Rivalries are a really, really important part of the fun of soccer and many other sports.
Rival players are special, not quite in the same way as players for our favorite teams, but still special. We’re likely to remember even relatively forgettable players who participated in one or more important games we remember, or even associate the name of a player with memories of the time when he or she played for a rival team.
“Did he just write ‘or she’?”
Yes, I did. And I will have a lot more to say about women’s soccer in this post and in the future.
Back to rivalries. I was born in northern New Jersey near NYC, and I grew up in southern Maine, so I got to see the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry from really close. A good friend I made in college (he was a grad student) is a UCLA alum and used to have season tickets for Bruins football and basketball. I’m not sure if he’s enough of a masochist to continue to do that. Anyway, he took me to some UCLA-USC football games when I lived in California and told me tales of the rivalry from his college days on. He’s also a Dodgers fan, plus I lived in the Santa Barbara area for several years, and I used to see slightly more SF Giants caps around there than Dodgers caps, so I got to see the Dodgers-Giants rivalry from reasonably close too. Plus my dad grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so I got to hear about that rivalry when the Dodgers and Giants were New York teams.
Here in São Paulo, my favorite team, Palmeiras, is the arch-rival of the most popular team in the state (and the way its popularity continues to grow, it will be the most popular in the country very soon, blowing by Flamengo), Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo’s current team, Corinthians. The thing is that I just don’t hate Corinthians. When they play Palmeiras, I want them to lose. But that rivalry, despite being as old and enduring as it is, and despite being THE rivalry in São Paulo, just doesn’t do anything for me.
The only team I actively dislike is São Paulo Futebol Clube, and that’s only because of an idiot friend of some friends of mine. This guy always had a lot of comments to make when SPFC won or anyone else lost, and I’m OK with that, because ribbing your friends after games is part of the fun of being a soccer fan. But when SPFC lost, to keep the discussion off the topic of SPFC’s loss, this idiot would send us all Hitler quotes or something equally stupid and inflammatory. I know some very nice people who are SPFC fans, and I know it’s not fair, but I really dislike their team because of one idiot fan. And I will say that even though I really dislike SPFC, I admire their front office. That doesn’t mean I like them. I think they do some unethical things, but what I admire is their total dedication to success on the field. No other team in Brazil has a front office that comes anywhere close to being as good as São Paulo’s (DAMN THEM!) in that respect.
On the other hand, there is one rivalry I’ve truly adopted. I’m not a Brazilian citizen (yet- Kahane vs. Shultz gives me the option for dual citizenship, and I’m looking into that), but I live and die with the seleção like most Brazilians. I follow the seleção more closely than most of them, and I get into the Argentina-Brazil rivalry in a way that very, very few do. It’s my favorite rivalry in all of sports. I have lost my voice watching an ARG-BRA game. I have cursed extensively in two languages and euphorically celebrated watching BRA-ARG games. And in recent years, I have enjoyed Brazil dominating for a while, at least in the most important games.
The last time I can remember Argentina beating Brazil in an elimination game is the 1990 World Cup, and those cheaters had to drug Brazilian players to get that one.
“Hold up, Mark… that’s a kind of provocative statement.”
OK, OK. I can’t make an accusation like that without evidence. So how ’bout some video of “D10s” himself laughing heartily on Argie TV as he tells the story of how he and his teammates and Argie national team staff cheated to knock Brazil out of the 1990 Mundial?
So Maradona brings me back to rival players. As I said, it’s not uncommon to remember rival players in their own special way. But there are different kinds of rival players. There are the ones who are villains, the ones you “love to hate.” For me, Carlitos Tévez is a perfect example of this kind of rival. He’s really good and he’s got a bit of a “badguy” image. Tévez and Aimar were the players who got me to lose my voice during Copa América 2004.
Here’s what happened. Argentina scored first, in the middle of the first half. Even though Argentina was playing significantly better, Brazil equalized at the end of the first half. Then, just a couple of minutes before regulation time was to run out, Delgado scored a heck of a goal on a crossing shot that all but gave Argentina a title that honestly, it would have deserved that day. And the fact that Brazil did not bring most of its top starters to Copa América that year would have been no consolation at all if Brazil lost. I had already been doing my customary loud bilingual cussing at the TV images of the Argie players and cheering on the Brazilians, but the voice problems really started after I lamented Argentina’s late goal. Then, as time was winding down, Aimar and Tévez decided to rub the Brazilians’ faces in it and started doing some cutesy tricks at the edge of the field and taunt their rivals. I responded by roaring (vocal cords be damned) that I wanted those little bastards’ heads.
Bielsa, Argentina’s coach at the time, was smart. After 46:00 in the second half, he took out Tévez in order not to give him a chance to start the fight he was obviously trying to start on the field, plus to help take a little more time off the clock. Argentina just needed to “administrate” for a few minutes and they’d have their first international title since Copa América 1993. The ref indicated 3 minutes of extra time, so the game would go to 48:00.
After Tévez came out and his replacement went in, Brazil started just launching long balls into Argentina’s area in the desperate hope that one would find a way into the goal and tie the game in the final seconds. I was watching still, but knowing I would almost certainly be in a bad mood later. With less than 30 seconds left in extra time, a last-chance high ball came into the area. Brazilians and Argies scrambled for it, and it ended up falling close to Adriano, who flicked it up with his foot and then thumped it into the Argie goal. Golaço! And I, together with some sizable fraction of the many millions in this city and the 180-odd million in this country, let out a whoop of joy. It hurt after the strains the game (and Tévez and Aimar) had already put on my vocal cords, but it was worth it. Raw throat and weak voice aside, it felt SO GOOD! Much cheering and celebration followed. When the game went to penalties, I kept cheering for the Brazilians as they took their shots and I kept hooting and cursing at the Argies as they took theirs. Júlio César defended one and then Heinze put his over the crossbar, giving Brazil the title. By then, my cheers were pretty raspy and more like whispers, because I simply had no voice left.
Heinze is a different kind of rival player. He’s one I don’t think is all that good, but I do find him annoying. I wouldn’t quite elevate him to the “love to hate” category with Tévez. He’s just a generic “badguy” kind of rival to me. And since he isn’t all that good, I love seeing him on the field for Argentina.
But now we come to another really important kind of rival player: that guy who is so good that even though you may hate his team or teams, you have to grudgingly admire him. I’m talking about players like Michael Jordan. Jordan was a guy that even fans of rival teams wanted to see “get his ring.” Even Knicks fans were cheering for him to “get his ring” in ’91. And even after he got his ring and a bunch more, many fans who hated the Bulls just had to grudgingly admire Jordan’s greatness. Wayne Gretzky was the same kind of player in the mid-1980s. Even if you didn’t like him or the Oilers, you had to admire how great the guy was. I’ve used two examples of players who transformed their respective sports, so I should mention here that a rival player doesn’t have to be one of the handful of greatest players ever, like Gretzky and Jordan were, to achieve “grudgingly respected rival” status.
Well, one player who definitely deserves “grudgingly respected rival” status was on the field for Argentina in the ARG-BRA in Doha on the 17th. I’m talking about Messi, whom I see as the best male soccer player in the world right now, and not by a very small margin. There are other legitimate contenders, but I think Messi is still pretty clearly the best. I think that if there were any justice, Messi would be preparing to receive his third consecutive award as the best in the world. Unfortunately, he was robbed by the Britney Spears of soccer in 2008, so there’s no way he can win more than his second consecutive “best in the world” title now, and even that isn’t assured.
He deserves to win, but I think a lot of people in the media around the world really underrated his World Cup campaign. OK, OK, it’s true that he scored the same number of goals as Rooney and Kaká, and it’s true that my grandmothers, both deceased, each scored seven times as many goals as those three big names did in this summer’s World Cup. But Messi is a player who does so much more than just score goals. I actually thought he was one of Argentina’s best players at WC2010, and I thought he played pretty damn well. I would have loved to have Messi on the field for Brazil instead of, say, Kaká. And that’s true even though I thought Argentina’s team as a whole was massively overrated. Yes, they had offensive firepower up front that nobody else in the world could come close to matching, and that and terrible officiating let them score a ton of goals in the group phase. But their defense looked pretty weak to me, and i thought somebody would eventually take advantage of it.
When Argentina came up against El Tri (by the way, the US-México rivalry is another I enjoy, but it’s one where I actually like both sides… I don’t dislike México the way I dislike Argentina. I prefer the US, but I like El Tri a lot too), I expected Salcido, who had played great up to that point, to have a field day against the “metal band” on the right side of Argentina’s back line. Jonás Gutiérrez may be a good bodybuilder, but he doesn’t have the flexibility and mobility, to say nothing of the skills, a good soccer player needs. I was disappointed when Maradona’s assistants convinced him to take out Gutiérrez for the México game and replace him with Burdisso, a vastly superior player (and still not a great one, which gives you an idea of how low my opinion of Gutiérrez is). As a result, Salcido didn’t have the fun day I thought he could have had against Gutiérrez. Some bad calls affected the outcome (it’s really shocking how many of Argentina’s goals in WC2010 were illegitimate) and México didn’t know how to keep cool and play its game, so Argentina easily escaped a México team that wouldn’t have looked bad in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, and that I believe would have given Germany a better fight than Argentina did. I don’t think México would have beaten Germany. I actually think Germany played the best ball at the World Cup, and Germany is the team I currently consider most likely to win in 2014, but there are lots of contenders and lots of things can change, especially this far out. I admit I enjoyed watching Germany finally do what I had been waiting for somebody to do – exploit Argentina’s more-than-suspect defense and make its goal-producing firepower irrelevant. But I would have liked to see México go further in the World Cup. México is a country with a great soccer culture, and I wish its showing in World Cups would reflect that better. My Facebook profile picture wore a lucha mask in México’s colors on the day of the ARG-MEX game, and not just because they were playing Argentina. I cheered for El Tri through its entire participation in WC2010, even shouting “viva El Tri!” to the São Paulo sky and wearing Mexican colors (mostly green, like the Mexican WC 2010 unis) when México very convincingly beat France. By the way, Salcido’s total domination of Sagna that day was one of the biggest mismatches I can remember from the 2010 World Cup, and it was largely because of that that I thought Salcido vs. Gutiérrez might yield some enjoyable moments in the ARG-MEX game.
Anyway, Messi was pretty good for Argentina at WC2010, and when you put that together with what he’s done at Barça, I think he deserves to be named the best in the world. The fact that Forlán was elected the best of the World Cup made him an automatic contender, and as others at CultFootball have pointed out, Sneijder wasn’t a bad dark horse candidate either. The German team at WC2010 was so good that some of them were bound to show up on the ballots. And Spain as champ (and its Barça base, which is champ of everything and then some) also had to be represented, even though the Spanish, while they deserved their title, didn’t have any one shining star at the World Cup and never really impressed me in the tournament. Even Brazil, with the “disappointment” of going out in the quarterfinals, had one really good game against Chile. Before anyone puts down Chile, remember that Spain’s showing against Chile was much less impressive. Spain squeaked by Chile. Brazil whupped Chile in a very convincing way. Please don’t take this as me grousing about Spain’s title. Spain deserved its title, and I’m actually happy that Spain won. In fact, I would have been happy with either of the two finalists FINALLY winning a world title, but the way the two teams played that night (especially van Bommel and de Jong, who were really dirty), I quickly found myself rooting for Spain. After the third place match was played, I stated that somebody could have a great game in the final the next day and be the MVP of the World Cup, but that up to that point, I thought it was Diego Forlán. When pressed on who I thought Spain’s MVP was, I suggested a two-headed MVP called Xaviesta. I’m fine with Xavi and Iniesta being finalists for the title of best in the world along with Messi.
But none of the other candidates had or has a case as strong as Messi’s. As I said, if there were any justice, the guy would be receiving his third consecutive award as the best in the world. And keep in mind that he’s just 23. I still wouldn’t yet put him on the same level as players like Jordan and Gretzky, but it’s not impossible or even unlikely that Messi will retire as one of the all-time greats in soccer. He could do that and still not reach Jordan-Gretzky ultra-greatness, but I think even that level is not out of his reach. I wish him much failure on the field every time he plays Brazil, and in fact whenever he wears Argentina’s colors. But I grudgingly admire him as a player and admit that I do enjoy watching him do what he does. It’s just nicer to watch him doing it in Barça’s colors than in white and light blue.
Oh yeah. I mentioned a BRA-ARG game in Doha on November 17th. I’m going to talk very little about that game because it was the least exciting one I’ve ever watched. No, really. It’s not just because Argentina won. I’ve enjoyed games Argentina won handily a lot more than this one. Brazil was playing better than Argentina through much of the game, but not all that well, and I just failed to get into it. One problem is that the CBF and AFA decided to hold the game in the Middle East. I’m sure the folks in Qatar offered them lots of money for it, the match being a nice little showcase for Qatar’s World Cup bid (and yes, I think the CBF and AFA have to accept part of the blame for the wrongest wrong choice possible being made for WC2022). But the problem is that since Doha is in the Middle East, the game was on at 3:00 PM on a Wednesday in Brazil and Argentina. So most people who would actually want to watch the game were, y’know, working at the time. One of the many cool things about World Cup time in Brazil is that companies actually halt business when Brazil plays. But friendlies don’t get the same treatment, so both the CBF and the AFA deserve a rap on the knuckles for scheduling a BRA-ARG at a time when most people in the two countries represented couldn’t watch. I managed to watch a good part of the first half and all of the second half. A business thing kept me from catching all of the first half, but from what I saw of the “highlights,” I didn’t miss much. I saw part of the first half in a restaurant that belongs to some friends. The restaurant had already stopped serving lunch, so I was the only one there other than the owners and a couple of employees, and I was the only one watching the game. I caught the second half on TV at home alone. I think watching alone is part of why I didn’t get into it, but I remember previous games between Argentina and Brazil, including friendlies and World Cup qualis, that I watched alone, and that got me more involved and excited.
As the couple of minutes of extra time added to the second half wound down, bringing a shockingly lackluster BRA-ARG to a 0-0 tie that would have been a just result, Messi pulled a rabbit out of his hat and scored a goal to give Argentina its first win over Brazil since the qualifier for World Cup 2006 played in Buenos Aires in 2005. That quali in Argentina in 2005 was a hard game to watch – Argentina outplayed Brazil in every way and won 3-1 – but I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoyed the one that was played a in Doha a few weeks ago. And just a few weeks after than painful quali in 2005, one of my all-time favorite BRA-ARG games ever was played: the 2005 Confed Cup final, in which Brazil completely turned things around from the quali and opened an economy size can of the whup-ass on nuestros hermanos, a 4-1 thrashing that the score actually understates. An Argie friend who is known for his opinions and his in-your-face way of presenting them (if you read rec.sport.soccer in the 1990s, you know who he is), and who had a lot to say about the 3-1 ARG-BRA quali game, had only this to say about the 2005 Confed Cup final: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The BRA-ARG on the 17th of November was unexciting and the result left a bad taste in my mouth, but it was just a friendly and things like that happen. How would Mano Menezes and the Brazilian media face Brazil’s first loss in the Mano era? Without much wailing and gnashing of teeth, it turns out. Mano himself, of course, had to try to keep everyone calm, and Globo, the most powerful media conglomerate in Brazil, appears to have been willing to support him in that for the moment. Of course, Globo supported Dunga for a good part of his term, but turned on him a little before the 2010 World Cup. We’ll see how long Globo and other Brazilian media manage to keep their teeth out of Mano’s flesh.
Mano had even mentioned before the BRA-ARG game that both a win and a loss would be a perfectly normal results in a game against an opponent as good as Argentina. In the end, as I said above, Brazil did play better, but not that much. Argentina’s win is absolutely valid and legitimate and deserved. I thought the game should have ended in a tie, but Brazil’s defense failed to stop Messi from making one last try at doing something amazing, and he’s the one male player in the world defenses really should not give one last chance. He’s the kind of guy who, even if you’ve shut him down for 90 minutes, can still do something magical in the closing seconds. That seems like an obvious thing to say now, because he did do something magical in the closing seconds, but the thing is that we were all aware of this even before the game started.
After the game, Mano said this: “The result (Mark says… read: LOSS) is a natural part of the work we’re doing. I made a point of saying before the game that in a game against Argentina both a win and a loss are normal results. I didn’t want to make predictions about a bad result like Wednesday’s (17 November), in order not to affect the confidence of these players, who did a great job. Now we’ll just have to wait until February, when we’ll face France.”
So there’s some interesting news: in January Mano will announce his list of players for a friendly to be played against France in Paris on the 2nd of February.
Mano took the opportunity to talk about the seleção’s first four games in his tenure, summing up what’s happened so far. “I think the most important thing is that we finished this series of four games with the potential and the evolution this team can have. What we did in this first part was important for us to move forward a little more next year. I am satisfied with this first moment. We know we have good players and can fill the space left by others who left the team.”
I have to be honest here. I don’t see the evolution Mano mentioned. I think Brazil played too few games after the World Cup, and even fewer real games. The US and Argentina were Brazil’s two real opponents post-Mundial this year, and two games just constitute too little information on which to base any kind of conclusion. Even if you give Ukraine the benefit of the doubt, three games also don’t constitute enough evidence for any kind of conclusion. Given that Brazil does not have the grueling CONMEBOL World Cup qualis to face, I hope the CBF does a MUCH better job of getting Brazil more games against tough opponents over the next few years.
I know Neymar is a popular subject among soccer fans around the world, but in Brazil, it’s ridiculous. Despite him never having played for the main seleção, people insisted Neymar should have been on the team for World Cup 2010. One magazine even ran a cover with a picture of Neymar and a headline that basically said “WTF, Dunga?!” Many in the media insisted that Ganso should have been called too, conveniently ignoring the fact that he needed knee surgery, surgery he had during the World Cup and from which he still hasn’t recovered, having just gotten clearance to start running again.
So, given the fascination with Neymar, nobody should be surprised that one issue right at the top of many reporters’ minds after the most boring BRA-ARG I’ve ever seen was “what about Neymar?” Neymar had played and scored against the USA, but had been left off the team that played Iran and Ukraine because of serious disciplinary problems he had at Santos. What did Mano think of Neymar’s return?
“I thought Neymar’s production was good. He’s a player who has no problem with ‘smaller’ or ‘bigger’ opposing teams, and he goes right at the adversary. He might have had a little difficulty having to centralize up front. But we had the problem of not being able to call on Pato, a player who would normally perform that function.”
Neymar was playing out of position because that’s what Mano had asked him to do. Neymar is not a “fixed in the area” player, a “reference” like Pato can be, or like Romário was in the past. He’s more like a “ponta” in the old three-striker schemes or a “second striker” in the modern two-striker schemes. On the other hand, I thought Neymar was actually trying too hard in the Argentina game, trying to do things himself rather than trying to help the team score and win. Of course, he’s 18, and as I said, he was not playing his natural position. And for the moment, I’m willing to defer to Mano on this point. He was closer to the game, more engaged and involved, and he’s seen tons of film since the game ended.
The good news for those of us who prefer yellow and green over white and light blue is that there was another BRA-ARG played on the same day as the boring match in Doha. On any day when there are multiple BRA-ARG games, the one between the principal men’s teams is the main event. But in this case, the “other” game not only had a result I liked better, but also had my current favorite soccer player in the world. In fact, it had my current favorite athlete in the world.
Here’s the thing about my favorite soccer player, who is also my favorite professional athlete: she’s a woman. I’m talking about Marta Vieira da Silva, known to soccer fans more simply as “Marta.” Definitions of “best player” are a contentious issue. I know Marta wouldn’t be head-and-shoulders above every other player in men’s soccer like she is in women’s soccer, but I honestly believe she is good enough that she could help a bunch of men’s teams in Brazil. Of course, that’s a hard thing to test. What I can say with confidence is that in women’s soccer, she has no legitimate rivals at this time. As I said above, there are other legitimate contenders for the men’s “best in the world” award, even though I think Messi is clearly the best choice. But given how well Marta has played for the seleção and how well she played for her doomed club this year, I don’t see how the voters could give anyone else the women’s award this year unless they’re just tired of Marta always winning. If she does win, it will be for the 5th time in a row, and she deserves it. So if we define “best” in terms of the difference between a given player and his or her peers, there’s a strong argument to be made for Marta. The difference between her and everyone else in women’s soccer is bigger than the difference between Messi and everyone else in men’s soccer. On the other hand, I recognize that Messi competes against a much broader and much deeper talent pool supported by a lot more money. Being the best male player in the world is still a bigger accomplishment than being the best female player in the world. But Marta does things on the field against her competition that nobody in men’s soccer, not even Messi, come close to doing against theirs.
I love watching Marta play. She is great with the ball at her feet, she’s an excellent passer, she’s a great shooter, especially with her left foot, she’s creative, she’s always looking for a way to help her team win, and she occasionally does things that make me jump around like a little kid during the game, then watch the video highlights again and again and again. She has given me goosebumps on multiple occasions and brought tears of joy to my eyes on several.
Marta and the women’s seleção lead me to another interesting rivalry: the one between the US and Brazilian women’s teams, clearly two of the best in the world. I’ve greatly enjoyed US-Brazil women’s games. In addition to being a US expat in Brazil, I’m somebody who has actually paid attention to women’s soccer for a long time. I can still go off for five straight minutes about the stupidity of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics in ’96 and how it cost me a chance to see the women’s soccer gold medal match between the USA and China, and NOT because there was some other medal event happening at the same time. It’s been over 14 years and my ass is still chapped over that one. I have rooted for both the US women’s team and the Brazilian women’s team, even in head-to-head matchups between the two. What a great rivalry it’s become, especially for me. You’ve got two excellent teams that have run into each other in big games, with results that have gone both ways, with really good players on both sides, with the most exciting and fun-to-watch soccer player in the world on one, plus one team represents my home country while the other represents my adopted home.
The women’s BRA-ARG on the 17th was part of the South American women’s tournament. By winning that tournament, Marta and company (even though Brazil has some other outstanding players, Marta is so great that this is a fair description of the women’s seleção) guaranteed themselves spots in the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics. I didn’t get to see a single game from that tournament, because women’s soccer is at least as underappreciated here as it is in the US, despite there being a transformational, there’s-never-been-anyone-remotely-like-this kind of athlete representing Brazil in women’s soccer right now. Marta’s only 24, but I’m already OK with saying she is a Jordan-Gretzky kind of athlete. She could retire today and she’d be assured of being considered one of the all-time greats, possibly even the greatest ever. And yet we can still look forward to more from her. Please, if you get a chance to see her play, don’t miss it. She is a joy to watch, unless she’s personally crushing a team you like. Even then, she’s like Messi in that you have to grudgingly admire her talent, her effort, and her outright genius.
Brazil’s victory over Argentina on the 17th was a 4-0 shellacking, one more in a series of excellent-to-dominant performances from the Brazilian women’s team at that tournament. The only game Brazil had played that was even close was its game against Colombia in the first phase of the tournament. In that game, Brazil won by only one goal. But when Brazil had to play Colombia again in the four-team final phase, Marta and her teammates left no doubt. After whupping Argentina, they thrashed Colombia 5-0, and since Chile and Argentina tied their game, Brazil’s women’s team was guaranteed the South American title and the spots in the Olympics and the World Cup. The Brazilian women did beat Chile in their meaningless final game and ended the tournament having won every single game they played.
Now what about club rivalries? Well, that’s an interesting story. As I said above, my favorite club team’s arch-rival is Corinthians, which was (along with Fluminense and Cruzeiro) one of the three teams that had a chance of winning the Brazilian Championship as the last few rounds were played. But even so, when my team played Fluminense in the penultimate round, I was actually rooting for my team to beat Fluminense, which would have helped Corinthians win the Brazilian title. Why? Not just because I don’t hate Corinthians, but also because my sense of justice trumps the rivalry for me. I’ll tell you what I mean in my next post, an examination of an unpleasant aspect of the Brazilian Championship that just ended.