Argentina and Brazil meet in the final of the Copa America in Venezuela today and the football press is marveling at the role reversal of Argentina playing the silky football and Brazil’s turn as the dour defensive team packed with scrappers.
Of course there is some amnesia involved in all this. Sunday will not be the first time Brazil have ditched their footballing heritage and looked to win ugly (1994), a tactic in the past that has resulted in violent slasher movies (World Cup 1974) that should make anyone pause before declaring Brazil the guardians of all that is good in the game.
And to declare Argentina the ugly duckling that has suddenly turned into a swan is to overlook some of the world’s greatest footballing sides – while Brazil were winning ugly in the USA, Basile’s buccaneers were going down playing some of the best football of the 1990s.
But it is true that in the tactically cautious and over-athletic moment the world game is battling through Argentina’s current elevated version of toco y me voy (pass and go) is bound to have football purists purring at this increasingly rare treat, in sharp contrast to the reactions generated by Brazil’s shameful novelty of fielding no less than three holding midfielders for much of the tournament.
As a result Argentina by a pretty wide consensus go into the game as favourites, a broad based movement headed by Brazilian coach Dunga even if some of his players have dissented.
But the Argentina camp has played down such talk. Today is a clásico and Argentina is the spiritual home of the genre and so its players know that in such games anything can happen and form frequently goes out the window.
After all, in Peru three years ago they came with the stronger squad, went into the final as favourites, outplayed Brazil for most of the game, and then lost on penalties. There are plenty of survivors of that day on both sides who will clearly remember the lesson.
But having made all the caveats time to face facts – Argentina are playing some sparkling stuff, not just in terms of this Copa but in the context of the international game over much of the current decade. What a shame Basile was not in charge during the last World Cup. What a pity we have to wait three more years for the next one.
They are the form team, winning all five of their games and scoring a tournament high 16 goals. They brim with midfield bite and attacking verve and have overcome the recent personality clashes that split the squad to bond around the goal of finally ended a 14 year honours drought.
“We’re doing things the way I like them to be done,” Basile said after his side beat Peru 4-0 in the quarter finals. “Not just winning…but beautiful football. It makes me proud to win this way.”
Argentina’s success is also partly thanks to having some of the very best players in the world on their team. The enigmatic midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme is back from his brief international retirement after a brilliant June in which he took Boca to their fourth Copa Libertadores win of the decade.
He has quickly translated his Libertadores form to the Copa America scoring five goals and being the creative hub of his side. He has been given the platform to work his magic thanks to the excellence of Esteban Cambiasso, Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano and the recalled Juan Sebastian Veron behind him.
Up front, Argentina lost Hernan Crespo to injury in just their second match but Carlos Tevez has stepped in and with Lionel Messi they have ripped into defences with their pace and determination.
Messi’s performances have been such that Diego Maradona paid him the ultimate compliment last week when he said, “He is the one that is most like me.”
But if Argentina are playing football worthy of Maradona, their opponents have nothing to compare with Pelé. The Brazilians have stumbled though the competition, with an ultra-defensive formation that has been heavily criticised at home as one of the worst Brazilian teams of all time.
While Argentina have the hugely experienced Basile in charge, Brazil arrived with the novice Dunga whose first ever competitive match as manager was Brazil’s Copa America opener against Mexico.
The Brazilian FA wanted a disciplinarian in charge after their lackadaisical performance in the World Cup and decided the rugged midfield was the man to instill it. Dunga has done that and the side does not lack for fight and determination. But in doing so he has stripped the side of the qualities that made Brazil the most loved and admired side in the world.
They lost that first game to Mexico and won their next two thanks almost solely to Robinho, who scored all the goals in the 3-0 win against Chile and the 1-0 triumph over Ecuador. And the opening goal in both games came from dodgy penalties.
The lack of creative flair has been evident and Brazil’s players acknowledge they face the rare situation of going into the final as underdogs. But they are optimistic that their new look team will take the day.
“Everyone is saying that they are the favourites because they have been playing together longer,” said Julio Baptista. “We’ve been playing together for less time but we’re good enough to get to the final. If we get there them we must be doing something right.”
But will it be enough to overcome the world’s form side? Answers later this evening.