James Lawton: Brazil enter the fray today, but Spain are the new torchbearers of the beautiful game

It is early yet and many possibilities remain but it is the promise of Spain that is so gripping. Maybe they are indeed the new Brazil
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The Independent Football

Now we have to wait for Spain, only Spain really, because if Brazil, who play tonight one day ahead of the favourites, are a formidable team, they do not carry much of the vital promise which dwindled a little more here in the din of Soccer City yesterday.

The Netherlands were third from last in the roll call of football nations who might just carry this 19th World Cup into a classic dimension, but as I write this high in the stands a little while after their defeat of Denmark 2-0 on a brilliant, winter mid-afternoon, all the senses are unfortunately dominated not by the football of the Oranje, decent enough though it was at times, but the racket of the infernal vuvuzelas and manically loud, piped music.

It makes it all the sadder that so far there have been no arias floating up here from beautiful playing surfaces, which make the Wembley abomination even more of a sick statement about English football's hold on what is most important in the game. No, mostly the football has been conducted in whispers.

Yes, Germany produced a few bars of Wagner the other night against the hapless Aussies, and reminded us that no one ever comes to the big show of football better prepared, more clear-eyed in their ambition, whatever the level of their talent.

Lionel Messi was beautiful in the victory over Nigeria and, who knows, Diego Maradona may work some emotional alchemy on a talented Argentina. But they did not hold their most promising notes; they offered some hints of exciting potential, but no more than that, and of course they produced a more extravagant prelude four years ago but tottered off the stage.

Brazil play tonight against scampering North Korea, who made such an impact back in 1966 when they sent the Italian coach home to a reception of rotten fruit and led the Portugal of Eusebio by three goals on a summer's afternoon at Goodison Park, and it is reasonable to expect a commanding performance from the team former World Cup winner Dunga has fashioned over the last few years.

But one Brazil insider puts it succinctly, if painfully, enough: "Dunga has made a strong team and Kaka might produce something special, but you know the truth is we don't do fantasy any more, we don't do perfection. Winning is enough for Dunga. If you want that other stuff, you better wait for Spain."

Yes, Spain. They are both the putative champions and saviours of the game, which at this level last produced teams to travel the ages when Brazil won so imperiously with Pele and Tostao and Gerson and Carlos Alberto in 1970, and then four years later Johan Cruyff's Netherlands produced some poignant and unforgettable football which could only be described as sublime failure.

Of course, there have been great men and great deeds in the interim; players like Paolo Rossi, Diego Maradona, and Zinedine Zidane have reached out for superb individual achievement, but we haven't had a team to carry us up to the stars.

Not, certainly with the promise that Spain, who won the European Championship with such élan and bite in Vienna two years ago, bring to their opening date with Switzerland beside the Indian Ocean in Durban tomorrow night.

It is early yet, of course, and many possibilities remain. Even England may find some form of resurrection with the help of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.

But it is the promise of the Spanish which is so gripping. Of all the tributes that have come Spain's way, few match in depth the one offered by yesterday's beaten coach of Denmark, the fine international player Morten Olsen. Coming into the tournament, he was asked: "Do you have a coaching philosophy?" This was a bit like asking a banker if he likes a bonus, but Olsen certainly saw the point of the question.

"Yes, of course I do. You always want to be a winner but you also want something more than that. The ideal is fast, technical football with good combination play, and the most hopeful thing about the future of football is that you can look at Barcelona and watch Spain.

"They are fantastic to watch and they are winners. That's so good for the game.

"What is good football? The answer is always subjective and people have their own views. Mine is that I prefer football to be good on the eye. As for tactics, well it depends on your players and opponents. You don't play the same way against Iceland as you do against Spain."

It was once said of Brazil, when they were still a repository of all that was brilliant and artistic and emotional in football, that adopting excessive defensive measures against them was probably the equivalent of draping the windows in brown paper in the event of a nuclear attack.

Whatever your attachments, it is surely not wrong to wish such a phrase could be inspired by the work of one team going about their business here in the next few weeks.

Maybe the Spain of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez and Fernando Torres are indeed the new Brazil. The possibility, at least, is something to beguile this World Cup which, like every one that has gone before, aches for the greatest of football. If Spain miss their target, we can only hope that it is not by much.

Complaints about the ball will keep bouncing back

Adidas, the producers of the World Cup projectile which is revealing some of the properties of an ageing beach ball, keep telling us that this "perfect" spheroid is the result of vast and expensive research.

Aerodynamic genius was apparently applied the project.

How much better, though, if they had thrown the damned thing to a bunch of professional footballers for a kick-around. If they had, goalkeepers like Robert Green and Algeria's Faouzi Chaouchi might not be spending some time in purgatory. What is certain, though, is that players of great skill like Messi and Kaka et al would not be wondering if it is too risky to deliver the kind of ambitious passes and shots so comfortably within their powers.

No amount of PR is going to diminish this scandal.

Can Maradona work miracles? He may need to

In all the brotherhood of coaches, perhaps the least surprising meeting of minds and spirits is that between Diego Maradona and the old Bulgarian hellraiser Hristo Stoichkov.

Stoichkov recently resigned from the Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa's richest club, after a season – a habit he formed during a catastrophic stewardship of his homeland's national team. Several key players said they could not work with the man known as Kamara – "The Dagger" – but the breaking point came when he insulted a Swedish referee in several languages.

Stoichkov, a marvellously gifted but notably undisciplined player, was this week found regaling a number of immigrant Bulgarian taxi drivers with stories of his colourful collisions with his friend Maradona, "best player I have ever seen".

Stoichkov also offered the minority, but not to be dismissed, view that, under the hand of Argentina's football god, we may see some extraordinary performances from the men in blue.

"So does that mean you think Argentina will win?" he was asked eagerly by someone holding a betting slip at 15-2. "No," said the great Stoichkov, "that will be Spain – by a mile."

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