Brazilians fear life after Romario

The current Brazilian team have a colossal legacy to live up to in France.
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THEY were the dream team, poetry in motion. When Brazil overwhelmed Italy 4-1 in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico, their players looked like a troupe of samba dancers who had strayed from the Rio carnival. Football would never be quite the same again. If we had invented it, they had perfected it.

With hindsight, my wife, not generally known as a connoisseur, probably put it best when, after a typical piece of Jairzinho dribbling, she remarked: "Their legs just seem to move faster then everyone else's. Maybe it's just the tight shorts. And the ball seems to stick to their feet."

The shorts have got baggier but the Brazilians still set the standard. They won last time in the United States in 1994, but for most Brazilians that was like winning a fiver in the lottery. In Brazilian football, winning is not everything. Winning with style is.

The act that they won four years ago, after a 24-year drought, merely puts more pressure on this year's squad. They're expected not only to retain the title but to do it with rhythm and a touch of class.

Beating Italy in a penalty shoot-out after a scoreless draw in the 1994 final hardly matched the glory days - from 1958 to 1970, a period of supremacy interrupted only by an upstart team from England in 1966 - of Pele, Didi, Vava, Garrincha, Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao or Rivelino.

This year, they again start as favourites and line up against Scotland in the spanking new Stade de France after the inaugural ceremony on Wednesday.

Favourites, yes. But how do they compare with their great predecessors? Not at all, according to most Brazilians. "They think they're great because they can run rings round airport passengers," said Pessanha, a Rio taxi driver, referring to a Nike TV ad featuring the current crop of players. "But can they beat Norway?"

Speaking of Norway, their coach, Egil Olsen, said last week that Brazil may not really deserve to be ranked at the top of by Fifa's listings. "It's not unthinkable that they will be beaten by two of the teams in Group A," he said.

Even after watching Scotland's lacklustre performance against the US on live TV last weekend, Brazilians expressed a lot less than their traditional confidence. "That Scottish team was horrible, totally unprepared. We'd normally be expected to beat them 6-0," said Antonio Pimenta, Managing Editor of the big Estado e Sao Paulo daily. "Now, our players are hoping to beat Scotland 1-0.

"This is a pale imitation of the glory days of Brazilian football. In 1958, we had giants in the team. Now we have only players with promise. There is no collective game, no synchronisation. It's every player for himself. Zagallo has a lot to do with this."

Like many of his compatriots, Mr Pimenta is highly critical of the Brazilian team coach, Mario Zagallo, who won World Cup winners' medals as a player in 1958 and 1962, and as team coach in 1970. "People would rather see someone else in his job. Every day that passes, we are more and more doubtful that we can win this thing."

Others are more critical of Zico, the 1980s' star who was drafted in as Zagallo's assistant earlier this year after a series of poor warm-up results, including last year's 4-2 loss to Norway, Brazil's World Cup rivals on June 23. Zico came under widespread criticism last week after Romario was dumped from the squad, ostensibly because he had not recovered from a calf injury. The little striker insisted he could hae been fit in time for the Scotland game. The word in the Brazilian camp was that he had been ousted because of a long-standing personal dispute with Zico over indiscipline.

The loss of Romario devastated Brazilias. Although Ronaldo, or "Ronaldinho" (little Ronaldo) as he is known at home, has become the worldwide superstar, Romario was seen as the team's talisman, one of the few players with the style and class to change a game like his 1970 predecessors. "He was the glue that held this team together," said Eduardo, a weeping shoeshine boy on the Copacabana beach after hearing of his hero's demise. "He played happy football. Zico was a great player but he was a loser. He screwed Romario."

Before Romario's departure, 70 per cent of Brazilians thought their team could take the trophy in France. Afterwards, only 11 per cent predicted victory.

Footall fans worldwide may publicly express compassion towards players who hit a bad patch. But few Brazilians have ever really forgiven Zico for his key penalty miss against France which helped eliminate Brazil from the 1986 World Cup. They call him "pe frio" (cold foot), or a bad luck omen.

Brazilians were far more optimistic a year ago, before the loss to Norway. The general feeling was that the team was far better than four years ago, the best since 1970. They had Ro-Ro up front - Ronaldo and Romario - with Bebeto on the bench, Leonardo weaving his magic in midfield, Roberto Carlos curling in banana free-kicks in true Rivelino style, Denilson bursting on the scene and the Barcelona duo of Giovanni and Rivaldo waiting in the wings.

Then came a series of disasters, including a 1-0 loss to the United States, a draw with upstarts Jamica - who, coached by a Brazilian, Rene Simoes, have copied everything from the Brazilians' strips to their habit of walking on the pitch holding hands - last week's draw with Athletic Bilbao and, worst of all, the 10 home defeat by old rivals Argentina last month in what many billed as a dress rehearsal for the July 12 World Cup final. After the game in the Maracana stadium, Zagallo was jeered with chants of "Idiot! Idiot!"

The Argentina game reminded Brazilian fans of their old weakness. The goalkeeper Taffarel should have stopped the winning goal but failed to stay upright despite a narrow angle. Against Bilbao last week, he made what the Brazilian media described as an "infantile" mistake by mis-clearing a high ball and allowing the Basque side to score.

"Ronaldo has played well for his clubs but he's still learning. Denilson is really the only brilliant player in the squad," said Mr Pimenta of Estado de Sao Paulo, from Juninho's home city. "If they use Edmundo up front with Ronaldo, it could be a disaster. Edmundo (pronounced Edgy-mundo in Portuguese) is a moral liability. He is a very talented player but he's very tempestuous. He can't control his temper. That's why they call him `The Animal'. He's capable of causing us extreme embarrassment. I dread that theyplay him against Scotland. He's an easy target. If they provoke him, he'll retaliate and he's off."

Against Scotland, Zagallo is likely to rely on Giovanni and Rivaldo to use their Barcelona understanding in midfild to feed Ronaldo and Bebeto or Edmundo, with Roberto Carlos and Leonardo pushing up on the flanks. And despite his reputation, "The Animal" - still facing manslaughter charges for a 1995 car accident in which the young people were killed as he drove away from a night club - may turn out to be 1998's lucky substitute. Brazilians recall that Pele, then 17, started off on the bench in 1958. And that when he, himself, was injured in 1962, Amarildo replaced him and starred. Ronaldo was a substitute in 1994 but hit stardom only after that World Cup.

"No one's too optimistic. We're going to France with trepidation," said Mr Pimenta. "But it's possible that the team will grow during the tournament and succeed."