Paths cross long after Craig Brown's school days

His side have been written off both at home and abroad.
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FORTY summers ago, when Mario Zagallo was helping a teenage prodigy named Pele to weave a course of grace and havoc through the World Cup finals, another 17-year-old embarked on a football career replete with promise. Craig Brown's days were so full of possibilities that he scarcely noticed Brazil's beautiful gain in Sweden.

"The boy they all wanted," as one headline dubbed him, had just signed for Rangers and thought the world was at his feet. "I was also a pretty useful golfer with a handicap of three and I'd started a PE course at Jordanhill," Brown recalls. "So I was bursting with hope and anticipation, as young boys are."

By the time Zagallo and Pele were reunited at the 1970 tournament in Mexico - the older man as coach to the team who scaled heights seldom touched by anyone before or since - the bountiful game had shattered Brown's knees and dreams. Unable to break through at Ibrox because of a "white Brazilian", Jim Baxter, he soldiered on with Dundee and Falkirk before the injury that still troubles him today forced his retirement.

That summer, as he divided his time between coaching, playing golf, lecturing in education at a college in Ayr (he had gone on to become head-teacher in a primary school after football) and staying up until the small hours to savour the brilliance of Brazil on television, the odds against Brown ever pitting his tactical acumen against Zagallo's in World Cup combat would have been astronomical.

On Wednesday, however, their divergent paths come together at last. Donning the mantle of underdogs that fits them so well, Brown's Scotland confront the holders, who are again under the stewardship of the 70-year-old Zagallo, in the opening match of France 98. All it needs now is for Pele to show up.

While it is Brown's managerial debut in the four-yearly football-fest, anyone citing his inexperience in global competition is liable to get short shrift. In fact, he points out, he has been in charge of two Scottish World Cup squads, albeit at youth level, and not lost in 10 games except in a shoot-out.

Brown's tendency to refer to, ostensibly, minor events, owes less to pedantry than to the importance he places on development in his capacity as technical director of the Scottish FA. Euro 96, when Scotland drew with the Dutch, beat Switzerland and lost to what he admits were "two brilliant goals" after more than matching England, proved his methods could translate to "the big team".

And, anyway, despite being distracted in 1958, he is hardly a novice when it comes to the World Cup. Denis Law played golf rather than risk seeing the auld enemy triumph in 1966. Brown, whose patriotism is tempered by greater urbanity, preferred to study the "very efficient team" Alf Ramsey had built. "I didn't take any pleasure in England's win but nor did it bug me like it did Denis. I admired a lot of the players: Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Nobby Stiles."

In 1982, when Scotland went to the finals in Spain on a working holiday, he was manager of Clyde. Four years on, in Mexico, he was on the coaching staff under Alex Ferguson. By 1990, he was Andy Roxburgh's No 2 in Italy.

Even when Scotland missed out on USA 94, after a qualifying campaign which brought Roxburgh's resignation, Brown was there to assess forthcoming European Championship opponents. "When I saw Russia play Brazil in San Francisco, I was amazed to hear the Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, being jeered.

"It was the same before the final against Italy in Los Angeles. The supporters weren't happy with the way Brazil were playing, but they hadn't won the World Cup in 24 years and Parreira imposed a discipline on their natural skills to enable them to do it. Even when you're world champions a manager can get booed - I take consolation from that."

Zagallo's return has compounded the pressure on Ronaldo, Denilson, Dunga and company to emulate the god-like genius of Pele and Gerson, Tostao and Jairzinho. Brown believes it is asking the impossible. "The 1970 performance was them in full flow, about as good as football gets. I don't think they'll be able to play that way now. Everyone is so much better equipped defensively and the marking is far tighter."

One danger for Scotland is that when playing Brazil, teams tend to feel as if they are confronting an aura. "The very name stirs the imagination," Brown concedes. "I've had to say to our guys: `Don't be hypnotised by the golden jerseys. They don't win the games. It's the bodies inside that have to be good and be organised.' I've met Parreira and he told me the people and even the players think the shirt is enough."

Brown did not become Scotland's most successful manager ever by skimping on preparation. He has sifted through videos of Brazil's last 10 games, seen them in the flesh against Jamaica, and sent "spies", including his injured captain, Gary McAllister, to watch them. "They're not infallible," he ventures. "There are weaknesses there we hope to exploit."

Realistically, Scotland's hopes of a first-ever appearance in the second round hinge on their results against Norway and Morocco. Brown is not promising anything other than that they will be hard to beat, prompting criticism by sports psychologists.

"I've been accused of not raising expectations enough. Some people want me to say that Scotland will win the World Cup but I'm not prepared to do that. I'd rather be realistic - and optimistic - but I won't shout about what we're going to do. We've been down that road."

Scotland's official song for France, the Del Amitri dirge "Don't Come Home Too Soon", is condemned by those nostalgic for the gung-ho days of "Ole, ola, we're gonna bring that World Cup home from over tha" and "Muhammad Ally" MacLeod. Tommy Docherty, who never gave hyperbole the body-swerve when he was in Brown's shoes (prior to leading Manchester United to relegation), reckons his countrymen will be "home before the postcards".

"Aye," says Brown wryly, "and so was Tommy," no doubt thinking of Docherty's part in the retreat from Switzerland in 1954 following a 7-0 pasting by Paraguay. But if Docherty is proved correct, and it is not the fault of the French postal system, Brown will be ready for those who resurrect the complaint that the national manager is an ex-teacher who favours functionalism over flair.

"Even when people were on my back about the `schoolmaster' thing, their comments were hopelessly out of date. I've not actually taught in a school since 1969. There's this inverted snobbery thing in Scotland; you're not allowed to be educated and in football."

Fair enough, but where have all the tanna ba' players and jinking wingers gone? "To play on their computers and ride their mountain bikes. We haven't got the facilities to nurture talent properly.

"The best country in Europe for producing players, per head of population, is Norway. They've had a lottery to fund development since the Fifties. I gather they've got 15 full-sized indoor pitches. The result is that a small country now has more than 30 players in the English Premiership.

"If we take a leaf from that perhaps we'll get some of the artistry back. At last, there's now money for a Scottish Institute of Sport so we're trying hard to get our hands on some of that."

The "gallus" style of play, flamboyance bordering on arrogance, is all very well, asserts Brown, but when Scotland was supposedly brimming with its practitioners the national team did not qualify for the World Cup finals for 20 years. "A lot of ex-players, who go on about how bad we are, never achieved as much as the present squad," he adds pointedly.

Although the loss of McAllister's vision and range was a severe set-back, Brown is confident that he has found an inspirational leader in the rock- like Colin Hendry. The evidence of a moral victory over Colombia in New York last month (2-2) also leads him to believe that the technique of the midfielders John Collins and Paul Lambert will shine through, even among the Brazilian gold.

Both players have succeeded at the top level in Europe, with Monaco and Borussia Dortmund respectively. Collins' fitness fetish and obsession with eating healthily have caught on among team-mates steeped in the culture of steak and chips in a manner that would have been unimaginable back when Brown was understudying Baxter.

Talking of food, or at least food for thought, the Scotland manager has adopted a motto coined by a Uruguayan writer. It reads: "We lost, we won, either way we had fun." That is not to say that Craig Brown is preparing for the worst in the Stade de France; rather that he intends to make Zagallo's would-be Peles fight for the right to party.