Soccer / Sports

Argentines flood Rio for World Cup championship

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The Buenos Aires taxicab pulled up to Maracana Stadium Friday afternoon with a giant Argentina flag flapping from its trunk after a 37-hour journey. Out popped Ariel Banega, Juan Arrieta and brothers Matias and Diego Romero Vetera -- all in sky blue and white Argentina jerseys.

They don't have tickets for Sunday's World Cup final between Argentina and Germany, but that doesn't matter. They wanted to be as close to their beloved team as possible. Up to 100,000 Argentines are expected to show up here this weekend for this clash of continents, most without tickets.

Two of the men in the taxi -- cab owner Banega and Arrieta -- said their girlfriends allowed them to make the trip on one condition: If Argentina wins the Cup, they get engagement rings.

Both men were happy to oblige.

They were determined to be here to party with Argentines and Germans on CopaCabana Beach.

And they wanted to experience the scene at the Sambadrome and Terreiro do Samba, where thousands of Argentine fans in cars, campers and mini-buses have turned the city's popular samba concert ground and Carnival parade route into makeshift Argentine villages.

Because most hotels are sold out and many fans arrive with no accommodations, city officials opened up those two sites, provided security and are allowing fans to camp there. At night, Argentine fans have been dancing on grounds where the city's top samba schools typically perform.

It is the ultimate slap in the face to host Brazil, a nation of 200 million identified more closely with soccer than any country in the world. The Argentines are doing exactly what Brazilians dreamed they'd be doing, celebrating on the eve of the World Cup final.

It was painful enough that the Brazilians had to endure a humiliating 7-1 drubbing by Germany in the semifinal, a loss already being called the darkest moment in Brazilian sports history. Seeing Lionel Messi and Argentina play for the trophy at Maracana on Sunday, among the ghosts of Brazilian greats of the past, is like rubbing salt in the wound.

Argentine fans aren't making it any easier, taunting the Brazilians with chants such as: "Brazil, decime que se siente tener en casa tu Papa?" (Brazil, how does it feel to have your Daddy bossing you around in your house?) and "A Messi lo vas a ver, La Copa se va traer, Maradona es mas grande que Pele" (You will see Messi, we're taking the Cup, Maradona is bigger than Pele) and "Brazil, Brazil, que amargado se te ve, Maradona es mas grande que Pele" (Brazil, Brazil, how bitter you look, Maradona is bigger than Pele).

"We would have preferred to play Brazil, because we have a better chance of beating them than Germany, and beating Brazil at Maracana would have been amazing," said Matias Romaro Vetera, who lived in Miami Beach, Fla., from 2000 to 2003. "Brazilians and Argentines are brothers, neighbors when it comes to anything but football. When it comes to football, it is a very bitter rivalry."

The Brazil team's campaign for a sixth World Cup title began with an own-goal against Croatia in their opener, the first for Brazil in World Cup history. It ended in shame, with a shocking loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte.

But off the field, the hosts have exceeded expectations.

By holding this World Cup and the Olympics in Rio in 2016, Brazil hopes to prove that it is good at something other than soccer. Politicians figured the sporting events would show off the world's seventh-largest economy and prove this country's infrastructure can handle giant crowds and satisfy even the world's most discerning tourists.

The $11.5 billion cost did not sit well with many Brazilians, leading to widespread protests last year. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, there was skepticism about whether the stadiums, airport renovations and roads would be completed in time.

But the Brazilians defied the critics. The tournament has gone smoothly. Fans had fun. Stadiums didn't crumble. Planes and buses were on time. There has been no repeat of mass demonstrations. Crime was not an issue in the tourist areas, partly due to the huge police presence but also because once the event got going, Brazilians were swept up in the festivities and eager to be gracious hosts.

Despite the successes, the debate about whether the money was well spent will rage on after all the Cup guests have gone home. The disparity between the shiny new stadiums and endless crumbling hillside favelas has not been lost on the international media, and it is an issue that has now been magnified globally.

On the field, Brazil 2014 was one of the most thrilling ever with fast-paced matches, scoring galore, surprises and plenty of drama. Defending champion Spain opened with a shocking 5-1 loss to Netherlands and was bounced in the group stage, as were England, Italy and Portugal, featuring World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo.

Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica were exciting. The Netherlands was efficient. Germany and Argentina proved the best two teams.

The United States' never-say-die attitude and Tim Howard's goal-keeping enraptured Americans back home and led to record TV viewership.

As for Brazilian soccer, the disaster at Mineirao Stadium was a reminder that even the best teams cannot rest on their past glory. The Jogo Bonito was anything but, and there surely will be major changes in the domestic league and national team camp over the next four years.

Bob Ley, the veteran ESPN commentator, summed up Brazil 2014 like this: "I can recall being here two years ago and the questions of whether Brazil could organize a tournament; whether they would be ready; how it would be received; what would be the echoes of last June's demonstrations. They have organized a tournament, and they have done it extremely well.

"But I think one of the great stories that we've seen that has developed in just the last week, here in the heart of football, and we've had this front row seat for the great love this nation has, and what happened against Germany is something that will reverberate perhaps again for the next 64 years. And it's not done, because the greatest Brazilian nightmare is at hand, which is the Argentines are here to play at Maracana and possibly walk out with a trophy. I think it's one of the great dramatic emotional stories in sports."

(c)2014 The Miami Herald

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