Football: Beauty and the beastly

Andrew Longmore sets the scene for a show already beset by rumour and rancour; As the big kick-off looms, more doubts are raised about team spirit in the camp of the world champions
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The Independent Online
THE destiny of the 1998 World Cup and a trophy no more than 18 inches high is contained within a question posed recently by Pele. "Everybody knows that Brazil has the best players in the world," said the Brazilian sports minister. "But do we have the best team in the world?" Team spirit has not been much in evidence this past week in the Brazilian camp, with predictable accusations of prejudice by Romario following his tearful exit from the party through injury and by Edmundo after Bebeto, Romario's striking other half in 1994, had been preferred as the partner for Ronaldo in the tournament's opening match on Wednesday.

Mario Zagallo, the coach, and his temperamental forward swapped insults on radio. "Disunited FC" as one Brazilian daily newspaper said. The only synchronised move of the week involved a coach ride across time in honour of the opening of Nikepark. Training was cut short to accommodate it, which has summarised Brazilian priorities in some quarters.

Add to that the tension between Zico, drafted in as technical director on the insistence of the president of the Brazilian Football Federation, Ricardo Teixeira, and Zagallo - the former representing the beauty, the latter the beast, in Brazilian football - and history does not seem to be the only obstacle to the defence of their world championship. No South American side, as Brazilians are sick of being told, has won a World Cup in continental Europe, though the 1982 one should have done; only Brazil themselves, in 1958 and 1962, have managed to win successive World Cups. Zagallo left Zico out of the 1974 squad in West Germany and the suspicion has survived across the years.

Life in a Zagallo regime, as Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham might reflect, makes Colditz look like Butlins. Zagallo has banned the use of mobile phones, visits from family or friends, jokes at the expense of other team members and listening to music during evening hours. Other banned substances in the Brazilian camp include provoking red cards, unpleasantness to the press, statements critical of the management and discussion of bonus payments. This is not a team at ease with itself and the Scots should take full advantage of the discomfort while it lasts just as they did in 1974 in a 0-0 draw in Frankfurt.

Then, as now, Brazil were defending champions and managed by Zagallo, but, despite the presence of players such as Jairzinho and Rivelino, the team never managed to strike the right balance between European brawn and Brazilian brain or compensate for the loss of Pele, Tostao and Clodoaldo, the pulse of the team which won the World Cup so thrillingly in 1970. With due respect to Scotland, qualifying for the first time since 1958, the fact that they came within goal difference of putting out the champions at the preliminary group stage reflected how far the Brazilians had erred on the side of caution.

Brazil, the playboys of world football, scored a miserly six goals in seven games, including three against Zaire, and finished fourth, losing to Poland in the play-off. Scotland, with Dalglish, Law, Jordan and Bremner in the squad and Willie Ormond a highly respected manager, received the dubious accolade of being the first team in the history of the competition to be eliminated without losing a match, a feat repeated by England in Spain eight years later.

The worry for the many critics back in the favelas, in the suburbs of Sao Paulo and on the beaches of Rio is that the macho instinct, rarely far below the surface of Brazilian football, will emerge once again under pressure of European athleticism and discipline. Even the most artistic of Brazilian teams has been able to wield the palette knife, but only as a means to the end of playing proper football, not, as in the case of the 1974 and 1990 sides, as the end itself.

Scotland will compensate in team spirit for what they lack in individual flair; Brazil vice versa. Not the least of the fascinations of Wednesday evening in Paris will be the mental state of the defending champions in the wake of unconvincing recent form and the noisy departure of Romario. Given the traditional sterility of World Cup openings - four without a goal from 1966 to 1978 - the odds of 7-1 on a 0-0 draw, taken by a Scottish friend of mine (a priest, as it happens), are beginning to look less like a way of burning money and more like a half-decent investment. But expect anti-climax. Only two games in a World Cup are guaranteed to be appalling: the first and the last.

Which Brazil emerges from the yellow and blue corner will largely determine the bit in between. A fluent, uninhibited Brazil uplifts the spirits, guarantees a memorable France 98; a disjointed, neurotic, Brazil lends encouragement to the more terrestrial qualities of the Germans, the Italians or, dare one say it, the English. For the first World Cup, England should not at least emerge playing a different brand of football from the rest of the world. Euro 96 and the influx of foreign talent into the Premiership has brought an integration of styles. Socially gauche maybe, but England should be tactically attuned, once Glenn Hoddle has consulted his Rough Guide to continental clubs - not football ones - and rounded up his squad.

Otherwise, a case for England prosperity rests largely on the two world- class players in the team, David Seaman and Alan Shearer, and on the tendency for a goalscorer to emerge from the chorus and turn the World Cup into his personal stage. Paulo Rossi, most famously in 1982, his countryman Toto Schillaci in 1990. Michael Owen, given the chance, has the gifts of surprise and speed. It is easier to find reasons for disbelief: the Germans are too old, the Italians too defensive, the French too brittle, the Brazilians too temperamental and England too dull. There is no Romario, no Zola, no Juninho and no Ginola or Gascoigne. No Kazu Miura for Japan. Coaches seem suspicious of mavericks and if referees follow Fifa instructions and shower red cards over early games, the football could pussyfoot into stalemate. Idle fears perhaps. Michel Platini congratulated Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Brazilian coach, after the dire 1994 final for winning the World Cup "with the worst Brazilian side" he had ever seen. Any of the 32 coaches would be happy to receive such a back-handed compliment come midnight on 12 July.