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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Many Argentinians believe that the pursuit of their country's latest World Cup title started for real more than two years ago at Maracana Stadium.
That's where Ángel di Maria and Lionel Messi helped end the team's 28-year trophyless streak with a 1-0 win against Brazil in the Copa America final.
On Tuesday, some will return to the historic arena in a much more optimistic mood than for that game in 2021 against archrival Brazil.
About two hundred Argentina fans gathered Monday evening outside the team's hotel in Rio de Janeiro ahead of its South American World Cup qualifying match against Brazil.
The visiting supporters, some taking vacations in the city, brought drums, Messi and Diego Maradona flags, and horns. Many of them sang out that “the favelas are still crying” since Brazil lost the Copa America to Argentina.
Several, like 27-year-old Ariel Garcia, wore old style jerseys with two instead of three stars representing the team's World Cup titles over its crest. A Brazil resident, he did not attend that Copa America final when it was played in a nearly empty stadium due to COVID-19 restrictions. The rare chance to watch his team live pushed him to quickly get one of the 69,000 tickets to be at the Maracana on Tuesday.
“That Copa America final gave us the belief we could win the World Cup. If Argentina had lost that final to Brazil, only God knows whether Messi would still play in Qatar,” Garcia said. “The Maracana was once the place where we lost the 2014 World Cup to Germany, but that Copa America title made it the place where we won the latest World Cup."
Led by then-President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil became a last-minute host of the 2021 Copa America after co-hosts Colombia and Argentina gave up as the virus spread. Media reports suggested the tournament faced the risk of cancellation until a week before kickoff. Players of the unexpected host nation discussed with then-coach Tite about not playing. But they did, and lost the final to Argentina.
“There's a special spice, and we don't need to remember these old moments,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said before the team's trip to Rio. “So much has happened since.”
“We always have to think about the present,” added the coach, who won his first professional title on the job in that final. “It doesn't need much for a player to be ready for this. It is a clasico, it is Brazil playing at their home.”
Brazil has never lost a World Cup qualifying match in its territory.
Both teams will play after defeats in the previous round of qualifying; the locals lost 2-1 at Colombia, and the World Cup champions were defeated at home 2-0 by Uruguay.
Argentina leads the 10-team South American qualifying group with 12 points through five matches. Uruguay is second with 10 points. Colombia has nine and Venezuela eight. Brazil will host the World Cup champions in fifth position, with seven points.
Ecuador, Paraguay and Chile have five points each. Bolivia has three and Peru one.
The 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada will include 48 teams, meaning direct entry for the top six teams from South America. The seventh-place team can earn a berth in an intercontinental playoff.
Three key Argentina players in the World Cup title winning campaign did not have a role in that Copa America final decided by a goal by Di Maria; midfielders Alexis Mac Allister and Enzo Fernández, and striker Julián Álvarez watched it all on TV. The latter came to Brazil, but was not on the bench.
Argentina's soccer association president, Chiqui Tapia, also said he was keen to return to Rio.
“We will see each other at the Maracana, where it all began!,” Tapia said on social media.
Argentina players arrived at the hotel around 10 p.m. Scaloni chose not to hold any training sessions in Rio's rainy Monday and head straight to the Maracana on Tuesday.
Garcia said it will also be his first time at the stadium since the 2014 World Cup final, in which Argentina lost 1-0 to Germany.
“I just didn't want to go there again. But now we are the world champions and I will celebrate with Messi and the muchachos no matter what happens at the game,” he said. “The Maracana is now a great place for us, too.”
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer