A harsher reality which must be faced is that, if you accept the historical truth, it follows that this World Cup will either be glorious, if Brazil prevail, or a nightmare of cynicism and mediocrity from which the Argentines will emerge with a sly grin on their macho faces. We should pray for Brazil. Brazilian football is suited to the climate in which it is played. Possession is coveted. The pace is leisurely . . . then the moment of explosive acceleration, a rapid exchange of passes which leaves opponents for dead, victims of the sublime combination of pace and technique associated with the Brazilian teams of legend.
In recent World Cups we have but glimpsed Brazilian football at its glorious best. In Italy they promised at times, but ultimately succumbed to the brutal Argentines. In Mexico even the promise was missing. The last memorable Brazilian team lost 3-2 to the eventual champions, Italy, in Spain in 1982.
For those old enough to remember that game, and others, older still, who can summon to memory Pele, Tostao, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho, the graceful legends of Mexico 1970, the most fervent desire is to live to see another great Brazilian team pay homage to football's most cherished values: wit, style, invention. At their best the Brazilians elevated the sport beyond the material, the sterile prose of coaches, into a spiritual realm where, at its most beguiling, football touches the soul.
Sadly, the evidence of the last two World Cup finals suggests that international football is a brutal, worldly business no longer hospitable to football played the Brazilian way. Is there any longer a place for joyous self-expression in a game increasingly influenced by coaches who know more about destruction than creativity? As Milan demonstrated in the recent, inspiring European Cup final, a balance can be struck between organisation and individual brilliance. Football-lovers around the world must wish, profoundly, that Brazil can strike another blow for creativity.
Any assessment of Brazil's chances this time round must begin with their coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. Articulate and ostensibly reasonable, Parreira is a journalist's dream. He talks a great game - echoes of Graham Taylor - assuring all who listen that he does not intend to inhibit his players' natural talents. What he is seeking is some modification of the sublime, a rationalisation of gifts which takes into account the ugly realities of the modern game.
That reasonable pitch sounds fine on paper. Alas, when I visited the Brazilian camp for a few days, before their last serious warm-up against Argentina in March, rumours about the Brazilian players' disenchantment with Parreira's regime were confirmed. Parreira is an autocrat. The training sessions I witnessed were incredible. The most spectacularly gifted squad in the world were treated like children or, perhaps a more appropriate comparison, like mediocrities from the English First Division.
Walking his talented internationals through functional attacking and defensive routines, Parreira's was, at once, an imposing and ridiculous presence. The players were clearly unhappy, the sessions degenerating to farce as the mood of those being lectured slipped from sullen obedience to dumb insolence. Significantly, Romario, Brazil's most celebrated footballer, a brooding law unto himself, advanced an unconvincing injury claim as his excuse for failing to return from Barcelona for this World Cup rehearsal.
When I spoke to Pele in March about the blight coaches have cast upon the contemporary game, the great man passionately endorsed that view. Parreira was Pele's reference point.
Parreira is the problem Brazil must overcome. The latest news from the camp touches new heights of absurdity. Inviting further reproach, Parreira designated which seats his players would occupy for the flight from Brazil to the United States. Romario, ordered to sit next to his fellow strikers, Bebeto and Muller, the better to get to know them, again rebelled.
Despite all of that, Brazil are worthy favourites for a number of reasons. Their resentment of Parreira notwithstanding, they beat Argentina in Recife, convincingly, by two goals created by Muller, scored by Bebeto.
The team is abundantly gifted. At full-back, Leonardo is likely to replace the ageing, unfit Branco on the left. Cafu, an uninhibited attacker, is challenging Bayern Munich's Jorginho for the right-back position. The absence of the central defender, Mozer, may prove critical. Deprived of Mozer's sophistication, Brazil must settle for a conventional central defender in the shape of Ricardo Rocha.
The real strength and beauty of Parreira's team is in midfield where elegance and imagination, personified by Rai and Zinho, will blend with composure and a touch of steel, represented by Dunga, the captain, and Mauro Silva, who is as hard as any Argentine.
In attacking ability, Brazil are better endowed than any other competing nation. The worry is that so much trust has been placed in Romario, who is by turns indolent and brilliant. In the European Cup final, he did not want to know when the going got tough for Barcelona. He is no fighter of lost causes, rather a predator who hovers like a vulture.
Romario's striking partner, Bebeto, is a more formidable performer: roaming, swift, elusive, as deadly as snake-bite when the chances come. In Romario's absence against Argentina in March, Muller joined forces with Bebeto to spectacular effect. Feeding off the creativity of Leonardo, Cafu, Rai, Zinho and Dunga, I expect Bebeto, Romario and Muller to lead Brazil to victory in this World Cup. That prospect is utterly enchanting.
There is, however, another possibility: despair, in the form of Argentina, pithily described by one observer as 'a collection of athletes with big thighs, long hair and short tempers'. The Argentines are that: worse, they are nasty, a collection of blackguards in boots, the unacceptable, decadent face of the international game.
Argentina have reached the last two World Cup Finals, winning in 1986 thanks to the genius of Maradona. They are, in a word, bad, a cancer in the sport, caring little for its values or, indeed, the rules by which it should be played.
Sadly, leaving the stadium in Recife after Brazil had beaten Alfio Basile's hard cases, an uneasy feeling persisted: had this contest been for real, Argentina might have applied themselves more rigorously to the job and won a 0-0 draw. They certainly have the players to inflict their unique blend of malice and athleticism on any opponents. In Recife, Maradona stayed on the bench, a bloated old man recovering from a coke habit. But the revived, slimline Maradona is now ready to play and although he will never again be the great player of '86, this casualty of the modern world possesses enough guile to hurt any foe.
In Italy, Maradona played the later stages of the competition on one leg. Yet he was effective, a moment of his inspiration creating the goal that defeated Brazil. As bit players go, Maradona is still a special case.
All the usual suspects will contribute to the Argentine script written with Maradona's potentially decisive role in mind. Claudio Caniggia, returning from a year's suspension for drug abuse, will lead the attack. Oscar Ruggeri, the cynic's cynic, will personify rugged defence. Rodriguez, Simeone, Batistuta and Basualdo are other familiar names.
The most striking new character in the team will be Fernando Redondo, the long-haired, left-footed midfield brain, who determines the pace of Argentine attacks. Redondo is an outstanding player, powerful, poised, with beautiful touch and splendid vision. A graceful figure in a team of villains, Redondo is certain to be an influential character in the developing story.
As we begin our journey of discovery, the tale of the coming weeks telling us, definitively, where the game is, and where it is heading, prayers should be offered that Argentina are put in their place. Fifa's new strictures about the tackle from behind, issued to rid international football of the cynicism Argentina have come to symbolise, will, if rigorously applied, signal the beginning of a new age: the post-Argentine era; a return to joy and glory. Victory for Brazil.Reuse content