United by love, divided by World Cup rivalries

Nicole Pita and Andre Mascarenhas are newlyweds on opposite sides of the world's fiercest soccer rivalry. (Photo by Andre Mascarenhas)
Nicole Pita and Andre Mascarenhas are newlyweds on opposite sides of the world’s fiercest soccer rivalry. (Photo by Andre Mascarenhas)

I’ve never been a soccer fan, but this year, the excitement over the upcoming World Cup has been impossible to avoid.

Mostly, that’s thanks to my neighbors, Nicole Pita and Andre Mascarenhas, a couple whose feelings about the 2014 world soccer championship are stronger than those of pretty much everyone else I know in Seattle combined.

As soon as these two twenty-somethings, generally mild-mannered and relaxed, start talking about soccer, their eyes light up with passion and their voices rise by a handful of decibels.

Normally tender and considerate with each other as newly married couples tend to be, my sweet neighbors glare at each other, interrupt, and occasionally pound fists on tables.

Representing the opposite sides of the world’s biggest soccer rivalry, Argentina and Brazil, is certainly not conducive to marital harmony.

Nicole, born in the U.S. to Argentine immigrant parents, takes after her mother, an avid soccer fanatic even by that soccer-loving country’s standards.

According to Nicole, in an effort to do everything possible to support her country’s team and not jinx them on their path to victory, her mother will make sure that all the game viewers take the exact same positions on the couch as the last time the team won a game, drink the same beverage, and wear the same color…

Oh, wait, there is only one color — or rather, two: the light blue and white of the Argentina jersey made famous by Diego Maradona, considered by some to be the greatest soccer player of all time.

By some, perhaps — but certainly not by Andre. For him, there is no question: the greatest player in the history of soccer was Brazil’s Pele. No one else even comes close.

And, as he likes to point out, Maradona or no Maradona, the fact remains that Argentina has only won a measly two World Cups, while Brazil has picked up five trophies, more than any other country

Proudly sporting his yellow and green jersey weeks, if not months, before this year’s tournament was slated to begin, Andre is confident that Brazil will be crowned winner yet again this year – finally on their home turf.

This loving couple, who naturally spend much of their free time together, will go their separate ways during any game played by Argentina or Brazil — even if the two countries are not playing each other.

The emotions will run too high for them to watch together, they explain. Nicole plans on watching Argentina’s games with her mother and sister, while Andre is seeking out local Brazilians to keep him company as they cheer on their home country’s team.

(Photo by Andre Mascarenhas)
(Photo by Andre Mascarenhas)

According to Andre, Brazilian fans are known for being particularly exuberant when watching soccer games — so if shouts of joy erupt in your neighborhood between June 12 and July 13, it might just be fans of the Brazil team celebrating a goal.

While the rivalry runs strong on both sides, both Nicole and Andre agree that Argentina’s fans are especially vicious towards Brazil’s players, screaming insults and slurs, while the Argentine team plays more aggressively than usual when facing Brazilian opponents.

Brazil, on the other hand, is considerably more laid back when it comes to their major foe. For instance, Andre has walked around his native Sao Paulo wearing Argentina’s jersey, “simply because I liked the team,” he explains, and has lived to tell the story. In Argentina such as show of support for the arch-nemesis would be unthinkable.

Robbie Ithurbure, a Dutch native and avid soccer fan living in Seattle, believes it is the case of “little brother vs. big brother,” where the weaker team (sorry, Nicole!) bitterly hates the stronger one, while the latter can afford to be more magnanimous.

Robbie cites the long-standing Netherlands-Germany rivalry as another case in point, with Germany traditionally being the more successful team of the two. However, unlike the Argentina-Brazil contest, which is unlikely to let up any time soon, soccer-related tensions between the Netherlands and Germany have largely evolved into “a friendly rivalry,” according to Robbie.

During his 10-month sojourn in Germany about a decade ago, he found German fans perfectly nice and did not feel at all uncomfortable declaring his allegiance to Holland’s “Oranje.”

If Germany is no longer a major foe, I wondered, what about Spain? The Netherlands, which holds the distinction of making it to the finals more times than any other country without actually winning the World Cup, was beaten by Spain in the 2010 championship.

South African fans fly the flags of Spain and The Netherlands before the 2010 World Cup final. (Photo by Marcello Casal Jr / ABr)
South African fans fly the flags of Spain and The Netherlands before the 2010 World Cup final. (Photo by Marcello Casal Jr / ABr)

That was just a fluke; there is no real rivalry there, explains Robbie. As he sees it, to be true rivals, countries need to have something in common – be geographically close, for example, and share cultural similarities. These two parameters are definitely true for Argentina/Brazil and the Netherlands/Germany, and for the US/Mexico, which has been called “the greatest international rivalry in North American sports.”

As for my home country, Russia, it appears that it does not have an international soccer rival at all, apparently because the team has traditionally been too weak to have one. This remains true even when the history of the Soviet soccer team, to which the Russian team can be considered a successor, is taken into account.

The USSR’s best World Cup finish was fourth place, while Russia has only qualified for three World Cups since the break-up of the Soviet Union nearly 23 years ago, and did not make it past the group stage in the two World Cups it has played to date.

Given Russia’s lackluster World Cup history, it looks like I’ll have to find another team to root for after just one or two games. Is there any chance that it will be Argentina or Brazil and, if so, which one? Probably neither, as I would very much like to remain on friendly terms with both my neighbors…

Whoever you’re supporting in the World Cup this year, may your team win and your marriage survive.

The World Cup kicks off Thursday afternoon. Full schedule including TV listings here (note all times are Eastern)