Brazil vs. Argentina: Will Football Rivals Clash Over Politics?

The coming to power of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Alberto Fernandez in Argentina has strained the relationship between South America’s historic football rivals.
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Pelé, Di Stefano, Maradona, Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi: Brazil and Argentina have produced some of the best football players in history — and currently. All the elite Europeans teams have Brazilians and Argentinians in their cast. The national teams are also the biggest rivals in the world’s most popular sport. Together, they have won seven FIFA World Cups.

The national teams have faced each other more than 100 times. Classic games like the Argentinian victory against Brazil in the 1990 World Cup or Brazil’s 4-1 win in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup are among the most remarkable, alongside several matches in the Copa America. Even friendly matches are often played as real tournament events. As it is common in football, both crowds sing songs exalting their idols and provoking their rivals.

However, the two countries also have a history of close ties. Especially in the last 20 years, the relationship between Brasilia and Buenos Aires has grown closer. Since 1999, Brazilians and Argentinians can visit their neighbors as tourists using just their national ID. Brazilians make up Argentina’s most significant group of international tourists, and vice versa. Brazil is Argentina’s largest trade partner. At the same time, Argentina is Brazil’s third-most important commercial partner, just behind China and the United States.

Ties became especially close during the former presidencies of Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — commonly known as Lula, he left the presidency with 80% approval rating at the end of 2010 — and Dilma Rouseff, and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina. Last June, at a meeting in Buenos Aires, the then-presidents of both countries mentioned a plan to create a common currency, the “real peso.” However, the political setting has changed in both countries.

A Change of Tone

In Brazil, the 2018 election came on the heels of political and economic turmoil of Dilma Rousseff impeachment in 2016 and Lula’s conviction in early 2018. Convicted on two counts of corruption, Lula spent 18 months in prison between April 2018 and November 2019, claiming the conviction was just a way to prevent him from running in the 2018 election.

The election marked the victory of former army captain and right-wing congressman, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro made a firm stand against the leftist parties during his campaign, placing an emphasis on the corruption scandals during the left’s time at the helm. In Argentina, Cristina Kirchner left the Casa Rosada in 2015 after two terms in office. She has been facing corruption charges, with members of her inner circle arrested. Kirchner has always denied the accusations, calling them political persecution. In 2015, she lost the election to the former president of the Boca Juniors football club and former Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri.

In 2019, Kirchner allied herself with the center-left Alberto Fernandez as his vice-presidential candidate. It was a way to attract leftist supporters and not alienate those who dislike Kirchner, but who would also consider supporting Macri. The strategy worked, and Fernandez won in the second round, with 47,8% of the vote.

In his victory speech, Fernandez suggested that Lula da Silva was unfairly arrested and called for his release. Bolsonaro denounced the statement as interference in the national justice system. Breaking with tradition, he said he would not attend Fernandez’s inauguration ceremony and would not even send a representative. He did, however, change his mind at last minute and sent the vice-president, General Hamilton Mourao, to attend the ceremony. In a smart move, Fernandez made a nod to his neighbour, using his inaugural speech to highlight the historically close ties between the two countries regardless of partisan positions.

The message was well received. Talking to the press, Bolsonaro said he liked Fernandez’s words and invited him to visit Brazil. Fernandez’s advisers have cautioned him against mentioning Lula, but Brazil’s former president could still prove decisive in this equation. He was released from prison last November following a decision by the supreme court that defendants should be imprisoned only after all appeals are exhausted. Lula may face imprisonment again, and reactions to a possible new arrest could start a new wave of hostile statements and even actions.

“Brexit Latino”

A worsening in relations between the two countries could lead Brazil to leave Mercosur. The Southern Common Market was established in 1991 and currently has Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay as members; Venezuela was suspended from the bloc in 2017. Bolivia is in the process of accession, and Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guyana and Suriname are associated states.

Even though unlikely, this drastic event has been already been floated by Brazilian authorities. In August 2019, Paulo Guedes, the economics minister known in Brazil as the “superminister” due to his influence in government, has made it clear that Brazil could leave the bloc in case of a leftist victory in Argentina. Bolsonaro also made a statement before Argentina’s election affirming that if Alberto Fernandez “creates any problems, then Brazil will leave Mercosur.” Some Brazilian and international commentators have dubbed the situation a “Brexit Latino.”

If that happens, it could be the death of the bloc, considering the asymmetry between members. Brazil’s GDP is 46 times that of Paraguay, 31 times that of Uruguay and 3.5 times larger than Argentina’s. A possible exit of the world’s 9th largest economy would be devastating for the Southern Common Market.

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But if the “Brexit Latino” could mean the end of Mercosur, it would also not be an intelligent decision for Brazil. In 2017, the country’s trade balance with the bloc had a positive result of around $10.7 billion. More than that, all vehicles from Mercosur countries have a common license plate model, and there are common regulations that make it possible for people to work in any member state without a visa. A potential exit would be incredibly expensive for Brazil. 

Although it seems extreme, it is important to remember that the UK departure from the European Union looked improbable at the beginning. Bolsonaro’s victory itself was considered doubtful by the majority of Brazilian political analysts just six months before the vote. Nonetheless, the most probable scenario is that Brazil won’t leave Mercosur, but that the relationship with Argentina will cool.

To maintain the recent history of close relations, both countries should keep partisan differences between their leaders aside and focus on trade, which reached $27 billion in 2017. Since both countries have faced economic hardship in the last few years, it is not a good time for them to antagonize their key business partners. More than politics, the economy will play an essential role here.

Finally, taking into account the recent wave of demonstrations across the region, such as in Chile, Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia, on top of the dramatic situation in Venezuela, it would be important for South America that Brazil and Argentina keep their rivalry to the football pitch, between Neymar and Messi. By the way, they are close friends.    

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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