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Jul 11, 2014

Zabaleta: Brazil jeers make us stronger

Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta would love nothing more than to win the World Cup in the spiritual home of Brazilian football. When the World Cup draw was made last December, South American football fans dreamed of a Maracana final involving the continent's two super powers.

But instead of facing Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, Argentina will instead take on Germany, who obliterated Luiz Felipe Scolari's men in the first semifinal on Tuesday.

Brazilians and Argentina have been bitter rivals ever since the beautiful game was brought to the continent by Englishman Charles Miller in 1894.

Argentina detest the fact that Brazil have won three more World Cups than them. There is a never-ending debate in the two countries about who was better -- Pele or Diego Maradona -- and this summer Neymar and Lionel Messi were branded as big rivals for the Golden Boot.

Local fans in Sao Paulo were firmly against Argentina in their semifinal against the Netherlands on Wednesday -- and that has been the case throughout the tournament.

But such vitriol against the old enemy has been counter-productive as it has only served to fire the Argentinians up during the tournament, according to Zabaleta.

"It's special for us to play in this country," the Manchester City defender said. "Especially because Brazilian fans have been against Argentina for this World Cup.

Argentina have faced taunts from Brazilian fans throughout the World Cup.

"Sometimes, if you have all the people against you, you feel even stronger. I think that we showed that against Holland and we feel very proud to have made the final."

Even though Argentina is next door to Brazil, some 1668 miles separate Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires.

That has not stopped thousands of Albiceleste supporters driving to Rio, many of them in camper vans that are parked along the central reservation on the Avenida Atlantica next to the Copacabana. And many more will flood the city this weekend in the hope that they will watch history unfold before their eyes.

"You can imagine people from Argentina selling their cars to come here, even without tickets," Zabaleta added. "This is something that happens in Argentina. We love football. We know how special it would be for this country to win another World Cup.

"But obviously we appreciate how Argentinian fans are doing everything to support the team. As a player I feel very proud, everyone feels very proud. Hopefully we can give them another trophy."

Unlike Germany, Argentina only just squeezed through to the last two. Alejandro Sabella's men needed a penalty shootout to defeat the Netherlands and make it through to their first final in 24 years.

The bookmakers have Germany as favourites for the showdown after their 7-1 win over Brazil, but that does not faze the Argentinians.

"We are just 90 minutes away," Zabaleta said with excitement. "Germany are probably of the best teams in this World Cup, but as we say in Argentina, 'we don't play the final, we win the final.'"

Zabaleta's theory does not quite add up. Argentina have lost two of the four finals they have contested. Their last victory came in 1986 when Diego Maradona captained the Albiceleste to a 3-2 win over West Germany.

This time it will be the turn of Maradona's heir, Messi, to skipper the side in the showdown. Messi has scored four of Argentina's goals in this World Cup and he also set up Angel di Maria for the round-of-16 winner against Switzerland.

Zabaleta believes it would be fitting, therefore, for the Barcelona star to lift the trophy this weekend.

"He is our main player, he is the captain of this team, he is the leader of this group of players," the right-back said. "We can imagine how special it would be for Messi to lift the World Cup."

Di Maria is Sabella's only injury doubt for the match in Rio.

The Real Madrid winger has missed the last two games with a thigh problem, but he returned to training on Thursday and could feature in the final.

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