Brazil reach new nadir as Argentina revel in historic win

  • Tim Vickery, South America correspondentNov 22, 2023, 12:23 AM ET

RIO DE JANEIRO — History was made in the Maracana stadium on Tuesday night, when Nicolas Otamendi’s towering header from a corner gave Argentina a 1-0 win and, in the process, inflicted Brazil’s first-ever defeat at home in World Cup qualification.

To make matters worse for the hosts, the last fortress fell in one of the worst games in Lionel Messi’s 18-year international career. Argentina’s captain looked well short of fitness, and he spent some of the first half receiving treatment on the touchline. The 36-year-old cut an unusually conservative, peripheral figure, dropping deep to lay off first-time passes before being substituted with 15 minutes remaining.

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The ineffectiveness of Argentina’s talisman, sadly, was somehow appropriate for the match, because the night was not worthy of the joyful art that an in-form Messi has supplied for so long. This showpiece occasion of South American — and global — football left a nasty taste. The scenes at the start of the evening were brutish and dangerous.

It all began as the national anthems were being played. This reportedly led to scuffles between rival groups of fans. Things escalated when the local police launched a baton charge on the Argentine fans, and the situation quickly got out of control. Yellow seats were flying through the air as the supporters fought back. There were fans with blood streaming down their faces and as the Argentine supporters retreated, some Brazilians who had nothing to do with the fighting were caught up in the confusion and went diving over the crash barriers and onto the pitch to get away from the conflict.

The Argentine players had been watching from the halfway line. They went over for a closer look and, after taking a close-up view of their compatriots on the end of such heavy-handed policing, Messi led them off the field.

At this point the game was in doubt. In the previous campaign, during the COVID pandemic, Brazil’s home match against Argentina was halted by health officials in the fourth minute. Tuesday’s clash was in danger of not even getting that far.

It would surely have been better had the police, instead of launching their charge, had merely held a line separating the fans of Argentina from those of Brazil. But it is truly astonishing that they were so close together as segregating fans is routine in the Maracana. The visiting support is usually placed high up in one of the corners, with the seats below left vacant to ensure an adequate separation. None of that happened on Tuesday. And so the Argentina fans were behind one of the goals, directly next to the organised group of Brazil followers. Anatorg, Brazil’s association of organised supporters, had warned before the game that this was a mistake. Their words were not heeded.

The game kicked off 27 minutes late, with the atmosphere inevitably contaminated by the scenes of violence. And it added even more fury to Brazil’s approach.

After an unprecedented two consecutive defeats in the previous rounds, it was expected that Brazil would come out like a wounded beast in front of their home crowd. And this was emphasised still further by the approach taken by interim coach Fernando Diniz. With a front line of four (Raphinha, Rodrygo, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli) and just two men in midfield, there was little chance of patient build-up, foot-on-the-ball type football. Rather, there was pace and fury in their pressing.

True, occasionally there were glimpses of trademark of Diniz football — bringing players together on one flank and then launching a big switch to the other. Raphinha on the right was the target, and he worried the Argentina defence. But the main idea was a relentless press on Argentina’s possession, forcing the mistake and then going at speed.

And, with Messi so off colour, Argentina found it very hard to lengthen the game and play behind Brazil’s high defensive line. Coach Lionel Scaloni tweaked to a 4-4-2, with Rodrigo De Paul and Enzo Fernández holding the centre and Giovani Lo Celso and Alexis Mac Allister wider. But this perhaps did not bring out the best in the latter two, who lack half a yard of pace in restricted spaces. Mac Allister would drift in and leave a corridor for attacking left-back Marcos Acuña, who caused the odd moment of alarm.

Brazil, however, had the best of the few chances that the game threw up. Raphinha’s free kick flicked the wall and went just over. His corner was pushed out by keeper Emiliano Martínez, who was then rescued by Cristian Romero, who turned Martinelli’s shot off the line. Gabriel Jesus burst past the defence and set up Martinelli for a shot well blocked by Martinez — and then came Otamendi’s history-making moment. It is the second time in four matches that an Otamendi goal from a corner has won maximum points for his side. This one, rather than last month’s win over Paraguay, is the game that will stick in Argentina’s collective memory, though it will be tinged with a certain sadness if a drained Scaloni decided that this is the moment to step down, as he hinted in the post-match press conference.

And what of Brazil? They finished the match with no clear plan or organisation and were down to 10 men. Substitute Joelinton was sent off for palming off De Paul — the referee was surely harsh, though Gabriel Jesus, on a yellow, was a little lucky to stay on in the first half. In predictable style the Maracana crowd turned on the home side, calling them “a shameless team” and rubbing salt into the wound by greeting Argentina’s passes with an “Ole!”

Brazil are down in sixth place in CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying table and will spend a long time staring at this unwelcome sight as the campaign does not resume until next September. Brazil’s federation is confident that, by then, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti will be coaching the side. Bringing in a foreign coach is always going to prove controversial, but if it does happen then Ancelotti’s welcome will be made a little bit warmer by memories of Tuesday’s dreadful night.