Football: Echoes of the past surround Brazil

The world champions open their campaign today burdened with the task of living up to an illustrious heritage
Click to follow
IF RONALDO, Roberto Carlos and Denilson have any doubts about the mantle they will take on at the Stade de France this afternoon, a pre-training visit to the Royal Monceau Hotel, in the shadow of L'Arc de Triomphe, would have underlined their responsibility.

On a podium facing camera crews and journalists from around the globe sat three men of poise and presence. Their bodies were middle-aged but their minds were young and their reputations timeless. Between them Pele, Carlos Alberto Torres and Nilton Santos won five World Cups. Yesterday, along with the late Garrincha, they made up a quartet of Brazilians selected in a team of the century.

They were gathered at the behest of Mastercard, one of those rare occasions when sponsorship enhances a World Cup. The team, chosen by journalists worldwide, brooked little argument. Brazil's place in the pantheon of football heroes was further illustrated when thoughts inevitably turned towards a second XI to play the first. The names of Didi, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson, Zico, Junior and Socrates, who was also present, were quickly offered.

It is a formidable heritage and, a few months ago, the present selecao seemed worthy heirs. The champions of 1994 had added the youthful skills of Ronaldo and partners to the organisation and flair of Dunga, Aldair and Romario. As they toured the world for Nike, beating all-comers from Rio to Riyadh, they seemed invincible. Victory next month, and a footballing variant on the tradition of a yellow jersey champion in Paris in July, seemed inevitable.

Since beating Germany in March, however, doubts have emerged. Their form has been poor, notably when losing in the Maracana to Argentina; they have suffered injury problems, including the loss of Romario and Marcio Santos; and there has been internal dissension.

Mario Zagallo, the coach, has had Zico, a great player but a man of little coaching experience, imposed on him as an "assistant". Zico and Romario do not get on and Romario, who disputed the extent of his muscle injury, did not leave happily. Zagallo then called up Emerson, a defensive player, leaving him dependent on either Bebeto, now 34 and short of match practice, or the extremely volatile Edmundo as Ronaldo's partner. Edmundo was subsequently reported rubbishing Bebeto. Add in worries about the fitness of Dunga, the form of Taffarel and Zagallo's alleged negativity and remoteness, and everybody's favourites are now just favourites.

Yesterday Pele and Nilton Santos, an inspirational left-back in Brazil's 1958 and 1962 successes, both said that they hoped Brazil would win but declined to follow Carlos Alberto, the captain in 1970, in predicting it. Pele said it was the most even finals he had known while Alfredo Di Stefano, the other member of the Mastercard XI to attend, favoured France but also named Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Spain and England.

Even Carlos Alberto tempered his support. "There is less creativity, less improvisation, in this Brazilian team and football generally. So I think it will be a physical World Cup. Brazil have worked hard on this but there have already been injuries." Now a coach of young players at his own school near Rio de Janeiro, he added: "There have not been any significant developments in the game since the 1974 Dutch side."

Far harsher criticism has been made since the Argentina defeat. While the nature of the Brazilian media prevents the team drawing in the wagons as tightly as England, a familiar defensiveness has appeared, suggesting the most dangerous doubts, internal ones, are developing. "The Brazilian press are starting to undermine our work," said Roberto Carlos. "The world talks about fights which never happened. Between us, in the chateau of Grand Romaine [Brazil's HQ] the atmosphere remains fine. The game with Scotland is of paramount importance. It can erase all the doubts about us being successful. I sense that, if we win, it will act as a trigger to put us on the right track."

It is not always easy being favourites. The slick passing, dribbling and interplay that lifts Brazil's game on to a higher plane works only when a team is happy about itself. But the balance must be struck - a cocky team can be sloppy and lazy.

The serious mood of this Brazilian team was evident as they trained at the Stade de France yesterday. A few miles away the heroes of the past were reliving their gilded memories, today their successors must cope with the burden of adding to them.

MASTERCARD WORLD XI: Yashin (USSR); Carlos Alberto Torres (Brazil), Beckenbauer (West Germany), Moore (England), Nilton Santos (Brazil); Cruyff (Netherlands), Di Stefano (Argentina & Spain), Platini (France); Garrincha (Brazil), Pele (Brazil), Maradona (Argentina).