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In many countries, it's said that soccer transcends sports, bleeding into the fabric of everyday life. Conversely, soccer often is deployed as the battleground for arguments of another order. As a result, surprisingly few of the sport's fiercest international rivalries started over soccer itself.
The key ingredients for a good soccer grudge match are war, a former colonization or occupation or, for want of the aforementioned, a string of acrimonious games. What follows is a list of the ugliest and bawdiest rivalries in international soccer and the resulting potential showdowns at the World Cup.
England versus Argentina
Although the Falklands War set this rivalry alight in 1982, it already had been simmering for 16 years. The 1966 World Cup saw England knock out Argentina in the quarterfinals on what the Argentines deemed an offside goal and the unfair ejection of their captain. The Argentines haven't yet gotten over it, and England manager Alf Ramsey didn't help matters by calling his opponents "animals" and refusing to let his players partake in habitual postgame courtesies such as trading jerseys.
|David Beckham's red card in the 1998 World Cup was just one of many belligerent moments between England and Argentina.|
After skirmishes between fans on the streets of Mexico preceded another quarterfinal at the '86 World Cup, Argentina got its revenge for both the war and '66 in the most outlandish of ways. Argentina's talismanic forward Diego Maradona scored the opening goal of a 2-1 victory in what came to be known as the "Hand of God" goal. Maradona used his fist to knock a high ball over England's goalkeeper -- who was 8 inches taller -- and made it look like a header.
At World Cup '98, David Beckham kicked an opponent and was ejected in a hotly contested affair. England was eliminated on penalties after seeing its winning goal disallowed, and Beckham was savaged in the media. Four years later, Beckham's penalty helped knock Argentina out of the first round.
Today, Argentines who refuse to join their fellow fans in jumping up and down during games are insulted as "Englishman."
Stats: six English wins, five ties, three Argentine wins.
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: Assuming that England wins Group C, it could meet Argentina in the quarterfinals if Argentina finishes second in Group B. If Argentina wins its group, the two couldn't meet until the final.
Algeria versus Egypt
Since a qualifier for World Cup '90 provoked riots, no love has been lost between the two north African countries. During the qualifiers, Algeria's team bus was pelted with rocks in Cairo, injuring four players. Clashes among civilians, also in Cairo, injured 20 more Algerians. In retaliation, Egyptian businesses were attacked in Algeria. The hostilities have escalated to the point where diplomatic relations became tense (Egypt even recalled its ambassador) and a popular Algerian boycott has imperiled Egyptian business interests in Algeria.
It took a one-game playoff to decide which of the teams was headed to the World Cup. In Sudan, Algeria won 1-0.
Stats: eight Algerian wins, nine ties, five Egyptian wins.
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: None. Egypt did not qualify.
England versus Scotland
Centuries of conflict between England and Scotland found an outlet when the countries clashed in the first international soccer game, 0-0, in Glasgow in 1872. Feeding into Scottish nationalism, England's soccer team still goes by the "Auld Enemy" in some Scottish circles.
Because the teams have played each other a record 110 times, including an annual friendly for almost a century, the games have been elevated to a contest, as the Scottish see it, between the colonizers and the wronged. A fear of hooliganism allegedly has prevented the annual friendly from being restored in recent years.
Stats: 45 English wins, 24 ties, 41 Scottish wins.
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: None. Scotland didn't qualify.
Brazil versus Argentina
The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is centuries old and was born out of an odd proxy for the animosity between their respective colonizers, Portugal and Spain, who continually fought over South American territory. Luckily, soccer came along and gave that enmity a sporting stage.
Devolving into a racial showdown between the predominantly white Argentines and the mostly black Brazilians, the 1937 game saw Brazil flee the stadium, fearing for its lives, before the game was over. Two years later, it was Argentina that walked off the field in protest of a dubious decision in Brazil's favor. A rough 1946 game resulted in a sizable brawl that included both teams and the police. In 1990, after dozens more violent games, Brazil's Branco accused the Argentines of having given him a water bottle with sedatives in it -- which came to be known as the "holy water" incident.
As if one were needed, a further point of contention exists -- that of who has the best player of all time. The Argentines of course swear by Diego Maradona; Brazil by Pelé.
Stats: 37 Brazilian wins, 23 draws, 34 Argentine wins
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: If Brazil wins Group G and Argentina finishes second in its own, or vice versa, the two could meet in the semifinals. If both teams win their respective groups or both come in second, they could meet in the final.
France versus Italy
A postmodern rivalry of sorts, the two best European teams for the past decade or so have fought several titanic battles. During World Cup '98, France knocked Italy out on penalties in the quarterfinals. In 2000, France beat Italy in the final of the Euro thanks to an overtime goal. In 2006, Italy beat France on penalties in the World Cup final after Zinedine Zidane's furious head butt to Italy's Marco Materazzi's chest had gotten him sent off in his last game. In Euro 2008, Italy knocked France out in the group stage by winning 2-0.
Stats: 19 Italian wins, nine ties, eight French wins
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: If one team finishes first in its group and the other second, they could meet in the semifinals. Otherwise, it could be a rematch of the 2006 World Cup final.
North Korea versus South Korea
2010 will mark the first time both Koreas, technically still at war with each other, will participate. The archenemies also have gone toe-to-toe on the soccer field, having met five times in the past two years, with four games ending in ties. When the fifth ended in a 1-0 victory to South Korea in Seoul in April, the North cried foul, claiming its players had been poisoned and the referee had been biased in the South's favor.
Preferring to cede its home-field advantage than to allow South Korea the pleasure of waving its flag and singing its national anthem on Northern territory, North Korea had the previous game moved to China.
Stats: six South Korean wins, seven ties, one North Korean win
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: Because they're on opposite sides of the bracket and neither team has much hope of making it to the second round, let alone the final, a showdown isn't in the cards. The race to see who fares less badly is on, though.
Mexico versus U.S.
Less about the seizure of Texas from Mexico than a mere product of being the only two consistently good teams in the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football, Mexico and the U.S. have played fierce games.
After having traveled all the way to Italy for a play-in game to the 1934 World Cup, Mexico, which had assumed it would stomp on the U.S. and hadn't bothered to stay in shape during the long sea voyage, lost 4-2, giving birth to a rivalry that has warmed up in recent years as the two jostle for position for North and Central American dominance in the CONCACAF section of World Cup qualifiers.
Stats: 32 Mexican wins, 10 ties, 16 American wins
Hypothetical World Cup 2010 matchup: In the most likely scenario in which both teams finish second in their respective groups, the two could meet in the quarterfinals. That's assuming that Mexico gets past Argentina (most likely) and the U.S. past Germany (probably). However, in the unlikely event that each wins its group, they also could meet in the quarterfinals. If one wins its group and the other comes in second, they'll be on opposite sides of the bracket.
Germany versus everybody else
When you start two world wars, chances are there will be some lingering resentment when it's all said and done. That isn't the primary reason so many teams share an ill will toward Germany, though. Die Mannschaft have made it to a record 11 final fours in 17 World Cups. They usually punch above their weight, relying on a few inspirational players and a rigid organization and seldom underperforming. As such, they have eliminated -- often on last-minute goals -- enough worthier teams to be universally disliked.
Their greatest rivals are England and The Netherlands. In fact, when the latter finally managed to beat (West) Germany in a game of consequence in the semifinals of Euro '88 -- on German soil no less -- the delirious Dutch sang: "In '40 they came / In '88 we came / Hooray! / Hooray!" On the day in question, 60 percent of the Dutch population came out on the street and celebrated. Tellingly, it was the biggest crowd seen since The Netherlands was liberated from German occupation.
Although England and Germany have been playing each other since 1899, perhaps their most memorable game was a series of unofficial ones played between British and German troops on Christmas Day 1914, when thousands of troops fighting World War I over many miles of the front line stopped firing their rifles, climbed out of their trenches and put on impromptu soccer games against one another. That England's first and only World Cup victory in 1966 came against West Germany made it all the sweeter for the nation pummeled by German airstrikes throughout World War II. A controversial English goal in that game made for the first of dozens of hotly contested affairs.
(West) Germany versus Holland: 13 German wins, 14 ties, 10 Dutch wins
(West) Germany versus England: 12 English wins, five ties, 10 German wins
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com.