Can Latin America World Cup unity weather Argentina vs Netherlands?

Latin American teams have captivated World Cup fans this summer and created a regional sense of unity. But with Argentina the last Latino team standing, that harmony may be fleeting.

By , Correspondent

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    Earlier this summer, a Brazilian soccer fan, right, baits an Argentine soccer fan, holding up five fingers to show how many times Brazil has won a World Cup. Brazil lost to Germany 7-1 in the semi finals July 8.

    Argentina defeated Belgium 1-0 to reach the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990.
    View Caption

Brazil may have been humiliated by Germany in its World Cup semifinal last night, but overall this summer Latin American teams from Chile to Costa Rica have captivated spectators.

Away from the field, too, the region’s fans have dominated. They've flooded host cities – often arriving after long bus, car, or boat journeys – and rooted for each other's teams.

Even if a European nation wins the final on July 13, there is a sense that the World Cup has been Latin America’s tournament. Some say it has even consolidated regional unity.

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“This hasn’t been a World Cup; it’s been an America’s cup,” says Brazilian Sebastião Luiz, a lawyer here in Rio de Janeiro.

But as the end of the tournament nears — Argentina plays the Netherlands today to decide which nation will face Germany in Sunday's final — this regional unity is beginning to strain.

Common identity

Copacabana Beach, the gathering point for thousands of fans, has at times been microcosm of the region. Mexicans, sporting green jerseys, have mingled with Chileans, wearing red, and Colombians, in yellow. There has even been a noticeable crowd of Venezuelans, whose national team didn’t qualify for the tournament.
  
This, together with success on the field — seven Latin American nations progressed to the "Round of 16" stage — has fostered regional solidarity at a time when leaders have committed to developing closer economic and political ties.
  
“Soccer has reinforced the concept of Latin American identity, taking it beyond the presidential sphere,” says Leandro Morgenfeld, a history professor at the University of Buenos Aires who has written on unity in the region.

For years, there has been a push by some leaders to unite. Late President Hugo Chávez, of Venezuela, for example, urged integration to counter US influence in the region. In Argentina, a government TV ad thanking Latin American allies for their support in a recent high-profile legal battle with US-based creditors over lingering debt has been broadcast during World Cup matches.

Even with little cash or no match tickets, many Latin Americans traveled to Brazil to soak up the World Cup atmosphere. 

“It’s like Latin America united itself around a [soccer] ball,” says Alonso Escobar, a carpenter. “All the Latinos rooted for each other.”

Until now? 

Brazil's loss last night means Argentina is the only Latin American nation left in the tournament. Neighbors Argentina and Brazil are soccer rivals, and the perceived arrogance of Argentines chafes at Brazilians and other regional neighbors. It's a feeling that has intensified with the influx of Argentine soccer fans at the tournament. An estimated 100,000 Argentines traveled to Porto Alegre, just 400 miles from Argentina, for one match.

“There was a solidarity among the Latinos, a good vibe,” says Jaime Donoso, a pharmacist from Chile who was in Rio for the World Cup. “But the Argentines and the Brazilians do not like each other.”

Historically, the countries have battled over land and water. Their economic growth during the last century also spurred mutual distrust over security. But in more recent decades, the rivalry has centered on soccer: Both are powerhouses.

“Nothing is as beautiful as beating Brazil,” Diego Maradona, a legendary Argentine soccer player and later national team coach, once said of Argentina’s victory over Brazil at the 1990 World Cup.

That match has been the subject of a song that is Argentina’s unofficial World Cup anthem. From bus terminals in Brazil to pubs in Buenos Aires, Argentine fans torment Brazilians in a boisterous chorus.

“Brazil, tell me how it feels,” they sing, “to have your dad at home,” a reference to previous struggles for regional dominance. They go on to detail Maradona's role in the goal that eliminated Brazil in 1990 and how Argentina will win the trophy this year. In Argentina last night, after Brazil’s defeat to Germany, the opening line of the song trended on Twitter.

Today, few Brazilians will be cheering for their neighbor: Latin American unity only goes so far. As Brazilian soccer scout Victor Aurélio says, “It’s not a brotherhood.”

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