Football: Ronaldo and Rivaldo in search of the lost world

Tim Vickery in Rio de Janeiro sets the scene for a star-studded Copa America
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The Independent Online
RONALDO HAS a point to prove, and the Copa America can help him make it. The championship starts in Paraguay on Tuesday, uniting the 10 footballing countries of South America plus guests Mexico and Japan. It is this year's major international tournament and it offers Brazil's goofy striker an ideal stage to confirm his comeback.

Booed in training last week by supporters who have not forgotten the World Cup final, Ronaldo goes into the Copa determined to regain the crown of the world's best player. In the new mobile front three that coach Wanderley Luxemburgo is implanting, Ronaldo is flanked by two similarly hungry talents. To the left, Rivaldo, the Barcelona star whose prestige is high in Europe but who, nearly six years into his international career, has yet to convince his countrymen. To the right, Amoroso, Serie A's top scorer, keen to show he should have gone to the World Cup.

The man who should have been trying to stop this fearsome strikeforce is Rafael Dudamel, Venezuela's goalkeeper. Brazil's first opponents, Venezuela are the traditional whipping boys of South American football, and could clearly benefit from the presence of their excellent keeper, who shines for the Colombian champions Deportivo Cali. But he will not be there - he is too upset by the Venezuelan federation's offer of $80 (pounds 49) a day. The financial gap between European and South American football has never been wider. Clubs from Bogota to Buenos Aires are all broke - in the coming weeks all those home-based players will be hoping the Copa America will serve as a springboard for a move to Europe.

The scouts will be out in force, and one man who could be noticed is Venezuela's pacy striker David Noriega. A fine season in Argentina has brought him to the attention of Torino and Atletico Madrid. Venezuela's Argentine coach, Jose Omar Pastoriza, has brought his vast experience to bear on producing a young, fit team who work hard and mark tight. Noriega will have to survive on scraps, but Venezuela hope that his speed and trickery will trouble the Brazilians.

A draw, let alone a Venezuela win, would be one of the biggest upsets in history. But it is possible that Noriega could open the way for Brazil's other group opponents. Chile and Mexico are the only teams present to have retained their World Cup coaches - respectively the hangdog Nelson Acosta and the compulsive tinkerer Manuel Lapuente. They also both return with the attacking pairings that served them so well on the fields of France - Zamorano and Salas for Chile and Blanco and Hernandez for the Mexicans.

But another top striker from France 98 will not be in Paraguay. Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta pulled out alleging tiredness at the end of the European season. Midfield organiser Juan Sebastian Veron followed suit, leaving patriots like Diego Maradona seething and coach Marcelo Bielsa with a problem. Argentina's impressive new leading man will wait until today to call up the elusive striker Claudio Lopez, who played for Valencia in yesterday's Spanish Cup final.

Argentina's group seems to be the most difficult. They first face the emerging Ecuador, who are weak at the back but have some dangerous attackers, before meeting the two dark horses, Colombia and Uruguay.

Qualified engineer Javier Alvarez is constructing a new post-Valderrama Colombia. The new coach has exciting young talents to call on, such as rapid defender Ivan Cordoba, Arley Betancourt, a tiny but tricky midfielder, and dynamic striker Edwin Congo. The old guard have not all been discarded; Rene Higuita is back, although likely to start as reserve keeper. And there is a place for Faustino Asprilla, who recently hit the headlines for a bout of late-night gunslinging, drunkenly shooting in the air. On the field Asprilla could be seen in a new withdrawn role, making the bullets rather than firing them.

Their first opponents, Uruguay, are unknown quantities. The first kings of the global game, Uruguay are level with Argentina on 14 Copa America wins (Brazil have only five). But their second consecutive failure to qualify for the World Cup led to an agonising post-mortem. The shock result was the appointment of Daniel Passarella as coach. The former Argentina captain and coach will only observe the Copa America, taking notes for his main task of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. The confusion surrounding Passarella held up the team's preparations for so long that no one knows what to expect from them.

There are no such doubts about the hosts. Even though goalkeeper Jose- Luis Chilavert is boycotting the tournament for political reasons, Paraguay can be relied upon to defend with their customary resolution. But with home advantage they should be more adventurous than in the World Cup, and their magnificent centre-back Carlos Gamarra should occasionally be seen leading the charge.

A financial row has ruled out their best attacker from last year, Miguel Benitez. But Paraguay-ans are optimistic that the extraordinary 17-year- old Roque Santa Cruz, signed by Bayern Munich, can rise to the occasion.