The mellow yellow men come to town

Favouritism rarely sits well with Brazil, which is why Parreira is playing down expectations
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The Independent Football

On the road leading down to Brazil's training camp in Königstein, 25 kilometres north-west of Frankfurt, homeowners have decorated their outside walls with pictures of the visiting stars. Needless to say, there is no shortage of choice, without copying the neighbours. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka, the fab four of samba-beat, are all household names in a quiet little German health resort.

Everybody knows Brazil, five times champions of the world, and everybody loves them when they revert to type as champions of attacking football. Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach four years ago, and recently courted by the Football Association, was essentially a pragmatist, a tough southerner who believes that winning is everything. Carlos Alberto Parreira, criticised for employing a functional style to win the 1994 title, has sensibly taken his lead this time from the glorious talent available to him and is prepared to give his magic quartet their heads as long as they deliver goals and results.

What the world should therefore see in Berlin on Tuesday is something akin to what spectators were privileged to watch last week on the Königstein practice ground renamed "Mario Zagallo Arena". The difference is that in Königstein there are no opponents as Cafu and Rob-erto Carlos stand out wide on the halfway line while Emerson or Ze Roberto, the two far less fashionable workhorses in central midfield, start another move under the critical eye of Parreira.

In front of this quartet are the fab four, all demanding the ball, which seems drawn to Ronaldinho more readily than anyone else. Typically, he will feed it out to Roberto Carlos for a driven cross or forward to either Ronaldo for a dinked finish or the more powerful Adriano for a fearsome one. The reserve goalkeeper between the posts (Dida's fingers are kept out of the firing line) has all the confidence of a man facing a firing squad.

Tuesday's opponents, Croatia, will almost certainly employ massed defence and ruthless marking as their best hope of avoiding the bullets. For now, Parreira insists on countless repetitions of the attacking drills before calling a halt and allowing more relaxed games of piggy-in-the-middle, or keepy-uppy, Ronaldinho's funny blue hat only underlining his own sense of playfulness and sheer enjoyment.

It would be good to think some of that sense of fun might survive the next month, when the pressure is on - not least from a Brazilian population of 178 million football-lovers. Having to turn out in the first game last Friday, as had been the duty of the reigning champions in every tournament from 1974 until this year, would certainly have been an added burden (which may explain why there have been so many surprise results on opening night down the years).

Parreira, who has also coached Kuwait (in 1982 in England's group), the United Arab Emirates (1990) and Saudi Arabia (2002) at the finals, is trying to play down expectations, insisting: "Germany and Italy are just as much favourites as us. We know what we can do but we don't see ourselves as favourites."

The rest of the world does, while being forced to acknow-ledge that favouritism has rarely sat well with Brazil: a haunting defeat in Rio's 1950 final by Uruguay; brutally kicked out of the tournament in 1966; placed no higher than fifth from 1982 to 1990 after being squeezed out by Italy, France and Argentina.

Back at Königstein, where there was even a dog dressed in Brazilian yellow, the Arsenal midfielder Gilberto Silva was trying to turn the role of favour-ites into a positive. "It is because of what the team have achieved," he said. "We have won the World Cup, the Confederations' Cup and the Copa America. It's difficult to compare with four years ago. The system has changed, the coach is different, but we've got a lot more experience."

The opinions of the former pros travelling with the Brazilian circus tend to be mixed, especially among those who have tasted disappointment in similar circumstances. Roberto Falcao, the old Roma midfielder entitled to feel he should have been a winner in '82 or '86, is now one of the huge contingent attached to the Globo television network and is adopting a cautionary tone: "Parreira must find the balance between attack and defence. That's his most important task."

It may be necessary to remind Cafu and Roberto Carlos, attacking full-backs with more than 250 caps between them, of their defensive duties from the start against a capable Croatia side (winners of their qualifying group, ahead of Sweden). Then there is Lucio, one of the two central defenders based in the German Bundesliga, who Parreira insists will be allowed to rampage forward, as he is wont to do. Juan alongside him should offer greater security than Roque Jnr, once of Leeds and no longer in the squad, whose comical defending was a feature of such setbacks as going 3-0 down to Argentina by half-time in a World Cup qualifying game a year ago.

That was a match to shake all the optimism from Rio to Porto Alegro. Yet all was soon mellow yellow again when the same old rivals were drubbed 4-1 in the Confederations' Cup final, the official rehearsal for this tournament.

This season, Dida has had embarrassing days in goal for Milan, Cafu (now 36) and Ronaldo have been worried by injury, and Roberto Carlos has often been poor. Yet a new generation is in the dug-out, desperate for a chance, including the Lyon defender Cris and the Real pair Cicinho and Robinho. "We still enjoy playing football," Gilberto insisted with his gentle smile. Neutrals must hope that comes through over the next few weeks, whether or not the new heroes of Königstein do.