By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
Looking at the respective teamsheets for tonight’s encounter between Argentina and Brazil, fans would be forgiven for thinking the teams are somewhat mismatched. And, to be brutally honest, they would be right.
It is certainly not because of the South American giants’ recent performances; two quarter-final exits neatly demonstrated that both are in a slow rebuilding process geared towards success at the 2014 World Cup. But as the line-ups elected as the best of Argentina and Brazil’s local leagues take the field, there is an unmistakeable disparity in quality.
The Selecao team selected by Mano Menezes has the luxury of calling on some of the best players available to the Samba nation. Ronaldinho, Neymar, Leandro Damiao, Lucas Moura; all are extremely talented individuals who could walk into any team on the planet, but choose, for now at least, to play their football in the country of their birth. Behind them, young stars such as Casemiro and Oscar represent a potentially glittering future for the five-time champions of the world.
A glance at Alejandro Sabella’s team, on the other hand, tells a different story. The withdrawals of Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron rob the Albiceleste of the two men of proven international class they could call on, meaning local journeymen such as Cristian Chavez, Emanuel Gigliotti and Victor Zapata will be called on to take on the household names in gold and green. Never before has the respective gap in power between the Brazilian Serie A and the Argentine Primera Division been laid so starkly in front of a South American audience.
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Of course no-one could suggest that this means the young stars coming through the ranks in Sao Paulo and Rio are leaving behind their counterparts in Buenos Aires. Erik Lamela, Roberto Pereyra, Juan Iturbe and Ricky Alvarez are four names which come straight to mind when thinking to the future for the Seleccion. The difference, however, is that while Brazilian clubs are able to hold on to their young stars, this quartet decided to seek their fortune away from Argentina, leaving as soon as the golden glint of the Euro caught their eye.
Iturbe never played a senior game in his adopted nation after coming through the ranks of Cerro Porteno in Paraguay, while Lamela and Pereyra each boasted roughly a season of professional experience before jumping the sinking River Plate ship at the end of the 2011 season. Cash-strapped and almost universally mismanaged, Argentine clubs are dependent on the windfall the sale of a hot prospect signifies - and even for a teenager, the promise of quick cash quickly draws the curtain on the latest wonderkid to wow Primera crowds.
In Brazil meanwhile, clubs have finally started to fight back against the allure of life across the Atlantic. The local economy is stronger than ever and still expanding, pumping more money into the country, which trickles down into clubs’ coffers. At the same time, investors and businesses see the benefit of keeping young talent at home and linked to their product, which is why, in conjunction with the biggest institutions, they will open their chequebooks to offer the likes of Neymar and Ganso lucrative new contracts which guarantee their continuity.
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This is not to say Argentina should be written off in Estadio Mario Kempes, and Leandro Damiao, for one, refuses to take the opposition lightly. "It is a clasico in which nobody is assured of anything. Not even us, although [Argentina's] stars won't be playing,” the striker insisted. And with new talent on show, such as 22-year-olds Lucas Castro of Racing and Velez’s Hector Canteros, there is still plenty of capacity for a surprise to be sprung.
Damiao though represents both Brazil’s great strength and the failing of the Argentine league. Clubs such as Tottenham were prepared to pay up to $12 million to tempt the free-scoring striker away from Internacional, but the Porto Alegre side refused to consider a sale until at least the end of the year.
If Leandro had been born in Buenos Aires or Santa Fe instead of Jardim Alegre, it is difficult to imagine the story repeating itself. For while the Primera Division continues to be an open auction of Argentina’s best young talent, the sides of Serie A are fighting back with open chequebooks to close the gap on their European cousins; and the fruits of this labour should be evident in what could prove to be a painful night for their most bitter rivals.
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