Football: Parreira casts doubt over Brazil's unity

Andrew Warshaw hears an assessment of the world champions by their former coach
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The Independent Online
SAUDI ARABIA get through coaches at an alarming rate. Six have come and gone since Jorgi Solari took the Saudis to the last World Cup finals. But if you think that statistic will worry the present incumbent, Carlos Alberto Parreira, in the weeks ahead, you'd be very wrong.

Parreira knows what real pressure is about, having been at the helm when Brazil won the trophy four years ago. When you have coached the best team in the world to the most prestigious title in the world, pressure becomes relative. "I don't envy Mario Zagallo," said Parreira as he warmed up with his dedicated squad of players for their opening game with Denmark in Lens on Friday. "Being coach of Brazil is different from anything else in football. I remember how Graham Taylor was vilified in the English tabloids. That was nothing compared with what can happen when you're in charge of Brazil. They expect all the country's political ills to be solved through football."

Since his contract with the Saudis is for one year, Parreira can't really lose. He knows they won't win the World Cup: the ambition is to create the same stir as four years ago when they reached the second round. But he also knows what kind of hardships await his former team and whether they can retain the trophy on European soil, a feat achieved only once before.

Parreira is thankful that he got out when he was at the top. He knew there were only two options if he stayed: win the World Cup again, or be treated as a failure. When he was in charge, he had to endure a terrible pasting from the press. "I had the strength to bear it. I kept my temper in check but it wasn't easy. In the end I just got fed up."

He believes the present Brazilian team is significantly better than his. But that doesn't mean they will retain the title in France. Things have started badly, with an injured Romario limping tearfully out of contention for a squad place. With players like Edmundo and Bebeto ready to step into his shoes, Brazil are hardly lacking in reserve talent. But Romario's absence is just the kind of factor that can rock morale.

"Technically, this is the best team in the tournament, certainly better than my Brazil," said Parreira. "But to win the World Cup, you need to prepare well, and you need to know how to win away. You do this with leadership and discipline. I think playing in Europe is going to be very different than it was four years ago, more competitive. Half of the 32 teams are European. Remember, even in the US, seven of the eight quarter- finalists were from Europe."

Parreira has a nagging doubt whether the present squad of South American stars will last the pace. "We won four years ago because we battled for one another. There were no jealousies. Having to qualify brought us together as a unit. We learned the lessons of Italia 90 when there were huge rifts between players and staff. Unity, or lack of it, could again be the difference with the current side."

The technical ability showed by the Saudis against England in the recent 0-0 draw at Wembley suggests they are capable of inflicting damage on their group rivals France, Denmark and South Africa. They also lost 6- 0 to Norway, although perhaps that says more about England than it does about the Saudis. "I feel rewarded just being back," said Parreira, 58, who will set a record in France with Bora Milutinovic, of Nigeria, when the two become the first coaches to take four different teams to World Cup finals.

Of one thing Parreira can be sure: no one will underestimate his team in the way that Morocco and Belgium did four years ago when both of them lost. "Our vital game is our first one, against Denmark. If we draw that, we can still afford to lose against France and qualify."

Parreira isn't thinking of losing, but he remains realistic. "All 22 of my players are from the Saudi domestic league and that restricts them. It's a big handicap." Until the law changes and allows Saudi players to gain valuable overseas experience, Parreira will have to make do with what he has. Which includes a certain Saeed Al-Owairan, scorer of arguably the most memorable goal of the last World Cup, an intoxicating 40-yard dribble and flick against Belgium in Washington.

The feat seemed to go to Al-Owairan's head: he was suspended for nearly two years after being caught at an illegal drinks party. "I made a mistake and I paid for it," he said. All, it seems, has been forgiven.