For Brazil, anything less than title is a disappointment
Posted: Wednesday May 17, 2006 2:08PM; Updated: Friday May 26, 2006 1:50PM
How sickly talented is Brazil? The man Pelé tabbed as his possible successor, Robinho (above), isn't even in the starting lineup.
Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images
By Ricardo Setyon, SI.com
FIFA world ranking: No. 1.
How they qualified for Germany: Finished first in CONMEBOL qualifying with a 9-7-2 record, the same point total as Argentina but a superior goal differential.
Previous World Cups and finishes: The only nation to appear at all 18 tournaments since 1930. Champions in 1958, '62, '70, '94, 2002. Runner-up in '50, '98; third place in '38, '78; fourth place in '74.
Manager: Carlos Alberto Parreira, fourth year with squad.
Brazil wouldn't be defending world champion without its hero of the 2002 Cup. Ronaldo is back for this go-around, but he'll be nearly 30 when the Brazilians kick off in Germany, and he's definitely lost a step. His place in the starting lineup is safe -- for now. Hot on his heels is 22-year-old Robinho, who is ready to blossom into the next ambassador of the trademark Brazilian brand of soccer that combines extreme skill with flamboyant style. Pelé himself declared that if someone can ever get close to what he was, that player is the so-called "prince of dribbling." Robinho is still maturing, which is frightening considering that he's growing up under the ridiculous microscope that is Real Madrid.
Of Brazil's young players, Ronaldinho is definitely the most experienced. The 26-year-old Barcelona star has reached the pinnacle of world soccer, having won back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year awards. He has accomplished all this with a smile on his face, unlimited talent at his feet and a giant amount of motivation to write his name in World Cup history. In fact, the leader of the Seleção will wear the No. 10 jersey in Germany, an honor that belonged to Pelé and was last worn by Rivaldo. The difference, explains Ronaldinho, is that those Brazilian legends "had to open the way to the goal by themselves -- they were the lifesavers of the team. Now, with Kaká, Adriano and others by my side, the work becomes easier."
Adriano in particular will make Ronaldinho's job loads easier. Amazingly, this will be the first World Cup for "the Emperor." The 24-year-old Inter Milan striker is big -- 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. He'll be expected to add muscle up front and make up for what Ronaldo now lacks: speed, power, long-distance accuracy and leaping ability to head down crosses and corners. He's often called the best striker in the world, but he still has plenty to prove on the world's biggest stage.
What to watch for
With such high expectations, it's never easy to be Brazil -- but it's definitely worse when the Brazilians are considered heavy favorites. Every time the Seleção have been tabbed to win the World Cup, they've failed to display any kind of calm or peace of mind. Ronaldo's illness was a distraction in France '98. When Brazil fielded perhaps its most talented squad ever in Spain in '82, it suffered a disastrous defeat to Italy in the quarterfinals. This year, Brazil is again heavily favored, and this current squad is wildly talented. How it deals with the pressure is a big question mark.
All that talent is another big issue facing head coach Parreira and assistant (and former boss) Mário Zagallo: Which attacker will they bench, Adriano, Ronaldinho, Kaká, Robinho or Ronaldo? The current system allows for only four places, which means one of the stars will have to come off the bench. Age is another worrying factor on this team: Not only is Ronaldo getting on in years, but defensive stalwart Roberto Carlos will be 33, while captain Cafu will be 36.
At the same time, Brazil has never had such a lineup of stars, from the famous coaching staff all the way down to the laundry list of international celebrities. For better or for worse, this World Cup is Brazil's to lose.
Group: F (Japan, Croatia, Australia).
Key match in group stage: June 13 vs. Croatia. Brazil's first game against perhaps its toughest opponent will say a lot about its emotional response to the pressure. Parreira is preparing all his weapons to focus first and foremost on this match -- he knows that a draw or a loss will create severe turmoil in the Brazilian camp. A win will assure a more relaxed atmosphere against Australia and Japan.