lucioxl090210ap

Brazil and Italy have combined to win nine World Cups. ((Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press))

It's a match pitting soccer's two greatest superpowers against each other.

In Brazil, the bustling streets of Rio and Sao Paulo grind to a standstill whenever they do battle. In Italy, the game is known as il Derby del Mondo — the Derby of the World.

Simply put, there is no greater rivalry in soccer than Brazil vs. Italy.

The Selecao and the  Azzurri have waged several classic battles over the ages, and are set to add another chapter to their historic series of matches when they square off Sunday at the FIFA Confederations Cup (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET).

Both teams need a victory to ensure passage to the competition's semifinals, but there is something else at stake that is just as important: pride.

Brazil and Italy are the two most successful countries in global soccer, having won a combined nine World Cups, which results in an ultra-competitive setting whenever they cross swords in international play.

Of the 13 previous meetings, Brazil has won six and Italy five, with two draws. The Brazilians came out on top in the most recent contest, a 2-0 exhibition win in London in February, and have bested the Italians in two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1994.

But it's far from a one-sided series. The Italians have defeated Brazil in some big games, including in the semifinals of the 1938 World Cup in France (which Italy went on to win).

Perhaps the best contest between the two came at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where Italy defeated Brazil 3-2 in a thrilling, classic encounter that many observers consider the best game in World Cup history.

No less of an authority than legendary BBC play-by-play announcer John Motson, who called over 1,000 games during his career, said the Brazil-Italy quarter-final from 1982 was the greatest match he ever commented on.

Brazil and Italy bring out the best in each other, but it's the historical success that these two perennial giants of the game have enjoyed that makes the rivalry so special.

"You're talking about the two sides that have won the most World Cup titles," Paddy Agnew, a Rome-based journalist and Italian soccer expert, told CBCSports.ca.

There are other factors, too, not the least of which is the divergent paths the two have taken to achieve their success.

Brazil is known for playing a free-flowing and stylish brand of soccer predicated on the samba, a lively and rhythmical dance of Brazilian origin. The Italians, meanwhile, are known as the game's great pragmatists, renowned for their tactical and defensive style (known as catenaccio) and for wearing their opponents down with their cautious approach.

But times change, and as soccer has become more globalized, the lines that once delineated the strategic differences between these two soccer heavyweights have become blurred.

"Historically, it's been two totally different schools of football. Brazil is seen as the spiritual guardians of the game, and Italy are the pragmatists," said Tim Vickery, a Rio-based journalist and noted South American soccer expert.

"I think that contrast came to an end in 1982, because by 1994 when Brazil and Italy met in the World Cup final, it was two very pragmatic sides, and that's what it's been ever since. Nowadays, it's not so much two different schools of football — it's merely two giants with so much history and decisive games between them, dating back to 1938."

Agnew agreed.

"It's a very old-fashioned way of looking at things because Brazilians don't play samba football any more than Italians play catenaccio. Those days are gone," Agnew stated.

"The Brazil team of today is full of players who have made their names and reputations playing in Europe, playing a very organized and sensible game. Likewise, Italian sides don't play catenaccio."

So, if it's not a battle between two countries that subscribe to vastly different philosophies, why does Brazil vs. Italy capture the imagination of soccer fans around the world?

There's a simple and obvious explanation.

"Italy versus Brazil isn't so much a battle between two distinct football cultures," Agnew said. "It's a clash between two of the great powers of the world game."