Football: Underdogs bear the bite of Brazil

Tim Vickery in Asuncion on a match which can spring a surprise; Copa America final: A test of nerve for Uruguay's young high-fliers as the favourites blend fire with flair
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The Independent Online
THERE MUST BE something in the air in the Uruguayan village of Paso de los Toros that produces fat football coaches with hangdog expressions. Both the Chile coach Nelson Acosta and Uruguay's Victor Pua come from the same small settlement. The meeting of their two sides in Tuesday's semi-final left Pua looking slightly the happier, as his team won their second consecutive penalty shoot-out and continued their progress to today's final.

Rather like Denmark, who hauled themselves off the beach to win the 1992 European Championship, the Uruguayans have confounded all expectations. In many ways, Uruguay's story is even more astonishing. Pua is not even head coach, an honour that belongs to the Argentine Daniel Passarella.

They sent a young team (average age 23) with the objective of unearthing two or three players for next year's World Cup qualifiers. Contrary to some reports, the team are not a cohesive group who have played many games together. Assembled at the last minute, they won a friendly against Paraguay a month ago, Uruguay's first game in a year. Their other warm-up, at home to Mexico had to be called off when bad weather prevented the Mexicans from flying.

Nothing has stopped the Uruguayans flying. Confidence has rocketed; striker Marcelo Zalayeta is not as cumbersome as he looks, and supported by the elegant distribution of Magallanes and the strong right side running of Coelho, Uruguay have caused problems to all their opponents. The most impressive feature of their play, though, has been their defensive work. Carrini is a goalkeeper of great promise who starred in the recent World Youth Cup; but he has had remarkably little to do.

Fleurquin, Coelho, Garcia and even Magallanes have consistently denied the opposition space through hard work and intelligent positioning. The loss of Pablo Garcia, suspended, is a severe blow to Uruguay's faint hopes. From the moment that he came into the team for the quarter-final the balance of the midfield looked better.

Brazil will expect rather more from Cafu and Roberto Carlos - and Ze Roberto. The Bayer Leverkusen player's appearance as an orthodox left winger was the surprise weapon which was so effective in Brazil's semi- final against Mexico. Against Argentina Ze Roberto was seen in a marking role, and this kind of flexibility is one of the hallmarks of the new Brazil of coach Vanderley Luxemburgo.

Last year's World Cup team were predictable, a commentator's dream with every player carrying out a pre-determined function. On taking over, Luxemburgo declared the era of versatility - his squads would he composed of players who could carry out different functions and operate in different positions.

Ze Roberto's club colleague Emerson is a case in point. Brazil's unsung hero has provided a stark contrast with the World Cup central midfield duo of Dunga and Cesar Sampaio, slow around the field and slow to move the ball. Emerson has been the lungs of Luxemburgo's Brazil; his driving runs and passes to Ze Roberto have set up two of the most important goals of the campaign - Ronaldo's winner against Argentina and Amoroso's opener against Mexico.

Emerson is also involved in the less savoury side of Luxemburgo's Brazil; the systematic fouling. Terrified that their weak centre-backs might he exposed, the Brazilian midfield prefer to give away a succession of free- kicks 30 yards from their own goal. It is a common tactic in Brazilian club football, where games frequently feature 70 fouls; no wonder legendary Tostao described their game as the most violent in the world.

Some Brazilian coaches openly admit that they use fouls as a resource of the game. Little nudges and kicks from behind, the offences are not seen as serious enough to warrant cards, but have the effect of slowing down their rivals and giving time to get men behind the ball. Brazil's last two games make it clear that Luxemburgo has introduced this dubious tactic into the international arena. Defending deep, Brazil have occasionally looked to draw the opposition forward and then strike out with counter- attacks of dazzling speed. But it means that their midfielders have enormous distances to cover, and the team have tired.

Whether the young Uruguay team will be able to take advantage is another matter. They have enjoyed their underdog status up to now. But with just one win in their five games they look hopelessly outgunned. If Uruguay can hold on until half-time then nerves will rattle in the Brazilian camp, and a smile may even break out on the substantial face of Victor Pua.