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SPORTS: Mercosur Loses World Cup Hegemony

Mario Osava*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 4 2006 (IPS) - “Shameful”, “a team with no soul”, “at least the Argentines landed on their feet,” said indignant fans and perplexed sports commentators here in reaction to Brazil’s defeat Saturday, which sealed the loss of the Mercosur countries’ longstanding hegemony in the final stages of football World Cups.

With the championship match Sunday, the 25-member European Union will equal the nine Cups won by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, members of Mercosur (Southern Common Market) along with Paraguay, since the global tournament of national teams began in 1930 in Montevideo. Played every four years, no countries outside these two economic blocs have ever taken home the FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup title.

With its 2-0 victory over World Cup host Germany on Tuesday with last-minute goals, Italy awaits the Wednesday semifinal match between France and Portugal to determine its rival in the final to be played Sunday in Berlin.

The Brazilian team, with five World Cups and many players considered among the world’s best, was a great disappointment to the country and to football lovers all over the world. Its players, recently ever-present in the media, are now hiding, avoiding any public exposure by leaving hotels and airport terminals through back doors.

More than being defeated by France in Saturday’s match, the fans will not forgive the Brazilian footballers’ “falta de garra” (lack of conviction) shown by stars who earn millions of dollars playing for internationally famous football clubs, and from product endorsements for beverages, sports shoes, banks, and mobile phones.

The Brazilian team on the pitch, despite the eye-catching yellow and green uniforms, seemed to reflect the always discouraged and bored appearance of their leader on the sidelines, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.

“A Picture of Apathy” was the headline in the Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo of a report from Frankfurt illustrated with a large photograph of Parreira looking at his watch while his team “dragged themselves around the pitch.”

Defeat is acceptable in a sport where the favourites often do lose, but it is not acceptable when the national team shows no effort or dedication, agreed many Brazilian commentators. “They lacked soul,” summarised Armando Nogueira, the honourary “deacon” of Brazilian sports journalism, who has covered a dozen World Cups.

And that is how the Brazilian fans see it too, evident in the contrast with the reception that Argentine fans gave their national team, despite its defeat in a penalty shoot-out against Germany Friday, after a 1-1 tie in regulation time and extra periods.

Applause and headlines about honour and pride, “and leaving with the best image”, greeted the Argentine footballers when they arrived home. “There are defeats that have more dignity than victory itself,” reads an advert of the state-run bank, Banco de la Nación.

Argentina gradually rose in the ranks to be included as one of the favourites, after the early matches of the Cup. Brazil, meanwhile, saw its role as a favourite begin to lose shine after the team’s poor showings on the pitch, and its ultimate defeat by France.

The Argentine players were overwhelmed by the fact that so many people made the trip to the airport to receive them in Buenos Aires, despite having been eliminated from the Cup in quarterfinals.

With the two South American giants out of the running, just the four European countries remained. Germany and Italy have each won three times, France once, and Portugal has made it as far as the semifinal round for the first time ever. Germany is out, but Italy could add yet another Cup championship to its tally.

In Brazil and Argentina, fans and sports commentators will analyse their losses for years, but the results also reflect the tendency of World Cup hosts to win, in a broader, continental sense. The Europeans have won the Cups played on European soil, with the exception of Sweden in 1958, when Brazil won. But Europe has never won when the World Cup was played elsewhere.

>From the Mercosur bloc, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have won nine Cups, mostly when the tournament was played in Latin America. Brazil is the only one to be victorious outside the region: in the United States in 1994 and Korea-Japan in 2002, as well as in Sweden.

For its part, Argentina was champion in 1978 when it hosted the World Cup, and again in 1986, in Mexico. Uruguay won the first-ever World Cup on its home pitch in 1930, and in Brazil in 1950 – the so-called “Maracanazo”, beating Brazil in Rio’s Maracaná stadium.

Paraguay, the fourth full member of Mercosur, qualified for the 2006 World Cup, but didn’t make it past stage one. Venezuela officially became Mercosur’s fifth full member Tuesday, Jul. 4.

Deep-seated football rivalry led many Brazilians to celebrate Argentina’s elimination, and vice versa, but there were also plenty of fans who were hoping for a final World Cup match between the two giants, which would have consolidated South America’s hegemony for a long time to come.

“I don’t share the vengeful spirit of celebrating a victory when things go poorly for Brazil,” but Brazil deserved to lose the match, because the team “was surpassed by France, which played exquisite football,” Pablo Moseinco, an Argentine fan of well-played football, beyond his support for his favourite football club and his national team, told IPS.

Football, despite the globalisation of the sport, continues to be dominated by a growing number of European countries and by South America’s Southern Cone, specifically Argentina and Brazil, since the decline of Uruguay in the last few decades.

The 2006 World Cup in Germany has not altered this “geopolitics” of football, nor has it brought anything new, such as innovative strategies, a brilliant team or noteworthy rallies through the various stages of the tournament by African, Asian or Eastern European countries, as occurred in previous Cups.

But of note is the fact that goal keepers have stood out at the 2006 World Cup – explaining in part the low goal average, but which is also the result of poorer player skills, say observers. The new football “heroes” are Germany’s Jens Lehman and Portugal’s Ricardo, for their ability to defend their goals against penalty shots.

Brazil 5
Italy 3
Germany 3
Uruguay 2
Argentina 2
England 1
France 1

(*With reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina.)

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