Thursday, September 29, 2011
Sam Kelly, Argentina
The eagle-eyed may have noticed quite a big match on Wednesday night that has gone relatively unheralded by media outside South America. Brazil v Argentina, on a night when there's top European football? Surely some mistake? Well, it was Brazil v Argentina, but not as we know it.
One of the assumptions many journalists made when Argentina's Sergio Batista was replaced with a proper manager - namely Alejandro Sabella - was that this would be the end, by and large, of Argentina's 'domestic national team'. Indeed it might be - but first there was one more engagement for them, and that was this friendly with a trophy attached, dubbed the Superclasico de Las Americas, or to give it its official name in Portuguese, Superclassico Das Americas.
The idea was that Argentina and Brazil face each other with squads made up of players only from within their own leagues. Given the enormously different states of the Brazilian and Argentine economies at present, and the effect that has on their respective leagues, this led to a certain imbalance in squad strength. The first leg was played a couple of weeks ago, in the Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes in Cordoba, one of the stadia used in Argentina's Copa America hosting in July. It finished 0-0.
The Argentine press were over the moon because, given the disparity in squad strength, everyone had been expecting them, frankly, to get done over. At full national team level, Argentina had a side capable of beating Brazil's in a friendly even when Sergio Batista was managing them, but for this double-header Brazil were able to call up the likes of Neymar, Fred and Ronaldinho (although it's doubtful whether Ronaldinho really deserves a place these days), whilst Argentina's two biggest name call-ups for the first leg were Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron - neither of whom were ultimately fit to play.
The Brazilian championship is going through something of a golden patch at present, with the economic strength provided by Brazil's overall growth meaning that clubs can keep their top players longer and genuinely compete, in some cases, with European clubs in terms of wages. Among other examples, it's helped Santos keep Neymar for as long as they have, and an extra couple of years in his homeland developing can only help him (and others) when he moves to Europe at some point.
The Argentine economy is not as strong. That's resulted in clubs finding it as hard as ever to hang onto their own talent. Argentina's best player in the first leg was Juan Manuel Martinez - superb before he got injured in the game in Cordoba - of Velez Sarsfield. The only reason Martinez isn't already in Europe is that he's soon to become a father, and wanted his child to be born in Argentina. In January, he's virtually certain to be off.
Perhaps the neatest demonstration, though, of how the economic differences have affected the two leagues' standings is that when the AFA realised, seemingly only after the first leg, that the two competing countries were allowed to call up players playing in the opposing country, Sabella named four Brazil-based Argentines in his squad for the second leg. Internacional trio Pablo Guinazu, Mario Bolatti and Andres D'Alessandro and Cruzeiro's Walter Montillo were all called up, although D'Alessandro pulled out due to injury. By contrast, the only Brazilian in the Argentine top-flight, San Martin de San Juan striker Roberval, is injured and, frankly, wouldn't stand a chance of getting into their squad anyway.
It was, then, a lopsided competition, one which has taken a back seat to the Copa Sudamericana, also taking place in midweek, and which Argentines won't be losing too much sleep over, having lost it. Brazil won the second leg - and the trophy - 2-0, with two goals in the last quarter of the game. All the same, it wasn't an entirely worthless exercise.
For one thing, it was the latest edition of a competition with a long and interesting history. What's now called the Superclassico Das Americas was previously known as the Copa Roca, and was disputed in various formats between 1914 and 1976 on a semi-regular basis. It may not be an especially notable competition, but it was in the 1957 Copa Roca that Pele first played for Brazil. He scored Brazil's goal in a 2-1 defeat in the Maracana, but Brazil won the return leg - played in, um, Sao Paulo - to claim the trophy.
Other than historical interest, the main intrigue in this tie, though, was to see how Alejandro Sabella approached it as Argentina's new manager. His squad for the first World Cup qualifiers early next month is of course vastly different from the one he used in these matches, but seeing him manage on the international stage is nonetheless instructive. The consensus both in Argentina and Brazil was that while Brazil's win was a product of greater individual talent, Sabella very much got the better of Mano Menezes in the tactical battle, and that's a factor that can only be encouraging for Argentina's future.
This is also, of course, the last even vaguely serious match Brazil's national team will play between now and the 2013 Confederations Cup, since as hosts of the 2014 World Cup they aren't joining in South America's World Cup qualifying group this time round. The rivalry between the two nations remains as strong as ever, but given the nature of the competition, no-one in Argentina will be too worried about losing. Twenty minutes before kick off, I mentioned the game to a couple of locals in a Buenos Aires bar. "Oh, is that tonight? What time?" was their response. Even so, it was still interesting to watch for a whole host of reasons. Argentina v Brazil usually is.
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