Brazil: The most glorious time warp in sport

No team in history have spun beauty and style into a glorious winning discipline quite like the South Americans - and the modern team still carry the flame. As he watches them train, James Lawton sees why Capello's men face the ultimate challenge tonight

It doesn't matter where it happens, in a hill town above Barcelona, a factory field in Japan or, as it did three years ago before a catastrophic defence of their fifth World Cup title, a village on the fringe of the Black Forest, the fantasy is always the same.

It is the idea that even the ultimate pressure of a World Cup will never compromise a Brazilian birthright to play football more exquisitely than any other nation on earth and last night we had fresh evidence of the phenomenon.

Surprisingly so when you remembered that it was only in Beijing last year that coach Carlos Dunga was pronounced a dead man back home after his side lost to Argentina and were obliged to settle for Olympic bronze.

So in the hot dusk at the Khalifa Stadium you might have thought it would have to be a little different, and certainly more earnest, as the Brazilians trained under the stern gaze of Dunga.

Even the beautifully talented Kaka had insisted, "When we play we like to make a nice event for the people, but every one of us knows that the important thing is winning – only that. It is something we've had to learn in the last few years."

Yet when they hand out the training bibs the world of Brazilian football returns to the most glorious time warp in all of sport. Kaka makes a run of liquid grace. Robinho, who despite words to the contrary last night, is believed by the Brazilians to be terminally disaffected by the possibility that his future is at Manchester City, performs an impish trick.

Robinho is plainly not fit and will not figure against England, but for a little while he is nourished before your eyes by bonhomie and the football ethos which he is most familiar.

Of course, there are some haunting absences. Ronaldo, apparently, still believes that he might just resurrect the old scoring brilliance, as he did in Germany three years ago, but he was almost immobile then and a Brazilian insider tells you, "Poor Ronaldo, he still thinks he can do it but playing back in Brazil, I'm afraid, has left him completely out of the picture. The gap in standards between Brazilian and European league football is growing all the time."

Ronaldinho, a vital creative force in Japan seven years ago but a superstar locked in decline ever since Brazil's failure in Germany, also dreams of a return to the embrace of his nation, the kind of popular campaign for reinstatement which Luiz Felipe Scolari resisted in the case of the aged Romario only at the cost of being burned in effigy before delivering the 2002 triumph in the Far East.

Some flickers of good form at Milan may have brought Ronaldinho some way back into the thoughts of Dunga, but the insider speaks again of long odds. "If Ronaldinho is to play for Brazil again he has to find strength and consistency; unfortunately, a lot of people feel his career just turned into a pursuit of money, and that he let go of his own ambition. In Brazilian football that perception can be a death warrant."

Dunga's regime may retain in Kaka and Robinho the capacity to inflict extraordinarily unfettered talent but, as England will see tonight, the coach has undoubtedly shifted some of the old priorities, away from excessive reliance on the virtuosity that Ronaldinho personified when he ran amok in the quarter-final against England in 2002 before being sent off. Yet if Ronaldinho joined the company of such legends as Pele, Garrincha and Tostão in that blinding run, there has always been a demand for discipline. Brazil are expected to field the 4-2-3-1 formation which has brought a run of victories, ultimately comfortably World Cup qualification and the sense of a team that has shed much of the frailty which betrayed the 2006 campaign. However, there is a deep seated worry about the heavy dependence on the cutting edge of Seville's quirky, brilliant striker Luis Fabiano. Privately, Dunga agonises over the consequences of serious injury to Fabiano.

"If Fabiano goes, we have nothing up front," said another camp insider last night. "Ronaldo is dreaming if he thinks he has a chance of returning to the team and Adriano is discredited by everyone but himself. In Brazil he is regarded as a one-man train wreck."

So why are Brazil considered such strong favourites for next year in South Africa ahead of European champions Spain, world champions Italy, eccentrically Maradona-coached Argentina, and, maybe, England? There is, as always, the fantasy factor, one scarcely discouraged by a beautifully fashioned victory over Italy at the Emirates Stadium early this year, but there is also the dimension touched on by England's Fabio Capello yesterday when he explained why he was so eager to travel to the desert for this latest examination of his resources.

"Brazil are such a great football nation because of two things: their style and their imagination, and when you play them you know are are going to face the toughest test because they have the ability to destroy you in a minute. It has happened so often, if you can do well against Brazil you can say, 'yes I'm a footballer.'

"Of course I want to play Brazil," Capello added, "it is another great opportunity for us to prove that we can compete – and I do not mind that we play the game without some of our leading players because if you are going to do well in a World Cup you have to know all of the members of your squad.

"It is very important to know that you can play well against a team like Brazil. They have players like Kaka and Robinho, great talents, and now they obviously have a strong team who qualified for the World Cup with two games to play. Dunga has done well and he presents a great challenge, You know, he played in Italy and learnt a lot of the pragmatism of the Italians."

There was a hint of an ironic smile when he said that – and maybe a not totally unwarranted touch of pride. In his playing days he scored twice against the Brazilians. Capello was not a noted goalscorer. He was rather like Dunga, a superior water-carrier and if he is fascinated to know especially how Wayne Rooney will inflict his ability on the great football nation, he also plainly relishes the chance of striking a few psychological blows against an upstart coach who may already have won some of his toughest battles.

Certainly there was no shortage of confidence last night from the man who has won a new mandate in arguably the toughest job in all of football, the placating of a nation which believes not only in a God-given right to victory but also the guardianship of all that is best in the game. One of Dunga's predecessors was so enraged by one critic he took out a gun and threatened to shoot him.

Dunga, for the moment, is contenting himself with the belief that he has indeed gathered together the ingredients for Brazil's sixth successful assault on the World Cup. "Yes," he said, "I'm very happy with the shape and the progress of the team. I think we are very close to having most things in place. Obviously the men who are getting called up on a regular basis have a head start. They have already taken a very big step. Let's face it, if I can't get a nucleus together after three years, I deserve the sack. We'll be looking at everyone until the last day. The national team is open to everyone and we are going to keep trying people out.

"Brazilian football doesn't change its style. It's short passes, quick football. It's our way of playing the game and the important thing is that it allows great players to perform."

Last night, briefly, it flowed in the Khalifa Stadium with all its old magnetism. As the Brazilians worked, you could understand all over again why Capello had brought his developing team to such a test before the last run to the most daunting challenge of their football lives.

Kaka, who England know could undermine them in a handful of seconds, was gracious about Capello and his players. "Capello's way of preparing a team is an important characteristic of this England side but we cannot forget they also have other important characteristics and they are some very good players." Dunga also praised "the dynamic way of England football, the enjoyable way of playing."

Solid praise, indeed, from the source of football's greatest light but what will it amount to tonight when Brazil attempt to make a statement about how closely they remain in touch with the best of their tradition? Capello's great fear is that it may be mere reflected glory. Some glory, however.

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