Lights dim for Brazil's dream team

Four-times World Cup winners are facing the ultimate darkness – humiliating failure to qualify for next year's finals
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There is a perplexed air about the last Brazilian to score in a World Cup final. It was much easier 31 years ago. Even the ball seemed to collaborate, sitting up perfectly for the captain Carlos Alberto Torres to apply the memorable finishing blow to Brazil's 4-1 win over Italy. Now Carlos Alberto shrugs his huge shoulders, opens his wide smile and says: "We keep changing the players and changing the coach, but we need to change the mentality."

Brazil have used 54 players in the current World Cup qualification campaign. They are now on their third coach. Luiz Felipe 'Big Phil' Scolari took charge for his first game in Montevideo last Sunday as Brazil faced Uruguay in a vital World Cup qualifier. 'Big Phil saves Brazil from the black-out' read one banner in the visiting supporters' end, making reference to the giant country's energy crisis.

However, any hopes that Scolari would instantly galvanise the team proved unfounded. The peoples' choice scowled from the touchline as Brazil sank to a pallid 1-0 defeat. The black-out once more extended to the Brazil attack, and looming ever closer is the ultimate darkness – the team's first failure to qualify for the World Cup finals.

With one goal in their last three games, Brazil are sliding down South America's qualifying table. Defeat at home to Paraguay next month would probably see Brazil slip from fourth to sixth, outside the qualifying places.

In Carlos Alberto's day, making it to the World Cup was a mere formality; either because Brazil had won the previous tournament and were through automatically as holders, or because, as in 1970, they made the campaign a victory parade, winning all their games along the way.

Apart from its immense aesthetic appeal, Carlos Alberto's goal is important because it brought the curtain down on the golden age of Brazilian football. Between 1958 and 1970 Brazil won three out of four World Cups. All they have to show for the subsequent decades is a win on penalties in 1994, following an uninspiring 120 minutes against Italy, the country that Carlos Alberto and company had slain in such style.

In their heyday Brazil were usually the fittest of all teams. So magnificently prepared were they in 1970, for example, that even in the heat of Mexico Rivelino does not recall once having to go to the pitchside to drink water. Games were frequently won in the second half.

Brazil were also more tactically astute than most of their opponents, the fruit of intense work carried out on the training grounds in the 1940s and 50s. The back four with attacking full-backs was developed in Brazil. In 1958 they unleashed 4-2-4. In Chile in 1962 it was 4-3-3. For Mexico 1970 they went with 4-5-1; when Brazil lost possession all bar Tostão withdrew behind the line of the ball.

However, the world has since moved on. If not everyone is capable of copying Brazil, many can learn how to stifle them.

The signs have been there for some time. Brazil had difficulty qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, leaving it to the last game to seal their place. The major problems were away from home. In four games as visitors Brazil were only able to beat the traditional South American whipping boys, Venezuela. Now, with the one big group format, there are more away games to be played, and the risk of defeat is consequently higher. In this campaign Brazil have lost four of their seven away games.

The marathon format has done much to bring about a levelling of standards. Previously, international football in South America was played in quick bursts, outside of which it was all but impossible for the likes of Ecuador to secure high-profile friendlies. Now they can count on a glamorous and competitive game every month. They can build team spirit, develop in tactical terms, and breed confidence from good results.

While others have progressed, Brazil have stood still. A surfeit of success spoiled the supporters and spread complacency throughout their game. Winning came to be seen as natural, almost pre-ordained, rather than the end product of a process. In their heyday they created the collective framework in which their stars could shine. Later, they became convinced that it was merely a case of putting their stars on the field and victory was assured.

It is a tendency which the Nike millions have done nothing to diminish. Rather, Brazil have become the victims of their sponsor's success in marketing them as a dream team, an unbeatable galaxy of stars. But the dream team has never shown its face outside the pages of glossy magazines or the famous airport lounge in the television advert. For neutral observers who followed their run up to France 98, the surprise was not that they came so dramatically unstuck in the final. More surprising was that they managed to get so far.

The dangers of star dependence are evident in the performances of Rivaldo and Romario. In the absence of Ronaldo these two are the biggest stars in Brazil's armoury. But the playmaker and goalscorer seem incapable of developing a relationship. In three games this year they have yet to exchange one worthwhile pass.

Scolari is almost certainly pleased to be without them for the Copa America, which is now set to start on Wednesday. Announcing his squad last Friday, Brazil's coach seemed delighted to have the chance to implant his philosophy in an atmosphere which is competitive but without the pressure of World Cup points at stake.

"We intend to win," he said, "but the fundamental thing for me in the Copa America is that it gives us the chance to work towards efficient tactical positioning." Hence the importance given to the recall of the USA 94 veteran Mauro Silva. The Deportivo La Coruña midfielder will be expected to help provide cover for Brazil to attack down the flanks, dropping back into the defensive line when necessary.

Scolari's hope is that a more solid defence will free the attack from its inhibitions. "We need more daring up front. We need our opponents to fear us again," said the man who has to live with the terror of becoming the first coach not to qualify Brazil for the World Cup.