Brazil finally letting down borders
Traditionally isolated Brazil is finally opening itself to South American soccer
Brazilian TV crews are all over the Argentine championship for the first time
Cheaper Argentine players starting to appear all over Brazilian clubs' rosters
It's just a few hours until the decisive match in the Argentine championship playoffs. Will Boca Juniors add to their 22 titles? Or will Tigre win its first?
It's going to be exciting stuff, and Brazilian TV is there to follow it. Up in the stands in the stadium of Racing club will be a match commentator and two expert color men, while down on the pitch will be another journalist picking up news from the two benches and running around after player interviews, as happened for the Boca-San Lorenzo game last Saturday.
Brazilian TV is there is force -- for a domestic game in Argentina. I don't recall anything like this before, and just a few years ago, it would have been absolutely unthinkable. But times are changing.
Those accustomed to European soccer rivalries are often confused by the one between Brazil and Argentina. South America is so different -- in terms of the distances involved, the history and economic structure.
There is almost no history of warfare between the two neighbors -- just a brief spat over Uruguay in the 1820s. The middle classes of both countries love to visit the other. The direction of the flow varies greatly according to which one has the stronger currency. At the moment, the advantage is with the Brazilians. But further down the social scale, the amount of contact is minimal.
Ignorance of the other is probably greater on the Brazilian side -- both because Brazil is so big, and also because of the deficiencies of its mass education system. All foreigners, whether they come from Argentina, Peru, Europe or the U.S., are commonly referred to as gringos. An Argentine friend and near neighbor of mine has been based in Rio de Janeiro for 50 years. He tells me he's often asked questions such as, "This Argentina of yours, is it anywhere near Italy?"
Future generations are likely to be much better informed. In Brazilian schools, the obligatory teaching of Spanish is being introduced. Soon Portuguese will be taught in Argentina. A process of South American integration is taking place, and sports -- especially soccer -- is part of the leading edge.
The Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of Europe's Champions League, has played a fundamental role. Historically, Brazilians haven't always taken the competition as seriously as their neighbors -- in 1966, '69 and '70, there was no participation by Brazilian clubs. Much more recently in Brazil, there was no TV coverage of matches not involving Brazilian sides, and as late as 2002, there was no coverage of anything until the semifinals.
Now, though, there is blanket coverage of the Libertadores. A club from Chile meets one from Colombia, and Brazilian TV is on the case. But it's the games involving Argentine clubs which have made most impact.
Several Brazilian soccer fans have told me that watching the Argentine supporters in action came as a real shock. Brazilians had been accustomed to thinking of themselves as super-fans. But when they saw the spectacle and heard the noise created by the Argentines, they saw they had something to learn. It wasn't just the number of songs and the sustained nature of the singing -- it was the fact that the intensity of the supporters' singing seemed to rise when their team conceded a goal.
The Brazilians recognized that, with the exception of clubs in the south, this wasn't their style at all. The atmosphere in Brazilian stadiums can be fantastic. But it's usually dependent on what's taking place on the pitch. If the team isn't playing well, it can be very quiet. If they're losing and playing badly, their own fans can be very quick to turn against them. This kind of behavior is almost unheard of among Argentines, who are more likely to sing louder in a bid to help their team out of trouble.
The Brazilian fans have noticed and, without losing their own characteristics or throwing away their own tradition, there have been attempts to imitate this Argentine spirit. Organized groups of fans have borrowed songs from Argentina and adapted them with Portuguese lyrics. Frequently over the year, I've arrived at Rio's Maracanã to find fans outside the stadium practicing their own version of a song from south of the border. The slogan set to accompany classic Rio club Vasco da Gama next year as it attempts to recover from relegation is "This sentiment can't stop" -- which comes from an Argentine song.
And so cultural ties with Brazil's southern neighbor have strengthened, and a TV team has gone down to give on-the-spot coverage of the decisive moment in Argentina's championship. But there's another reason Brazilian soccer should be looking south: As more continental integration takes place, there will almost certainly be more Argentine players playing for Brazilian clubs.
Some high-profile Argentines are already playing in Brazil. Internacional of Porto Alegre has Andrés D'Alessandro and Pablo Guiñazú. In Rio, Darío Conca schemes for Fluminense, while Rubens Sambueza and Maxi Biancucchi (Lionel Messi's cousin) play for Flamengo and Leandro Zárate for Botafogo. In São Paulo, striker Germán Herrera had an excellent year with Corinthians, although it may have to lose him in order to accommodate Ronaldo.
And there's plenty of interest in bringing in other big-name players from Argentina. After recovering from his injury problems, former Argentine national-team captain Juan Pablo Sorín has rejoined Cruzeiro. Proposals from Brazil have been made to the likes of Juan Sebastián Verón of Estudiantes de La Plata and Jesús Dátolo of Boca Juniors.
This trend is easy to understand. Brazil's currency is stronger than Argentina's and it pays higher wages. With Brazil selling more than 1,000 players abroad per year, it makes perfect sense for its clubs to look to Argentina for replacements.
But Brazilian clubs could do more than that. Instead of merely buying in Argentine talent, they could also help develop it. Perhaps the most interesting case of an Argentine player in Brazil is 21-year-old Ariel Nahuelpan, picked up by Coritiba from Nueva Chicago. Nahuelpan is a burly striker who, especially towards the end of the season, formed a good partnership with Keirrison, the Brazilian league's joint top scorer. Presumably, Coritiba's idea is to help develop Nahuelpan, give him visibility and then sell him at a profit.
Brazilian fans and officials complain that Europe whisks away its talent at an ever earlier age. But there are signs that Brazilian clubs are just starting to act in a similar way with countries in the rest of the continent. Cruzeiro, for example, recently signed highly rated teenagers Javier Reina from Colombia and Fidel Martínez from Ecuador.
As the borders between Brazil and its neighbors finally loosen, Brazilian clubs should become more alert to the possibilities of snapping up youngsters from Argentina, the country which has won five of the last seven editions of the Under-20 World Cup. If that happens, Brazilian supporters will have something else to sing about.