach Jalal Talebi actually lived in America at the time, as his wife ran a couple of businesses in California, and said before the game: "I am not a political man, I am a sportsman ... Please don't make it too big for us. This is a game. A game." It was in that spirit that the game was played, with goals from Hamid Estil and Mehdi Mahdavikia, who would go on to have a 12-year career in the Bundesliga after securing a 2-1 win for Iran and knocking the Americans out.

5. Italy vs. France

It's usually pretty good news for the Italians when they play France. In the four tournaments the Azzurri have won, they have faced Les Bleus along the way in two of them, deflating the host's balloon in 1938 with a 3-1 win in the quarterfinals, and beating them on penalties to win the whole shooting match in 2006, the game which saw Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi in the chest for saying something unspeakable. Italy also bested France on their way to finishing fourth in 1978, while Aime Jacquet's winners in 1998 had to eke past Italy in a shootout of their own -- Luigi Di Biagio, who missed the crucial penalty for Italy, can probably still hear the crossbar rattling when he tries to sleep at night.

4. Germany vs. Italy

The rest of Europe eyes these two teams with the greenest of envy, given that they have eight World Cup titles between them, and 13 appearances in finals, more than the rest of the continent combined. And they have been involved in some quite extraordinary tussles, most notably the semifinals in 1970 and 2006, and the final in 1982. It's the first of those that will probably stick longest in the memory, a gruelling encounter that was heading for a 1-0 Italy win as the clock ticked to 90 minutes. However, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger equalised in injury time, leading to a frantic extra 30 minutes in which West Germany took the lead, Italy equalised and then went ahead before Gerd Mueller levelled again, only for Gianni Rivera to score the winner a minute later. Franz Beckenbauer broke his collarbone in the second half but played on with his arm in a sling because the Germans had already used both of their substitutes, while the Italians were so exhausted from the encounter they could barely put up a fight against Brazil in the final. Indeed, Italy are one of the few teams to have Germany's number in the World Cup -- they've never lost to them in a final tournament, or at any European Championships for that matter.

3. England vs. Germany

England controversially perform the Nazi salute in 1938.
England controversially perform the Nazi salute in 1938.

These two countries have produced enough great games through the years without mention of the hostilities between 1918 and 1945. From the final in 1966, to the bruising quarterfinal four years later, to a rather less-memorable encounter in the 1982 tournament, the semifinals in 1990 and then the defeat of England by Miroslav Klose, Mesut Ozil and friends in 2010, the football has usually been enough to pique the interest whenever England played Germany (either West or unified). The social significance of these games cannot be underestimated, and according to some, England's defeat in the 1970 match, when errors by stand-in keeper Peter Bonetti -- allowing the Germans to come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 -- cost Harold Wilson's Labour government the general election, held four days later. Wrote sports minister Denis Howell in his memoirs: "The moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday."

2. Germany vs. Netherlands

Some English people think, rather quaintly, their rivalry with Germany is the fiercest in international football. It isn't for Germany. If you think the English and the Germans don't like each other, the Dutch and the Germans really don't. Like the Anglo-German antipathy, it has its background in World War II, when Germany occupied the Netherlands, and for many years the rivalry was more or less based on this. Willem van Hanegem, a Dutch midfielder in the 1960s and '70s, said after the 1974 final between the two sides: "I didn't give a damn about the score. 1-0 was enough, as long as we could humiliate them. I don't like them. It's because of World War II." The two sides would meet again in 1978, when a 2-2 draw in the second group stage helped put Netherlands into the final, after they beat Italy and West Germany surprisingly lost to Austria, but they would go on to lose to Argentina in the final. The most recent World Cup encounter came in 1990, which was spicy for non-socio-political reasons, after Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard got involved in a scrap which ended in both players being sent off, and the latter spitting in the former's hair twice.

1. Brazil vs. Argentina

The two biggest teams in South America, and by extension quite possibly the world (although Italy and Germany will obviously have claims of their own), had to wait until 1974 for their first clash at the World Cup. Brazil won that one, a second-phase group game that knocked the Albiceleste out, but the encounter four years later, in Argentina, was arguably more interesting, despite it being a 0-0 draw. Dubbed The Battle of Rosario, another second-phase group game was a violent affair, but one that set things up nicely for the final game, which would decide who qualified for the final. Brazil played first, beating Poland 3-1, which meant Argentina knew exactly what they needed to do: specifically to beat Peru by four clear goals. That game was detailed in the controversies Top Tenner, and Brazil had to settle for third place and describing themselves as the "moral champions."

The two would face off again in 1982 after being drawn along with Italy in the second round, and after the Italians beat Argentina in the first game, they needed a win against Brazil to qualify. They quite emphatically didn't get it, losing 3-1 in a game in which the score line flattered Argentina, the much-maligned Serginho playing up to his reputation by missing a string of simple chances. Diego Maradona reached the end of his notoriously short fuse and was sent off for kicking Joao Baptista in the closing stages. The last time these two met was in 1990, and was perhaps the most controversial, after Brazilian Branco alleged that the Argentinians tried to drug him from a bottle of water that he alleged contained tranquillisers. It was Maradona who danced through the Brazilian defence to set up Claudio Caniggia to score the only goal and he would later admit that the water had indeed been spiked, in what would become known as the "Holy Water" game. 

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.

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