Argentina and Brazil, one of the fiercest national rivalries in the world, face each other yet again today (Oct. 11). It’s their first match since Argentina came very close to inflicting the national humiliation of winning the World Cup in Brazil itself. As of this writing, Brazil was leading 2-0. But both the fans and the emotion are absent: This is an exhibition match in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, in some of the worst man-made pollution imaginable. How did the ”Super-Clasico of the Americas” come to be played in the smoggy Chinese capital?
The reason is that a company called ISE, based in Saudi Arabia, arranged these matches. (After Beijing, the teams are flying on to Hong Kong and Singapore.) ISE reportedly paid about $1 million per match just to Brazil’s soccer governing body, the CBF, which is more than the CBF would make if the matches were in Rio or Buenos Aires.
As friendlies, this week’s matches don’t count towards the teams’ FIFA rankings. And what’s worse, they don’t matter to the fans. The deep-rooted nationalism and competitiveness of soccer disappears when played in front of thousands of neutrals. Instead, Brazil and Argentina’s long and storied rivalry becomes little better than a traveling circus. There will be no tears or unforgettable singings of the national anthem. Audiences in China don’t care about the rivalry. They just want to see a very jetlagged Messi and Neymar perform and go home.
This odd fixture is possible only because of China’s unrelenting economic growth. And that same growth threatened to derail it. Farmers burning plant stalks after the autumn harvest have sent air quality to levels 18 times worse than acceptable, leading Beijing to issue its second-most-severe pollution alert. Both sets of players flew thousands of miles to Beijing to be trapped indoors. ”Our athletes stay inside the hotel and only go out for training,” Brazil’s team doctor said. “Out of every 24 hours, they spend 22 inside the hotel.” Their coach, Dunga, just wants to get through the game: “Our plan is to make plenty of substitutions so that the players will not be affected by it.” Well, as long as the check clears.
There was a time when flying these kinds of distances for money would have been unthinkable. But Quartz wrote this week about the insatiable demand from soccer, especially from Asia, which is fuelling huge TV rights and makes trips like this economically feasible. And they’re not the only South Americans travelling these days. Uruguay, featuring the dental enthusiast Luis Suarez, is in the Middle East taking on Saudi Arabia and Oman. Paraguay is also on its way to China this week, via South Korea. This is part of the future of soccer—a lot of meaningless games played by, and in front of, people who don’t care.
But, there is still hope for soccer traditionalists. In England, the FA Cup, the world’s oldest cup competition, continues this weekend and there is many a story that should warm hearts. For example, Willand Rovers, who play eight levels below teams like Manchester United and Chelsea in the English soccer pyramid and are based in a tiny village in Devon with one pub and one post office, are the worst team left in the competition. They have never progressed before beyond the second qualifying round in the FA Cup; they are playing a championship game in October for the first time in their history.
Strange as it may seem, this tiny match in rural England will count more to its fans than to those attending the glamor tie being played halfway across the world between the South Americans.