Can Samba kings reign supreme?

THERE was a moment in this World Cup when anyone whose heart was not made of stone must have jumped for joy and admiration of a deed, so intrinsically good and elevating, that it was impossible to remain dispassionate.

By Bill George

THERE was a moment in this World Cup when anyone whose heart was not made of stone must have jumped for joy and admiration of a deed, so intrinsically good and elevating, that it was impossible to remain dispassionate.

The moment arrived shortly before half-time in the Brazil quarter-final with England when Ronaldinho and Rivaldo combined to prove, conclusively, that the ‘Jogo Bonito’ (the beautiful game) still lived.

Ronaldinho’s urgent disco-dance through the heart of England’s defence was a breath-taking amalgam of pace, control and skill. It was matched by Rivaldo’s exquisite strike, a stroke delivered with such conviction and such subtlety that the ball was spinning inside the upright almost before David Seaman could react.

Lovers of the game rejoiced and acclaimed a moment of magic. This is what draws us perennially to watch football, this human expression of a god-given talent that has been nurtured and expanded by diligent application on the training field; this blissful synchronisation of two marvellously gifted individuals that was calculated to elevate our spirits and fire our imaginations.

Regrettably it was but an isolated moment, designed to tease and torture rather than satisfy. It showed that Brazil — the Brazil of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazil of 2002 — have the potential.

The question is do they have the capacity to do it again on a more consistent basis to ascend to the level of their more illustrious predecessors?

The portents are not good. We need only re-wind the clock a couple of weeks to Brazil’s previous meeting with Turkey in their opening match in Ulsan, a match Brazil won 2-1.

The memories are not particularly warm. Turkey, hugely talented and fiercely competitive, prefer to battle their way through life with a snarl on their faces rather than a smile.

Their first instinct when it comes to football is to foment anger and resentment, an attitude that is all the more mystifying because away from the stadium they are amongst the most hospitable of people.

They seem to regard football as an activity to be enjoined on a confrontational level; an attitude guaranteed to make the contest less wholesome than it would be if they were merely competitive. The chip on their shoulders is so substantial it would sink the QE2.

It figures that a lot was going on off the ball while Brazil were attempting to link their football together. Frustration with the body-checking, the verbal abuse, and the play-acting that is part and parcel of Turkish football was inevitably growing.

But that did not excuse Brazil’s tantrums, the cheating of Rivaldo when he feigned serious injury, the exaggerated claims for the doubtful penalty that gave Brazil a 2-1 win in the 87th minute.

Brazil did not appear worthy to wear the famed golden shirts in that match and while mediocre opponents China, beaten 4-0, and Costa Rica, spanked 5-2, gave Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho the opportunity to turn on some style, Brazil remain unconvincing.

Their quarter-final win over England was as comprehensive as you would expect, more so since they were without the dismissed Ronaldinho from the 57th minute.

Coach Luis Felipe Scolari has been in charge since June of last year and became the fourth coach to guide Brazil in the course of the qualification campaign. He is the most successful Brazilian coach currently in football.

He won the Libertadores Cup, South America’s international club championship with two different clubs, Gremio in 1995 and Palmeiras in 1999. He became more famous, or, more accurately, infamous when a TV reporter surreptitiously slid a microphone through the window of the dressing-room and recorded Scolari scolding his players for not taking the law into their own hands.

“Is it possible not one of you could have kicked him?” he was recorded as saying with reference to an opponent, Edilson of Corinthians.

The Gremio team that won for him in 1995 was particularly violent but Scolari has since mellowed. Gone are the days when he instructed ball-boys to toss footballs onto the pitch when his team was under pressure and he is less prone to abusing referees.

He was once famously recorded responding to a referee who dismissed him from the sideline by saying: “I’ll wait for you outside.”

Scolari, predictably, is naturally prone to favour a more defensive game than we all expect from the captivating Brazilians. The flow of goals from them has been admirably consistent — Ronaldo and Rivaldo both share the top-scorers spot with Germany’s Klose with five goals— and they have accumulated ten in their five matches.

Restricting conceded goals to just two is probably more significant, especially when you recall that Michael Owen’s goal for England was the result of a scoring pass by the hapless centre-back, Lucio of Bayer Leverkusen. Brazil, it is popularly believed, are not particularly good in defence.

I remain to be convinced. Lucio, who once famously punched a team-mate at the Sydney Olympics, may look ungainly and his error against England was horrendous. But he is a fine athlete and his unorthodox incursions into midfield are invariably disconcerting for opponents.

Cafu, at right-back, and Roberto Carlos, on the left, are more acknowledged for their attacking qualities than their defence but they are quick and resourceful and difficult to shed.

Edmilson, from Lyon in France, has been impressively consistent alongside Lucio and Gilberto Silva, who emerged as a defensive player of admirable technique during the Brazilian club championship, is developing into a midfield fulcrum as was Dunga in the successful 1994 team.

Brazil are undecided about a couple of choices to most effectively link their defence to their attack and looked far from convincing when they beat Belgium 2-0 in the round of 16.

Belgium caused Brazil plenty of defensive problems and while I believe Brazil have the potential to step up another level, they are running out of time.

The loss of Ronaldinho for today’s match against Turkey is not reassuring for he is a delightful player in the true Brazilian tradition and if Ronaldo is less than fully fit they may not be the force they can be in attack.

They have been the most rounded and balanced team in the competition but it should be acknowledged that they have yet to face the intensity of competition that Korea, for instance, have so vigorously coped with.

The jury, for Brazil, is still out.

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