Football: Chips are down for Diego: As football's superpowers warm up for the 1994 World Cup finals, the Brazilians find their rhythm: Richard Williams sees Brazil's star in the ascendant as burn-out afflicts an Argentine idol

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'I DON'T think you should expect to see a beautiful game,' Carlos Alberto Parreira had warned me a few hours before his Brazilians met Argentina in a pre-World Cup clash of the South American giants in Recife on Wednesday night. Luckily for the 100,000 of us who turned up anyway, he proved a poor prophet.

His caution was not hard to understand. After 24 years of drought following the three tumultuous wins that gave Brazil permanent possession of the old Jules Rimet Trophy and a unique place of affection and respect in world football, Parreira is inevitably reluctant to start shouting the odds on a long-awaited fourth victory. But his team's 2-0 defeat of their fiercest rivals last week contained so much football of luminous quality and rich promise that even the more cynical neutrals were finding it difficult to share the coach's restraint.

True, there were one or two distinctly unbeautiful sights in the vast bowl of the Arruda Stadium, home of the Santa Cruz club. The worst of the arena's stained and rotting concrete had been hastily whitewashed for the occasion, in an attempt to provide a suitable setting for the national team's fifth visit to this north-eastern city, where they have never lost a match and where, most recently, they thrashed Bolivia 6-0 in the climactic stages of their World Cup qualifying group last November.

Nothing, however, could be done to cover up the sad condition of one particular monument. No amount of whitewash, either the sort that comes in buckets or the kind that issues from a public relations operation, could disguise the plight of Diego Armando Maradona, who won the 1986 World Cup practically on his own but may now be about to turn into the tragic sideshow of this summer's finals.

Maradona arrived in Recife last week a day late and a long way short of fitness. Nothing about his brief visit to Brazil provided an optimistic antidote to the recent outbreak of shenanigans involving an air-rifle, or spoke well of his chances of making the sort of impact on the 1994 World Cup finals that his great talent demands, even in his 34th year.

To start with, there was the business of the living quarters. While the remainder of Alfio Basile's Argentinian squad stayed in regular dollars 120-a-night rooms at one of Recife's five-star hotels, the former golden boy barricaded himself in the dollars 1,300-a-day Presidential Suite. It wasn't long before the local papers were full of reports of a Maradona-hosted pre- match party that went on until 4am, awash in the product of Moet et Chandon - with, so it was said, a big order of chips on the side.

You could see where the chips had gone when Maradona lined up as one of eight substitutes on the bench. As soon as he emerged, just before the kick-off, a hundred or so cameramen turned his progress along the touchline into a small riot. When a squad of military policemen eventually dispersed the throng, Maradona stood revealed as a ghastly caricature of the slimmed-down, almost feverishly bright-eyed figure who had made his comeback to football with Newell's Old Boys in Rosario six months ago.

So not even the Virgin of Rosario, whose blessings had been so bounteously bestowed on him in November, could save this fallen idol. On Wednesday, only a few weeks after Newell's sacked him for failing to turn up to matches or training sessions, after the squalid incident in which he used an air- gun to frighten off intrusive journalists, and after the latest allegations concerning his relationship with the Neapolitan mafia, his face was puffy, his eyes dull. Uncharacteristically, he wore his blue and white shirt outside his shorts, in a vain attempt to hide the most incriminating evidence of all. And since he wasn't brought into the action, even in the last few minutes after his team had gone two goals down, we can assume that his presence on the bench was simply a cosmetic PR exercise designed to reassure the world that he is not yet in terminal decline.

Basile, Argentina's coach, believes that his greatest star would be better off staying away from club football entirely between now and June, concentrating instead on getting himself back into shape. After all, he has nothing more to learn about the game itself. The coach could be right, because on Wednesday night's form Argentina certainly need even a half-fit, half-speed Maradona. Against Brazil they looked little more than a collection of tall athletes with big thighs, long hair and short tempers.

The likes of Fernando Redondo, Diego Cagna, Leo Rodriguez and Gabriel Batistuta had little to offer beyond aggression - not surprisingly, perhaps, since Redondo plays his league football for Tenerife, Leo Rodriguez can't command a place in Borussia Dortmund's first team, and Batistuta is with Fiorentina in Italy's Serie B. Only Claudio Garcia of River Plate, at 30 the oldest outfield player in the team and one of only four members of the starting line-up based in Argentina, displayed any kind of pertinent energy, and even he is presumably only keeping the second striker's shirt warm for Claudio Caniggia, whose year-long doping suspension ends on 8 May.

Both sides were packed with exiles, Parreira welcoming back Bebeto from Deportivo La Coruna and Rai and Ricardo Gomes from Paris Saint-Germain. But he was unable to select his own most controversial player, the Spanish- based striker Romario, who sent word from the Nou Camp on Monday that an injury picked up in Barcelona's league match against Real Santander would preclude his attendance.

'I don't understand it,' said Mario Zagalo, who played in the 1958 and 1962 World Cup-winning sides, coached the 1970 team and is now Parreira's technical director. 'I watched that match live on TV, here in Brazil. Romario played the whole game. There didn't seem to be anything wrong. Then on Monday there was a fax at the federation's office in Rio saying that he had a knee problem and was going to see a specialist in Holland. So . . .'

Romario's talent is extraordinary enough to make him potentially a decisive performer on the biggest stage of all, but his fondness for shooting his mouth off at inopportune moments has given Parreira several kinds of grief in the three years since he took charge of the national squad. In Romario's absence, the coach restored Muller to the attack, pairing him with Bebeto in a combination that produced both goals.

The first came in the sixth minute, when Muller's stiletto pass put Bebeto through for a shot that Sergio Goycochea, well off his line, could only palm over his head and into the net. The second, 15 minutes from the final whistle, saw Muller measure a perfect right- wing cross, matched by the agility of Bebeto's leap and the power of the little striker's header into the top corner. Less than a minute earlier, Muller himself had missed the second of two good chances, the Sao Paulo forward following up a first-half shot which hit the post with a point-blank strike against Goycochea's legs.

Bebeto and Muller may have decided the match in terms of creating and executing the goals that counted, but the most impressive Brazilians on display were Cafu, a right-back from the Sao Paulo club whose explosive attacking runs recalled the early days of the great Junior, and Zinho, a left-sided midfield player whose ability to hold the ball, lure opponents toward him and then play a killing pass is strongly reminiscent of Rivelino, one of the stars of 1970.

These two were largely responsible for the game's most exhilarating dimension: its reminder that Brazil's game is based on a devastating change of pace. You could go a whole season in the English league without once seeing the sort of move that studded this performance at regular intervals as Cafu, Zinho, Rai, Muller or Leonardo, who substituted at left-back for the sulky and overweight Branco, suddenly changed up two gears, instantly provoking a co- ordinated response from their team-mates. When you can operate at such velocity with the skills that the Brazilians bring to bear, there ought to be no answer.

Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, Argentina tried to reply with physical force, resulting in second-half bookings for Batistuta, Leo Rodriguez, Fernando Caceres, Diego Simeone and Hernan Diaz as the game degenerated into a percussive clatter of trips and body- checks. (Mazinho, who came on to replace the reliable Dunga in the Brazilian midfield, earned the home side's only booking.) The potential danger of this kind of approach to Brazil's chances in the United States was plain to see when the marvellous Cafu revealed worrying hints of a low

boiling-point in an understandable but foolish desire to humiliate those opponents who were mistreating him.

History strongly favours the idea of a team from the Americas winning the World Cup this summer, but the lessons of Wednesday's fascinating match were twofold. First, that Argentina, with Oscar Ruggeri back in defence, Caniggia in attack and Maradona pulling the strings, probably have it in them to spoil a few people's fun once again, although any more elevated ambition may be beyond them. And second, that while Carlos Alberto Parreira's team is unlikely to prove itself the equal of the immortal champions of 1970, only a lack of self-discipline on the field or an outbreak of feuding off it can prevent the descendants of the greatest team of all playing a significant role in the destiny of the 1994 World Cup.

(Photograph omitted)