Brazil play a game of risk

Tim Vickery feels Paraguay can make it awkward for Luxemburgo
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Most of South America viewed the 2006 World Cup bid fiasco with a sense of cool detachment. With 32 teams now involved, even Argentina would struggle to stage the tournament. For the time being Brazil is the continent's only candidate.

Most of South America viewed the 2006 World Cup bid fiasco with a sense of cool detachment. With 32 teams now involved, even Argentina would struggle to stage the tournament. For the time being Brazil is the continent's only candidate.

It is inconceivable that Paraguay could host the World Cup. The impoverished nation had to wait until last year for its first opportunity to stage the Copa America, the South American championships, which have been held for over 80 years. Paraguay's star goalkeeper, José Luis Chilavert, boycotted the tournament. Health and education, he argued, should be the government's priorities. Many Para- guayans agreed with him; at the same time, they weredelighted to be at the centre of attention because of football rather than a military coup.

The blow to their pride, though, came on the field. As always with the Copa America, the tournament was set up to produce a final between Brazil and the hosts. But after topping their group, Paraguay's nerve faltered as soon as they reached the knock-out stage, and they were eliminated on penalties by Uruguay.

Compensation time comes on Wednesday, when Paraguay play host to Brazil in the fifth round of South America's marathon World Cup qualification campaign. Paraguay have yet to find the solidity which made them so difficult to play against in France 98, when they went through the 16-game qualification campaign plus four matches in France without once losing by more than a single goal. Their two away games this time have produced defeats of 2-0 and 3-1. But they remain feared opponents at home, and Wednesday brings the promise of history.

Only once have Brazil ever suffered defeat in World Cup qualification, and the result had as much to do with the conditions as the opposition. In 1993 Bolivia struck with two late goals as the extreme altitude of La Paz wilted the Brazilians. Defeat on Wednesday, then, would be Brazil's first under normal conditions.

Last month they were just five minutes away from going down to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro. A controversial pen-alty saved Wanderley Luxemburgo's side, but a chorus of boos rang round the Maracana at the final whistle. Brazil were a mess. After four rounds, Brazil's strikers have yet to score a goal. Rivaldo's weakness as an organiser has left the midfield disjointed. But the centre-backs have attracted most criticism.

Compensating for the lack of time available on the training ground, Luxemburgo has relied on the club understanding of the Roma duo, recalling Aldair to partner Zago at the heart of the defence. Both have looked uncomfortable. Zago has never been a defender of international class, while age has robbed Aldair of his sureness of touch. His dreadful slip presented Uruguay with their early lead. He was booed for the rest of the game, forcing Luxemburgo to admit that Aldair's international days are over.

With Zago picking up a second yellow card, Brazil go into the Paraguay game with an entirely new centre-back partnership. Milan's new acquisition, the talented but erratic Roque Junior, carries a heavy responsibility, since alongside him Fabio Luciano, of Corinthians, faces a testing debut.

Luxemburgo's strangereluctance to blood new centre- backs on the recent tour to Britain now looks like an error, particularly as the defence will be without its usual protective shield. With his lung power and no-frills ability, the holding midfielder Emerson has become one of the most important players in the team. But he too is suspended, and the plodding World Cup veteran Cesar Sampaio is set to return.

For Luxemburgo the risks are high and his brand of humourless arrogance has critics perfecting their aim. His knowledge of football is extensive, but pressure is bringing to the fore his psychological flaws.

A week after the Paraguay game, Brazil entertain Arg-entina in the first-ever meeting of the two great rivals in World Cup qualification. Two defeats would make Luxemburgo's position untenable. July, then, provides a stiff challenge for Brazil's team, and a potentially decisive one for their coach.

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