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The biggest rivalry at the World Cup is continental, Europe vs. South America

Like in 1986 when it won the title, Argentina's World Cup team is comprised of a group of battlers led by a superstar (Lionel Messi, left).ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Roy Keane is not the only one irritated by Brazil’s antics in the World Cup. As much as Brazilians are admired for jogo bonito and respected for their accomplishments, they also are reviled for perceived arrogance and — at least on their own continent — often mistrusted because of cultural differences, including language.

Keane, a former Manchester United midfielder turned television commentator, criticized Seleção players and coach Tite for overly exuberant goal celebrations in a 4-1 win over South Korea in the Round of 16. You can be certain Brazil’s rivals were similarly not amused.

Next up for Brazil is Croatia in the quarterfinals Friday. The feeling is Croatia is holding on by a string, playing to three draws and winning outright only once — a 4-1 demolishing of Canada, partly motivated by the Canadians’ bulletin-board declarations. But the Croatians are not going to relish standing around waiting to kick off while their foes are joyously jumping up and down arm-in-arm.

Brazil's postgame celebrations, like this one from Neymar, have left other nations peeved.Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Then there is Argentina. Should the Albiceleste get past the Netherlands Friday, they could set up a South American showdown with Brazil in the semifinals. There is no greater rivalry in international sport than Argentina-Brazil. If you think Nicolás Otamendi might have been rough on Mexico’s Chucky Lozano, wait until he gets a chance to tee up Neymar or Richarlison.


Yet the bigger rivalry at play in the World Cup is continental — Europe vs. South America. And, though the Argentines and Brazilians usually wish the worst for each other, they are in this together carrying South America’s hopes. The World Cup balance of power has tilted sharply away from the Southern Hemisphere (though Africa has a chance for a semifinalist for the first time should Morroco upset Portugal) since Brazil captured its fifth title in 2002. The last four champions have been Italy, Spain, Germany, and France; only the 2014 final (Germany vs. Argentina) was not an all-Euro affair.


Argentina also has detractors on its own land mass, but no matter how much some South Americans might resent the Albiceleste and the Verde Amarela, they probably want them to earn FIFA points in this event. Representatives from other confederations have contested the proportionate representation of South America — five countries (half the continent) have a chance for a World Cup berth. After Brazil captured the 1994 World Cup, I recall former Argentine federation president Julio Grondona shutting down the argument by simply stating, “We’ve won eight championships.” At the time, that was more than half the 15 tournaments. But the six succeeding events have produced only one South American titlist (Brazil in 2002).

OK, once the World Cup bloats itself to 48 teams, nobody is going to gripe about not being afforded an opportunity to take part. But reputation counts for something. European clubs count on Latin America to develop talent, and part of the reason for Latino players’ high valuations is based on World Cup performance.

So, what has caused the decline of Argentina and Brazil on the world stage? The countries are producing players, as ever, and their national team rosters feature stars from the world’s top clubs. But by becoming so mercenary they have lost some of their characteristic national pride. When Argentina won the 1986 World Cup, the only starters performing in Europe were Jorge Burruchaga, Diego Maradona, and Jorge Valdano. In 1994, half the Brazilian roster was home-based.


When Diego Maradon and Argentina won the 1986 World Cup, only three starters were playing in Europe.Carlo Fumagalli/Associated Press

The current Argentine and Brazilian teams appear to be recapturing some of that old-time sense of family and team spirit. The Albiceleste, like the 1986 squad, presents a group of battlers led by a superstar (Lionel Messi). The Verde Amarela combine old hands — Dani Alves, Neymar, Thiago Silva — with uninhibited youngsters Richarlison and Vinícius Júnior, who sometimes appear younger than their years.

Anyway, even the most hardened observers, such as Keane, must know business mixed with pleasure is part of the Brazilian identity. Their commemorations might antagonize opponents, but Tite is not going to scold his team for its manners.

“It is a connection I have with the younger generation,” Tite, 61, said. “They could be my grandchildren. If I have to dance to be connected with them I will continue to dance. I’m not going to apologize when it’s our culture to dance and have fun. There might be lots of kids who dance because that is what Brazilian culture is when a goal is scored. That’s not being disrespectful to anyone else — that’s what we do. That’s us. We will continue to do things in our manner.”

Besides the rout of South Korea, Brazil has not created that many chances to samba in this tournament. The Selecao converted only three times in group play, edging Serbia (2-0) and Switzerland (1-0) before falling to Cameroon (1-0). Brazil will have to be on its toes if it plans to get to the World Cup final four, as it has not defeated a European opponent from the quarterfinals on since 2002.


Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at