‘El Duelo’: Argentina, Brazil and the Second Battle of Santiago

Posted: August 6, 2020 in International Football
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1991 was a vintage year for cup finals. On the same day in May, Spurs overcame Paul Gascoigne’s career-altering meltdown to deny Brian Clough the one domestic trophy that had evaded him, while the dugouts at Hampden contained more McLeans than a toothpaste factory as Motherwell pipped Dundee United 4-3 in the enthralling ‘Brothers’ Final’. The European Cup Final was a notorious, unexpected dud, but it did at least see the overdue crowning of a worthy Red Star side, just as their country was torn apart by civil war. Manchester United marked the return of English clubs to Europe by claiming the Cup Winners’ Cup with a fine victory over Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, more than making up for their shock Rumbelows Cup defeat to second-tier Sheffield Wednesday – a triumph so prestigious that Yorkshire TV binned off the trophy presentation to screen War of the Monster Trucks instead…

Yet one of the most dramatic cup victories that year came in a competition that didn’t even have a final. The 1991 Copa America was one of the last to cling to the old ‘final pool’ format, with the top two teams from Groups A and B progressing to a decisive group for all the marbles. Argentina met Brazil in the first game of that final stage, with both sides in transition and desperate to banish recent disappointments. This, mixed with lingering mutual resentment, created a cloud of toxicity that hung over a thrillingly open, openly violent contest. Five goals were scored, five players sent off. It would become known as ‘El Duelo’…


Arrivederci Italia ’90

Each of the final four had sought to reinvent themselves in dealing with the trauma of Italia ’90, a disappointing Mundial for South America. Argentina had wafted their way to the World Cup final on the last fumes of Maradona’s genius, but disgraced themselves when they got there; Brazil had flattered to deceive, coming an awful cropper to their eternal rivals in the last 16. Colombia had impressed in a tough group, but there was a sense they could have gone further, had Rene Higuita’s eccentricities not been punished so ruthlessly by Roger Milla. Hosts Chile, meanwhile, were seeking pardon from pariah status after their razor blade stunt in the qualifiers had earned them a lengthy World Cup ban from FIFA.

As the last warblings of Nessun Dorma faded, the continent’s two powerhouses plotted sizeable makeovers. Argentina’s heroes of ’86 had reached the end of their cycle, including their coach, ‘El Narigon’ Carlos Bilardo.  Out went the stoicism and cynicism of his style, to be replaced by something altogether more progressive, as Alfio Basile soon got Argentina playing with the speed and fluidity of his exciting Velez Sarsfield side. Wholesale changes were made to the playing personnel too, with Sergio Goycochea, Oscar Ruggeri and Claudio Caniggia the only survivors from the World Cup, while Caniggia and Diego Simeone were the only members of the squad who played overseas. Youth would get its chance. The 22-year-old ‘El Cholo’ was already looking like one of the brightest midfield talents in Serie A with Atalanta, while Diego Latorre was one of the first number 10s saddled with the ‘new Maradona’ tag. The absence of the old one, meanwhile, was a blessing in disguise, given his developing legal troubles (and waistline) in Naples.

A late-season goal glut also saw a place in the squad for a 21-year-old, angel-faced Boca striker with just one cap to his name. After this tournament, everyone would know the name of Gabriel Omar Batistuta.


Brazil’s intentions were similar, but the mood was far darker. Falcao, symbol of the last truly great Brazil side of 1982, was supposed to restore jogo bonito after predecessor Sebastiao Lazaroni had, unforgivably in the eyes of Brazilians, ‘Europeanised’ the squad with his more pragmatic 3-5-2. Like Argentina, stars who played overseas were overlooked, scapegoated for their World Cup failure. The policy would be reversed to allow Genoa’s Branco into the squad, but there was no Careca, Dunga, Muller or Romario. While La Albiceleste’s changes hinted at a brighter future, the absences simply left Brazil looking second rate, in some cases seemingly replacing the stars with their shonky own-brand equivalents, like Careca III, the most disappointing third installment not directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Managerial tyro and Art Garfunkel doppelganger Falcao soon faced some troubled waters; the teams he put out in pre-tournament friendlies against some fairly gentle opposition (Mexico, Romania B’) underwhelmed. He fell out with the one world-class striker he did have at his disposal, Bebeto, who stormed out of the camp on the eve of the tournament, while strict diktats from the Brazilian Football Confederation on diet and behaviour only poisoned the atmosphere further.


Showdown in Santiago

Those contrasting fortunes were reflected in the respective paths of Argentina and Brazil to the final pool. La Albiceleste swaggered through without dropping a point. Peru were annihilated 4-1, with two from Batistuta. The man who would be Batigol then scored a late winner to ease past the hosts. A combined seven goals saw off Paraguay and Peru in the final two games.

Brazil, however, were humiliated by a Carlos Valderrama-powered Colombia, after which Falcao banned Brazilian reporters from his press conferences. They required a 3-1 win over a poor Ecuador to nudge themselves through on goal difference at the expense of Uruguay.

The blockbuster between the superpowers would kick off the final stage, and even by the standards of the fixture, the cauldron was bubbling. Enmity lingered from their last 16 clash in Turin 12 months earlier, especially after the ‘Holy Water Scandal’, with allegations surfacing that Brazil left back Branco’s water bottle had been spiked during the contest, a dubious claim but one that plenty on both sides were happy to buy into.


The rematch in Santiago exploded almost immediately, with Dario Franco’s mullet feathering in a near post header from a corner just 40 seconds in. Within five minutes, the Selecao were level, courtesy of trademark ripper of a free kick from Branco, some 35-yards out. From there, the game settled into a pattern of steadily escalating flashpoints, until the first full-scale skirmish erupted around the half hour mark, following a sly hack from Mazinho to the back of Caniggia’s ankle. ‘El Hijo del Viento”s reaction was unimpressed but hardly volcanic, but Paraguayan referee Carlos Maciel nevertheless produced a very harsh red card for both players once order was restored.

Five minutes before half time, Leonardo Rodriguez charged down the left and his cross was met by another fine Franco header, looping the ball over the typically stranded Taffarel to restore Argentina’s lead heading into half time.

La Albiceleste would start the second half as they started the first, extending their advantage almost immediately when another cross from the outstanding Rodriguez was nonchalantly nodded in by Batistuta, who’d darted between two Brazilian defenders so dozy that you could well believe there might have been something in their water. Joao Paolo stabbed home in the 52nd minute to reduce the arrears, but the belief had drained from Brazil. All that remained was a slow descent into violence.


If the first half dismissals had seemed unfair, the three that followed were bang to rights. Carlos Enrique had been on something of a crime spree all game, and when Marcio Santos decided to extract some vengeance of his own, the Argentina left back saw him coming. Santos’ lunge was bad enough to earn him a red card, but Enrique still managed to vault over it and plant his studs on the defender’s neck on the way down, an act that would’ve felt a bit much for the Octagon, let alone a football field.

With the numbers reduced to nine against nine, it was time for an attack of the clones; Careca III, malfunctioning just two minutes into his substitute cameo, chopped down Ruggeri at knee height. After consulting his linesman, Maciel ordered him off as well. That was how it stayed, Argentina shading it for goals scored and men left on the pitch.

In the aftermath, both camps made formal complaints about Maciel. Conspiracies abounded that CONMEBOL had put the Paraguayan up to his red card marathon as part of a diabolical plot to smooth Chile’s path to the Copa and hasten their rehabilitation on the global stage. In reality though, despite eccentricities in the referee’s display, the majority of the dismissals had been entirely justified.

The win, coupled with a draw between Chile and Colombia in the next game, gave Basile’s men control of the group. The hosts’ hopes were smoked when they could only draw with Argentina on a bog of a pitch in the capital, and while Brazil exacted revenge on Colombia, La Albiceleste would only have to match their result in the final round of games to claim their first Copa since 1959. In the end, they sealed it with a minimum of fuss, defeating Colombia, fittingly, with goals from two of the young stars of the tournament, ‘El Cholo’ Simeone and Batistuta.



Copa top scorer Batistuta never looked back. Fiorentina, who’d already agreed a deal for Latorre before the tournament, whisked the striker to Florence too. Before the decade was out, ‘Batigol’ had a statue outside the Artemio Franchi.

Things didn’t work out quite so well for Latorre, who wouldn’t be the last player to suffer the curse of the ‘new Maradona’  label. Underwhelming during the opening games, he was dropped by the time the final pool kicked off and never started for his country again.

Basile and Argentina would retain the Copa America two years later, but it would prove a false dawn. Panicky after the infamous 5-0 shellacking by Colombia in a USA ’94 qualifier, the bat signal was flashed once more in the direction of Maradona, and in America La Albiceleste were collateral damage in his latest act of self-sabotage. The 1993 Copa win remains their last major honour.

Brazil, mired in self-loathing after another tournament failure, binned Falcao, who’d proven a traitor to jogo bonito, even openly suggesting that a more functional style was the way forward. His replacement Carlos Alberto Parreira, another pragmatist, was equally unpopular with the masses, particularly after the nadir of a first-ever World Cup qualifying defeat in La Paz, of all places. Yet he would lead a recovery. Two weeks after Argentina, shorn of their talisman, were ripped a new one by ‘the Maradona of the Carpathians’, Dunga lifted the World Cup for Brazil in Pasadena. The Selecao, as they so often did in their perennial struggle with Argentina, laughed last.


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