Football / World Cup USA '94: Continental drift gives Brazil new steel: Brilliant Branco restores the favourites' emotional equilibrium while the Spanish bow out after a stylish campaign

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A LESS erudite man than Carlos Alberto Parreira might have picked his words differently. Brazil had just reached the semi-finals for the first time in four tournaments, yet their coach insisted on praising his team's 'emotional equilibrium'. No wonder Americans are unsure what to make of 'soccer'.

As part of the host nation's crash course, Brazil's victory over the Netherlands must have been as perplexing as it was exhilarating. Over the previous three weeks, channel-surfing viewers chancing upon a match had wrestled with long balls, offside traps and nutmegs. Suddenly, live from Dallas, they were treated to the classic game of two halves.

For 45 minutes, the tournament's most eagerly awaited contest refused to catch fire. Brazil huffed and puffed but created nothing more than sparks; the Dutch seemed content for the whole affair to be a damp squib. Three-quarters of an hour and five goals later, 150 million Brazilians were fired with a belief that they finally have another team capable of fulfilling a nation's destiny.

In a competition with no manifestly superior side, they may be less than a week away from a record-breaking fourth trophy. Should that prove the case, Brazil will be forever indebted to Branco, the veteran of three World Cups who delved into the Roberto Rivelino textbook for the winning goal.

The real difference between the teams - perhaps between Brazil and all comers - was the partnership of Romario and Bebeto, who gave the favourites a 2-0 lead they somehow contrived to squander.

Those of his compatriots who booed Parreira before the game will obviously not hear a word in his favour, but it must also be said that the coach keeps calling the shots correctly. It would have been intriguing to be a fly on the wall at his half-time pep talk. From the restart it was noticeable that Brazil were hitting their passes earlier and longer, forcing a ponderous defence to turn and chase.

The ploy began working almost immediately. Aldair's 30-yard pass to the left wing found Bebeto, whose cross was converted with an awesome flourish by Romario.

When the Brazilians flew in for the finals, Romario refused to sit next to Bebeto, apparently considering him an inferior player. Everything Bebeto has done since proves they are on the same plane. The woeful pass by Frank Rijkaard that prompted his goal should not detract from the sublime balance and single-mindedness Bebeto showed as he rounded Ed De Goey before doubling the advantage.

Brazil, alas, are not nearly so well blessed for defenders. Euphoria was still sweeping the stands as Dennis Bergkamp shrugged off Marcio Santos's half-hearted challenge to strike his 22nd goal in 36 internationals. Claudio Taffarel promptly made a one-handed save to keep out Aron Winter's goalbound drive, only to be let down by slack marking when the Lazio man headed the equaliser.

With both teams throwing everything into the search for a winner, Brazil found one from an improbable source. Branco, who owed his place at left-back to the swing of an elbow that led to Leonardo's suspension, concentrated his venom into a free-kick 35 yards out. De Goey was undone by his own positioning and the placement of the shot, which flew in off the post.

Like his team's other scorers, Branco has European experience from a spell with Genoa. The last Brazilians to rule the world - the side of 24 years ago - did not have a single player based outside the country, whereas the present squad includes three each from Germany and Spain plus two apiece from Italy and France. Pele, among others, maintains the European influence is stifling flair, a criticism which clearly irritates Parreira.

'We do not play a European style,' he insisted when the subject again reared its head at the post- match press conference. 'We may play four at the back, but we don't use the long ball or man-for-man marking.

'All we've tried to do is organise the team when we haven't got the ball, to achieve a balance between defence and attack. Anything beyond that is a load of nonsense.'

Yes and no. The economical passing and delicate touch which Brazilians learn as soon as they can walk still sets them apart from players on the other side of the Atlantic. One wonderfully fluid flurry of first-time passes, ending with a near miss by Aldair on the stroke of half-time, was worthy of the class of '70.

But after the self-betrayals of the past five tournaments - especially 1982, when Zico, Falcao and Socrates were infinitely more gifted than Parreira's midfield - a resilient streak is also evident. It is neither fanciful nor Eurocentric to suggest that it has been fostered by weekly exposure to high-pressure fixtures in Serie A and the Bundesliga.

Parreira tacitly admitted as much, saying: 'This team's got emotional equilibrium. We beat the US with 10 men, and now we've defeated a stronger team despite losing a 2-0 lead. Many teams would have folded in those circumstances.' One assumes he was referring specifically to Brazilian teams.

His opposite number, Dick Advocaat, showed a lack of grace and realism in his verdict: 'The luckier team won.' Fortune supposedly favours the brave, but the Netherlands displayed a disappointing reluctance to venture anything until they were behind.

The sympathy they deserved over Bebeto's goal - Romario was in an offside position as his partner raced through - was forfeited by the two-man assault on Branco which set up the coup de grace. In practically the last act of an undistinguished final international, Ronald Koeman compounded Dutch dishonour by ploughing into the prostrate Brazilian.

The referee, curiously lenient throughout, neglected to reach for his red card. No matter: Branco provoked a Cotton Bowl carnival and left the Dutch to trudge wearily from their field of broken dreams. It was the kind of brutal set-piece Koeman may have thought he had under copyright. As Rivelino could have told him, certain talents have survived the continental drift.

BRAZIL (4-4-2): Taffarel (Reggiana); Jorginho (Bayern Munich), Marcio Santos (Bordeaux), Aldair (Roma), Branco (Fluminese); Mazinho (Palmeiras), Dunga (VfB Stuttgart), Mauro Silva (Deportivo La Coruna), Zinho (Palmeiras); Romario (Barcelona), Bebeto (Deportivo La Coruna). Substitutes: Cafu (Sao Paulo) for Branco, 90; Rai (Paris St-Germain) for Mazinho, 82.

NETHERLANDS (1-3-3-3): De Goey (Feyenoord); Koeman (Barcelona); Winter (Lazio), Valckx (Sporting Lisbon), Wouters (PSV Eindhoven); Rijkaard (Ajax), Jonk (Internazionale), Witschge (Feyenoord); Overmars (Ajax), Bergkamp (Internazionale), Van Vossen (Ajax). Substitutes: R De Boer (Ajax) for Rijkaard, 65; Roy (Foggia) for Van Vossen, 54.

Referee: R Badilla Sequeira (Costa Rica).

(Photograph omitted)