Football / World Cup Final: A finale fit to raise the spirits: Brazil v Italy: Echoes of the past as USA '94 climaxes with a classic confrontation of world powers - Ian Ridley feels that exceptional natural gifts will tame strength of character

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The Independent Online
THUS it ends with a final that is a fitting finale. Today the best World Cup for a quarter of a century pits against each other Brazil and Italy, the protagonists of that touchstone summer of 1970, as its parting gift to the global game, and none has scoffed at its billing by the Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. 'A great classic of international football,' he said as heads bowed to note the quotation.

There are similarities to this tournament beyond its last match, which affords both nations the chance to become the first to be champions for the fourth time. The most notable echo has been the evidence of the generally vibrant spectacle admirably provided by players forced to perform in punishing heat at times dictated by television schedules.

To follow, come inevitable comparisons. This Brazilian team is naturally constantly being questioned about its fidelity to deified predecessors; Romario and Bebeto to Pele and Jairzinho. The Italians are likened to their own Victor Ludorum in 1982; and Roberto Baggio - who was named provisionally in the team yesterday despite his hamstring injury - to Paolo Rossi.

The spirits of the past will always wander football; hopefully, thankfully. It will mean a due reverence for its great exponents and its copious culture. It is to them we are tempted to look for omens on such an auspicious occasion. This, though, is a match that has most to do with the modern.

History will judge the two teams and their place in the pantheon. There is nothing more that a team or a player can do than preside over a particular age. This tournament has not one outstanding side, not one great player, it has been said, yet Brazil have shown themselves performers blessed above all other contemporaries, and Romario has provided consistent and ample evidence of an exceptional ability. Italy, meanwhile, have stared into the well and drawn up the resolve that characterises the best, as Roberto Baggio has seized the moments to rival those men set apart from the gifted but ultimately deficient in either talent or temperament.

Herein lies the appeal of today's confrontation. Not to mention the colour in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the yellow and green and Azzurri of the two teams with still the most classically attractive strips in the world game.

'Brazil is living football actuality,' said Mario Zagalo, the coach of the 1970 team and technical co- ordinator to the present crop, explaining a more practical approach. 'Those teams who have tried to play 1970 football at this tournament have gone home already.'

Zagalo became coach 24 years ago only three months before the tournament, when Jorge Saldanha was dismissed for suggesting that he might dispense with Pele as part of his more functional outlook: like excluding Jesus from the Church, one commentator noted. Zagalo faced then the same tribulations that beset the affable Parreira now, he said. 'Except that there were 90 million coaches in Brazil then and now there are 160 million.'

The inflation of expectation during the pursuit of the obsession has since matched those of the country's population and currency. Suggestions and aspirations, from the highest to the lowest, have constantly assailed Parreira with the persistence of advertising copy writers in the offices of Madison Avenue or beggars on the pavements below.

Pele has urged Parreira to move Bebeto back to midfield and partner Muller with Romario, then give the young buck Cafu his head. A Brazilian fan encountered at a shopping mall pondered the question of whether victory by a single goal in the final would be acceptable before smiling and answering: 'Perhaps. If it was 5-4.'

The arguments against Parreira are that his team has become diverted from its destiny by European values of athleticism and commitment, eschewing Brazilian traits of grace and sleight of foot; that there is a lack of invention in midfield. Yes, the defence has looked sound, conceding only three goals in six matches, but it is a little like saying that Pavarotti's handkerchief looks well- laundered tonight.

'FIFA should change the rules to let us have five teams in the World Cup,' Parreira said. 'One defensive, one creative, one attacking, one fantasy and one competitive. Then we might have a chance of one team that would please half the people in Brazil.'

The criticism of the midfield is valid nevertheless. With Rai failing to respond to the challenge of matching his product to his promise, there is little hint of a Gerson or Socrates. Parreira put it down to a cyclical absence of creators. Mazinho and Zinho have looked, at this level, limited scurriers down the flanks, although Dunga has begun to expand his repertoire.

On the betrayal of Brazilian heritage, Parreira has gone a long way towards repairing the damage done four years ago by his predecessor, Sebastiao Lazaroni, who installed a five-man defence, even if the midfield anchor Mauro Silva, solid of frame and approach, frequently becomes an auxiliary defender.

'There has been a great deal of misunderstanding,' Parreira said. 'We have never played and do not pretend to play European style. We play with a flat back four. We don't use the long ball. We don't use man-to-man marking. The only thing we try to do is organise the team when it doesn't have the ball. We try to achieve balance between attack and defence. Anything else is just a lot of stories.'

With such a pair of strikers as Romario and Bebeto there is always the prospect of a happy ending. The shortcomings of a defence that has looked vulnerable to the set piece, even if hitherto only punished by Holland, and the inadequacies of midfield are always liable to be overcome. Besides which, the pair have frequently worked back to enhance the potential of the midfield, as Zagalo said that Pele and Jairzinho did in 1970.

'We are different people,' Romario said. 'Bebeto is the type that stays at home. I am a street cat. The only thing that we have in common on the field is that we both score goals. Bebeto is more of a free-flowing, moving, all-round player than I am. He practically plays for all 90 minutes, concentrating on what is happening all the time. And I, my strength? My strength is sometimes people think I am sleeping.'

Romario does indeed operate in staccato, unlike the World Cup's previous outstanding individual Diego Maradona, whom he begins to resemble in squat appearance. Romario glides across the turf and pounces with a speed of thought and change of pace only at the opportune moment. Maradona was more consistently involved in a game, dictating it. Like Maradona, though, when not able to score himself, he draws defenders to him before finding a colleague consequently left free.

Such a move, when Maradona set up Claudio Caniggia to score, brought Argentina a victory over Brazil four years ago in a second- round match, from which the Brazilians have learnt much, and not just defensively. Certainly against Sweden in the semi-final they did not look like conceding a breakaway goal despite similar attacking frustration. And though they may not yet have been subjected to sustained pressure in a route to the final more comfortable than Italy's, they have adopted a game plan to each requirement, mixing quick and slow build-up, long pass with short, physique with technique.

Against the United States, for example, they had seen how the host nation clogged the centre of the field against the inflexible Colombians and utilised instead the flanks. In the match against Holland, a swift ball out of defence by Aldair to Bebeto exposed the Dutch vulnerability down the left flank and instigated the opening goal for Romario. Then confronted by Swedish cussedness, they again took wing to break finally this dreadful Norway with knobs on - the blond leading the bland - with another goal by Romario, his fifth of the competition.

Roberto Baggio has the same total - one behind the tournament's top scorers in Russia's Oleg Salenko and Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov - and the fitness of the current world player of the year after tweaking a hamstring in the semi-final against the brave Bulgarians will be crucial to the closeness and quality of the match as well as to Italy's fortunes.

He came through a light training session last night, but the Italian team doctor said his chances of playing today were still only 50-50. It will probably take an amputation to keep him away from the fray, however, and he seems certain to play at least some part of the match.

The definite absence of the suspended Alessandro Costacurta, doubly unfortunate after similarly missing Milan's European Cup victory over Romario's Barcelona, will be handicap enough. After the injury to Franco Baresi, which was for Italy a blessing in disguise, Costacurta responded with towering aplomb as he benefited from the move inside from left-back of the faultless Paolo Maldini. Italy's coach, Arrigo Sacchi, resisted the urge to bring back Baresi, knowing that Brazil would aim arrows at this Achilles' heel, still not fully recovered from injury. The replacement, Luigi Apolloni, will still be a target for Romario's darts.

Italy's strength of character through the crises of defeat by Ireland and the sending off of their goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca against Norway, when Giuseppe Signori subsequently gave such an unselfish, industrious display, will inspire them to one more effort. It assumes, though, that there is still fuel in the tank to propel them through the likely 90-degree afternoon heat of California after a five- hour flight across three time zones following Wednesday's semi-final, during which they visibly flagged.

Their driving forces in midfield of Demetrio Albertini and Dino Baggio, whose goal against Norway in particular and attitude in general has typified Italian grit, should be the match of Dunga and Mauro Silva. Roberto Donadoni, too, is at least the equal of either of Brazil's wide midfielders, though it remains a mystery why Sacchi did not include in his squad Sampdoria's Attilio Lombardo, who would have solved their problem on the right. Today Sacchi opts for the experience of Nicola Berti, though Berti has not looked the power of four years ago, following serious injury.

Any striking partner for Dino Baggio has paled in the sun by comparison with either Romario or Bebeto, notably the lumbering Pierluigi Casiraghi. Sacchi has preferred Daniele Massaro, despite the ability of Signori to offset the forays of the ambitious Jorginho. Still, like all roads leading to Rome, it comes back to Roberto Baggio, frail of frame but not of spirit; touch, technique and an eye for goal to mirror Brazil's forwards'.

'Our fate is to suffer,' said Sacchi following the second-round win over Nigeria, eked out after Baggio had stood up when Italy were 90 seconds from standing down, and it may well be a similar lament after the final. This time Baggio's touching tears of the semi- final could be for a reason other than joy. For Brazil have the more matchwinners. If not by 4-1, by two to one.

(Photographs, graphic and team profiles omitted)

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