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Vanquished Brazil struggles to stomach Argentine soccer horde

Reuters

By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 11 (Reuters) - People in the tourist mecca of Rio de Janeiro are used to just about everything.

Drunk and sunburnt vacationers from northern latitudes.

Hipster backpackers prowling for drugs and sex.

Even the million-plus foreigners who slept on Copacabana beach before a sermon by Pope Francis in 2013 weren't out of the ordinary, as more people converge here for New Year's eve and Carnival festivities each year.

But one thing is now trying the patience of seen-it-all locals: The wave of boastful, boisterous Argentines arriving for the World Cup soccer final.

After Brazil's ignominious elimination by Germany in the semifinal Tuesday in a historic 7-1 rout, Brazilians are having a hard time accepting that their biggest rivals, and the butts of many a Brazilian joke, will play Sunday in the Maracanã, the cathedral of Brazilian soccer and a stadium where the home team had been expected to hoist the most-coveted trophy in sports.

"This adds insult to injury," says Luiz Felipe Lampreia, a former foreign minister for Brazil who understands the rivalry with its southern neighbor quite well. "An Argentine win is just unthinkable."

JUST A GAME

It may be just a game. But after spending $11 billion to host the tournament, many Brazilians were confident their five-time world-champion team would win it again.

Instead, President Dilma Rousseff, who plans to attend the final, now faces the prospect of handing the trophy over to Lionel Messi, the Argentine captain and a superstar who outshines any current Brazilian player.

The two countries, the largest in South America, have long challenged each other in every field from economics to geopolitics to sports.

Indeed, Argentina had the upper hand early last century when an agriculture-fueled boom made it one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Its literate, immigrant-rich society at the time seemed more promising than even that of the United States. So superior did Argentines feel that to this day, they have a reputation for arrogance, deserved or not.

Brazil eventually emerged as a much bigger and less volatile economy, especially during a recent decade-long boom that lifted more than 30 million people from poverty. Argentina, meanwhile, swings from one financial crisis to the next.

SOCCER TITANS

One constant, however, is their soccer rivalry.

The countries, undisputed powerhouses of the sport in Latin America, each stake their claim to having the greatest player of all time: Pelé, winner of three World Cups with Brazil, and Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to one of its two titles.

So rough is the ribbing that it permeates everything from bilateral business and policy discussions to leisurely banter among vacationers, whether they're Argentines who flock to Brazilian beaches or Brazilians who can't get enough of the Buenos Aires restaurant scene.

Following Tuesday's humiliation against Germany, Brazilian business consultant Mario Marconini said he dreaded a meeting on Wednesday with Argentine clients in São Paulo.

"What a joy that was," scoffs Marconini, a former trade secretary who in the 1990s negotiated with Argentina on rules for Mercosur, a South American trade bloc better known for discord than agreement. "At least they were smart enough to know how sensitive this is and not really mess with me too much."

Still, the hard-core soccer supporters now arriving in Rio, many of whom traveled thousands of miles by car, are hardly the sensitive type. More than fans from any of the other 31 teams in the tournament, Argentines have been criticized by locals for being anything but delicate.

'ALL IN FUN'

They pitch tents in public areas, sing expletive-laden songs about Brazil and drape their pale blue-and-white flags across tree limbs, balconies and power lines. Shopkeepers and waiters complain they make little effort to speak the native Portuguese.

"We can be loud, but it's all in fun," says Cecilia Calderón, a 37-year-old fan from Buenos Aires.

The flood of fans for the final began Thursday, following a semifinal Argentine victory against the Netherlands in São Paulo. A fleet of motorhomes and vans made its way to a parade ground made available for them, while many of those staying elsewhere weathered heavy rain to gather at tourist sites.

"Those are Brazilian tears falling," yelled an elderly taxi driver, as a group of Argentines sought in vain to hail him along the Copacabana shore. "They will soak you all."

A truck sped by, a passenger shouting obscenities at another huddle, where one Argentine strummed a well-known taunt on his guitar. "Brazil," he sang, "how does it feel to have your daddy at home?"

When Brazil was awarded the World Cup in 2007, then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva joked about the rivalry in a speech. Brazil, he promised, would "deliver a Cup no Argentine could fault."

If only he had known. (Editing by Todd Benson and Bernadette Baum)

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