Tuesday evening at the Maracanã had all the ingredients to be a classic night of elite football. Instead, it turned into a violent fiasco, the latest chapter in a depressing story of clashes involving Argentine teams that visit neighbouring Brazil, and what was ultimately a bittersweet evening for everyone involved with the Albiceleste.
Two years ago it was Lionel Messi and the Selección who were forced into the dressing rooms just minutes into a World Cup qualifier after a senseless pitch invasion from a representative of Brazil's Health ministry. Then, in 2023, first Argentinos Juniors and then Boca supporters suffered savage ambushes in Rio de Janeiro and around the Maracanã prior to Copa Libertadores matches, on both occasions aided by the state's security forces. Now it was followers of the national team who were forced to be on the receiving end of police brutality, in scenes which cast a shadow over what should be one of the world's showpiece international fixtures.
Just minutes before Tuesday's scheduled kick-off time any notion of football went out of the window as television cameras zoomed to harrowing scenes of repression in the stands. Compounding the idiotic decision not to segregate fans in this ancient, always tetchy rivalry, Rio's military police responded to the slightest sign of reaction from the visiting contingent – according to reports, angered by jeers aimed at Argentina's national anthem – by wading in with batons, not caring particularly who they cut down in their frenzy. Fans started streaming onto the field in search of refuge while goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez headed the other way, hell-bent on getting his hands on one or more of the officers responsible for the violence.
Such was the chaos and distress that Messi ordered his troops back into the dressing room, where they remained for 30 minutes while the clashes continued unabated. At least two away supporters were stretchered out of the Maracanã due to the injuries suffered in the melee, while Lautaro Martínez lamentations were picked up by television microphones and instantly struck a chord with those watching and shaking their heads at the madness unfolding: “It's always the same up here.”
The shadow cast by that appalling prelude hung heavy over a tense first half in which neither team managed to assert themselves on the game. Argentina, still stinging from that 2-0 home defeat to Uruguay four days prior which ended their long post-Qatar unbeaten run, tried to keep hold of the ball but were given precious little space to operate by Brazil, themselves desperate to improve their fortunes after losing their two previous qualifiers to Venezuela and Colombia. The result was a footballing eyesore which seemed to fit all too well the moody atmosphere that had descended on the Maracanã.
Then, just as it looked as though Brazil were ready to pull through, the Albiceleste's chance arrived. Minutes after Martínez had kept his side in the game with a wonder save that brought to mind his heroics against France's Randal Kolo Muani 11 months ago on the other side of the world, Nicolás Otamendi soared to head home a corner and send his side into the lead. The veteran centre-back's strike was a hammer blow for the hosts and a decisive one, sealing victory for Argentina and the first-ever defeat the Seleção had suffered on home soil in a World Cup qualifier.
It was not pretty, not in the slightest; but nobody in an Argentina shirt, either on the pitch or in the stands, cared a jot as they continued to sing jubilantly and mock their rivals long after most of the Maracanã support had headed for the exits. And yet there was still time for another twist in the tale, as Scaloni made the shock admission he was considering stepping down from his post. “I need to think about what I am going to do, it is hard to keep going,” he confessed to a room of dumbfounded reporters, minutes after his latest great triumph at the helm of the Albiceleste.
It would be a sad scenario indeed in which to see Scaloni leave – but if that is his final decision, he will leave a legacy of triumph and joy which has infected an entire nation right up to the very last minute of his glorious tenure.