One reason is time. In Brazil, especially, there is no real opportunity to reflect on the recent two rounds of qualifiers, to check the fixtures for the next rounds in March and work out the permutations. The national team were in action on Thursday and Tuesday – and the very next day the domestic league campaign resumed.
And then there is the question of quality. Europeans will feel differently. For them, international breaks are when they lose out. So many of the best players in their club game fly back to their country of origin, and meanwhile the European World Cup qualifiers feature a large number of unglamorous games – at times barely relevant ones.
That is not the way it feels in South America at all. Bereft of its big names, club football over here has never been worse. The FIFA dates are when the stars come home. It is that rare moment when the local crowd gets to see its best players in competitive action – and world football does not come much more competitive than South America’s World Cup qualifiers. Brazil came close to missing out on the 2002 World Cup – a tournament they went on to win. Argentina were sweating all the way to the finish line to make it in 2010, and they are in trouble once more.
So there was plenty at stake last week when the two old rivals met in Belo Horizonte – the scene of Brazil’s extraordinary 7-1 collapse against Germany in the semi final of the last World Cup. Despite that defeat, and the equally famous one against Uruguay in 1950, Brazil have yet to lose a qualifier on home ground. Might Lionel Messi, back after missing three games with injury, inspire Argentina to a history-making triumph? Or would the Brazil of coach Tite, suddenly full of style and swagger, play their way through a creaking Argentine defensive unit? It was the match of the year.
Brazil and Argentina is my favourite footballing rivalry. There is no real dark undercurrent of military tension between the two countries. It is pure football – a battle for supremacy between the two nations who have probably produced more great players than any others. The pair have only ever played 8 World Cup qualifiers – all since 2000. It was my proud boast to have been in the stadium for all of them. I lost that one last year, when I travelled down to Buenos Aries and made my way to the River Plate ground only to be met by torrential rain. Access was so difficult for the sell out crowd that the match was postponed for 24 hours, and radio commitments meant that I had to return to Rio. I did not miss much. The 1-1 draw was certainly the most anodyne of all their World Cup qualification encounters.
This one promised to be different. Messi missed the match last November, when Brazil were still ineptly coached by Dunga. Now the bar was set higher.
At this stage in life, not many things will get me on a bus for nearly eight hours to watch a game, do all the work and then face another eight hour journey back home. But Brazil versus Argentina is an exception. What greater privilege could a football fan require? For this is not a time to be following the action on TV, but instead to be living it all, breathing in the anticipation and atmosphere, taking part in nervous pre-match conversations with fellow journalists, watching the crowd build up and waiting for the magnificence to unfold.
There were disappointments. Few visiting fans had made the trip. Although they tried, they were unable to fill the air with the chants that made the 2014 World Cup so special. And many of the home supporters turned up close to kick off time. This was a match when you wanted the fans to dominate the build up, rather than the piped music which is the curse of the modern stadium.
Ticket prices were too expensive - a crowd of 53,490 left a few of the seats empty – as became clear a few minutes before the start. Pieces of paper had been left on the seats for the crowd to hold up and form a mosaic – another unfortunate, artificial development of the modern stadium. But with some holes in the picture the message was not entirely clear.
There was nothing wrong, though, with a tribute to Carlos Alberto, recently deceased right back and captain of Brazil’s great 1970 side. In homage, Brazil’s skipper for the night was the current right back, Daniel Alves, who wore the trademark number four shirt of his illustrious predecessor. It all set the tone to an enthralling 90 minutes.
This was not the best of all the Brazil-Argentina qualifiers. That honour goes to the two matches in the 2006 campaign. In 2004, in this very Belo Horizonte stadium, Argentina weaved some pretty patterns but were unable to cope with an inspired, almost superhuman Ronaldo, who won and scored from three penalties in his side’s 3-1 victory. Argentina gained revenge a year later. Juan Roman Riquelme passed holes in the Brazil defence to build up a 3-0 first half lead. Brazil hit back strongly after the break, but could only pull one back.
The November 2016 match, in contrast, was very one sided – the most one sided of all of the qualifiers between these two great footballing nations. But it was not always clear that it was going to turn out that way. Messi got off to an interesting start. Fernandinho, one of the villains of that 7-1 defeat to Germany, picked up a yellow card for his second foul on Messi after just six minutes. He was walking a tightrope. Tite thought of making a substitution, but decided against throwing inexperienced Rodrigo Caio into the fray. Instead Paulinho dropped deeper to help out with the marking. Still Argentina held their own. Perhaps the seriousness of their plight had brought the best out of the them. Set up by Messi, Lucas Biglia nearly gave them the lead. Brazil’s goalkeeper made the save of the night, and a minute later his side had taken the lead.
From the moment that Phillippe Coutinho’s shot hit the back of the net, the result was not in doubt. He scored with a superb shot – but the fact that he found enough space to pull the trigger was an indictment of Argentina’s defence, which from that point on was run ragged. The final score could have been 7-0. Argentina were lucky that it was only three. My favourite moment – a delightful reverse ball from young centre forward Gabriel Jesus that slipped in Neymar to score Brazil’s second goal and the 50th of his senior international career.
It was a fabulous piece of football – something to remember and treasure on the long bus ride back to Rio. And to keep recalling in the future – at least until the World Cup qualification campaign resumes towards the end of March.