The streak is over but there is always next time

My proud record has bitten the dust.

Higuain Argentina

It wasn't only Gonzalo Higuain that was left a little frustrated during the recent World Cup qualifier between Argentina and Brazil Source: AAP

I was extremely pleased with myself for having been in the stadium for all of the World Cup qualifiers between Argentina and Brazil. These are events that have only happened this century, since South America adopted their marathon format of qualification.

Previously, the continent’s teams had always been divided into groups, with the two traditional powers kept apart. In recent times, though, there has been one big group, with all 10 nations meeting each other home and away – which means that every campaign contains two versions of my favourite footballing rivalry.

There is no real history of military conflict between the South American superpowers. Sometimes, it is true, there can be the hint of a racial question – some Argentines have forgotten that two centuries ago a third of the Buenos Aires population was black, and that there is a considerable African contribution to the local culture (tango, for example, is a word whose roots can be traced back to Africa).

Mainly, though, Argentina against Brazil is football at its purest, the battle for sporting supremacy between the nations who can claim to have produced the greatest players in the history of the global game.
And so, whenever they meet, football celebrates its glorious past and its exciting present. In addition to Copa America matches and friendlies, I had been in the stadium six times between 2000 and 2009 to experience all of this with World Cup qualification points at stake.

The highlights are undoubtedly the two matches from the 2006 campaign. In Belo Horizonte in June 2004, the great Ronaldo was well aware that he was playing the biggest match of his career on home soil – to boot, on the very ground where a decade earlier he had made his name as a gawky teenager. 

That night against Argentina he incorporated the spirit of Pele. He looked like a creature from another planet as he continually sliced a solo path through the visiting defence.  Argentina weaved some pretty patterns, but they simply could not cope with the Brazil centre forward. Ronaldo suffered and scored from three penalties as Brazil won 3-1.

A year later Argentina gained revenge, winning by the same scoreline in Buenos Aires. The architect of their triumph was playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who passed holes in the Brazil defence. The surgical precision of the destruction reminded me of Muhammad Ali at his peak – as one of his opponents said, things gradually went fuzzy all at once.

Riquelme probed away until he found his opening – and Argentina were 3-0 ahead at half time. Brazil hit back strongly after the break – like Argentina the previous year, the glory of the game came from the fact that both sides had their moments.

I was not expecting anything quite in this class as I made my way down to Buenos Aires for clash number seven in the history of Argentina v Brazil World Cup qualifiers. The match came in the third round of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Both sides had got off to poor starts, and their coaches were under pressure.

Argentina were full of big name absences. Brazil were looking limited. Even so, this was still Argentina against Brazil, with the likes of Neymar and Angel Di Maria anxious to show that they could rise to the occasion.

The Buenos Aires weather forecast seemed to promise unbroken sun. But just before leaving my Rio de Janeiro home two days ahead of the game I checked the Argentine press, and saw that torrential rain had fallen the previous evening. The last thing that I did, then, was put an umbrella in my suitcase.

The next day I felt that I need not have bothered. Wednesday was gloriously sunny, cooling down a little in the evening into perfect conditions for top class football. It was a pity, then, that the game was scheduled for Thursday, which turned out dull and overcast. Steady rain was already falling when I made my way to the stadium, some five hours before kick off. But at that stage it was an inconvenience, not a threat.

Inside the wide corridors of the River Plate ground, I searched for a place to watch Ecuador v Uruguay on TV. At half-time in Quito I went to take a look at the press box – and quickly realised that we had a problem. The rain had intensified and the pitch was full of puddles.

And worse than the playing conditions was the access to the stadium. The streets around the ground were flooded almost up to knee level.  It was clear that many of the sell-out crowd would find it difficult to reach their destination.

From this point on, it was just a case of waiting for the news to be confirmed. The game would be put back 24 hours – the right decision for over 99 per cent of those involved, but an unwelcome turn of events for me.

Now I would begin a radio show just a couple of minutes after the rearranged final whistle. Could I do it from the stadium? For this I would need reliable wifi – dubious – and I would also have to be able to stay for two hours after the game – no chance.

Reluctantly, then, I decided that I would have to head for home the next morning, in accordance with my original planning. But instead of travelling back to Rio with my head full of memories, I would only be carrying frustrations along with my suitcase.

I got back in time to watch the game on TV – and to be slightly pleased that it was an undistinguished 1-1 draw.  I had not missed much. And as the shocking news started to come in from Paris, it was clear that the radio show would be cancelled.

So I can no longer claim to have been in the stadium for every Argentina v Brazil World Cup qualifier but I have seen all the good ones. 

I’m already counting the weeks until they meet again in November 2016.

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6 min read
Published 24 November 2015 at 4:08pm
By Tim Vickery