With Brazil set to face arch-rivals Argentina on November 17, what better moment to take a closer look at the two ‘hermanos’ currently lighting up the Campeonato Brasileiro? Jack Lang reports.

First things first; Brazilians, on the whole, do not like Argentines. I can recall countless conversations in which my (otherwise open-minded) friends from Rio and São Paulo have indulged in some subtle xenophobia concerning their South American neighbours. Much of the ill feeling, admittedly, is playful, and is voiced with tongue firmly in cheek (see the controversial World Cup advertising campaign for Brazilian beer Skol); but few would deny the existence of a genuine tension, at least as far as football is concerned. During the tournament in South Africa, for instance, nearly as many broadcasting minutes were devoted to lampooning Diego Maradona (that typical Argentine palhaço) as were to the seleção.

It may surprise those unfamiliar with the Brazilian championship, then, to learn that the season’s standout performers have both been from South of the border. Fluminense playmaker Darío Conca has been an ever-present in the Brasileirão, and has made an enormous contribution in his side’s title push. Fluminense currently occupy first position, but by the tightest of margins; Belo Horizonte side Cruzeiro sit just one point behind. They also owe plenty to an Argentine schemer; Walter Montillo, who only arrived at the club in July, has been a revelation.

These two players have continued the recent trend of success for ‘hermanos’ playing in Brazil. Carlos Tévez is still worshipped in one half of São Paulo for his exploits with Corinthians, whilst the midfield pairing of Pablo Guiñazú and Andrés D’Alessandro continues to shine for Internacional. The significance of this pattern has not been lost on the Brazilian media; a recent piece by Globo claimed that Argentines were better equipped to succeed in foreign climes, due to their being more resistant to injury and homesickness than their Brazilian counterparts. Players like Guiñazú and Germán Herrera (currently at Botafogo) have developed a cult following, thanks to their commitment and substantial work rate on the pitch. The existence of a poll (“Who is the best ‘hermano’ in Brazil?”) this week on Brazilian sports site Lance! suggests that Conca and Montillo are breathing fresh life into this phenomenon.

Loaned to Vasco da Gama by River Plate in 2007, Conca endured a tough start to life in Brazil. Physically frail (his coach at the time, Renato Gaúcho, recently joked that the midfielder “nearly died” in his first training session), Conca was forced to undertake extra training in order to attain the strength needed to compete in Série A. Conca finally started to stamp his mark on the side under the stewardship of Celso Roth, but did not sign for the São Januário club on a permanent basis. Instead, Fluminense came calling, and Conca has gone on to establish himself as one of the icons of the Brasileirão.

Although coming close on a couple of occasions (Flu were runners up in both the 2008 Copa Libertadores and the 2009 Copa Sul-Americana), Conca is yet to win a trophy with the Tricolor. His form this year could well be the key factor in changing that record. A classic number 10 (despite wearing number 11), Conca roams between the midfield and attack, providing creativity in an otherwise functional unit. A slick passer and mercurial dribbler, Conca has assisted countless goals for forwards Washington, Emerson, and Fred. His expert dead-ball delivery has also allowed centre-backs Léandro Euzébio and Gum to plunder eight goals between them.

Despite his burgeoning reputation, Conca remains timid and unassuming. A picture of modesty, he recently laughed off the suggestion that he is the league’s best player; “I just try to do my job, and help Fluminense win games. That’s what’s most important.” On this evidence, the Craque da torcida (fans’ player of the year) statuette that Conca won in 2009 is probably somewhere in a box in his garage. However, whilst quiet off the pitch, the Argentine has emerged as a real leader on the park for Flu; “he is always ready…he never shirks his responsibility,” enthused teammate Marquinho. Actions, as Conca has demonstrated this term, speak louder than words.

Walter Montillo’s impact at Cruzeiro has been no less significant, despite the player only being with the club for only just over three months. The 26-year-old exploded into the Brazilian footballing consciousness in May, with a wonder goal for Universidad de Chile against Flamengo in the Copa Libertadores. Cruzeiro subsequently beat off some stiff competition for his signing, and have since installed him as the fulcrum of their side. In coach Cuca’s 3-4-1-2 system, strikers Wellington Paulista and Thiago Ribeiro drift into wide positions, creating space for Montillo to spray around passes and make decisive late runs into the box. The Argentine, a measured and intelligent footballer, has thrived in this role, and is the Raposa’s joint top scorer with seven goals.

Like Conca, Montillo prefers to do his talking on the pitch, but he recently revealed that he “had expected to do well in Brazilian football.” The recent form of the above pair provides yet more evidence that such expectations are usually justified when it comes to ‘hermanos.’ So while the forthcoming international friendly (not sure that is the right word…) will place the sporting rivalry between the two countries back in focus, there are continued signs domestically of the benefits of cross-pollination between these footballing superpowers. Argentina may just be winning Brazil over, one playmaker at a time.

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