Football: Zagallo is ready to forgive Leonardo

Brazil v Morocco: Stylish playmaker prepares to make a return from the wilderness
Click to follow
IN THE aftermath of the defeat of Scotland, Mario Zagallo, the coach of Brazil, gave a decent impression of a man starting to touch the frayed part of his nerves. A visit to the Brazilians' training camp in Lesigny provides ample explanation of his condition. In fact, it is a tribute to Zagallo's superhuman inner belief that he has voluntarily agreed, after four successful World Cup campaigns - two as player, two as coach - to pocket a nation's hysteria once again.

If you do not believe me, join the 2,000-strong band of camp followers who regularly press their noses to the fence of the Brazilians training ground in Ozoir-la-Ferriere or talk to the little girls who scream "Ronaldo, Ronaldo" repeatedly when the object of their affection steps within decibel range. On training days, Ozoir becomes a World Cup capsule, complete with segregated press areas, for Brazilians and the rest, concession stands and hot dog stalls.

Or you could walk through the tunnel leading from the Metro station to the Stade de France where the walls are plastered with giant-size posters of Denilson and, on the other side of the stadium concourse, through a piece of indutrial wasteland magically transformed into Village Brazil, complete with beach football, open all hours. Copacabana it is not, but the Brazilians have fashioned their own ingenious way of ensuring they never have to host their own World Cup. They hijack someone else's. Even the Parisians have warmed to the Jif-coloured tide.

The centre of attention at the final open training session was not for once Ronaldo or Denilson, whose praying figure has also been used in a poster advertising L'Equipe's first Sunday edition, but another favou- rite, Leonardo. One of the bigger cheers of an otherwise muted occ-asion at the opening gala in the Stade de France was reserved for Leon-ardo's introduction at the expense of the more prosaic and far less popular figure of Giovanni. Giovanni is a talented workhorse, Leonardo has style.

According to the posse of Brazilian journalists whose job it is to know, Leonardo could start the game today against Morocco in a role behind the front strikers, with Rivaldo moving to the left side of midfield. At times against Scotland, Brazil lacked syncopation, and though the second-half arrival of Denilson brought much-needed width to the attack, it also telegraphed the angle of Brazil's attacks. Denilson, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Leonardo are all exclusively left-footed.

The winning goal stemmed from a series of passes left to right which followed the pattern of a three-quarter movement at rugby union. The Moroccans will have digested the video and spent the week countering the damaging runs of Cafu, the right wing back. But the fact that Zagallo is still unsure of the balance of his midfield gives some hope to rival coaches.

One of those, Carlos Alberto Parreira, coach of the 1994 champions and now with Saudi Arabia, is still a trusted confidant. "We had dinner together ten days ago and spoke of this and that," Parreira said. "He wants to play a 4-3-1-2 system, but he has not yet found the right player to fit in the role behind the two strikers. He's tried about 10, even recalling Rai, but without finding anyone to provide the right balance." Leonardo, it seems, will be the latest triallist, but time is starting to run out. After the Moroccans, who stretched the Norwegians to the limit, the tasks will become stiffer.

For Leonardo himself, a return to the World Cup starting line-up will mark the final redemption for his infamous sending off against the US four years ago. An intentional elbow fractured Tab Ramos's jaw and put the American player out of the game for six months. Leonardo was rightly banned for the rest of the World Cup and returned to exile in Japan. His rehabilitation has taken time. The last six months have been spent warming the substitutes' bench.

Debate in the Brazilian camp has centred on defensive weakness, which is a little like criticising Pavarotti's written work. Defence has never figured much in Brazilian textbooks, but Zagallo believes once the competition boils down to the last eight, sound defence will be the key. "It would be nice to win with style, but we have to balance the risks," he said. That means a curb to the attacking instincts of Cafu and Carlos. "Sometimes they attack too much without cover against a counter-attack," added Zico, the technical assistant. "Cesar Sampaio and Dunga are the anchors, but they are not always able to do the job. Roberto Carlos and Cafu have to be disciplined about it."