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Pale yellow

Humbled Brazil no longer among favorites

Posted: Friday April 26, 2002 12:03 PM
Updated: Saturday April 27, 2002 7:33 AM
  Ronaldo The question mark for Brazil is whether Ronaldo can hit top form so soon after a two-year injury battle. AP

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- There's something different about Brazil at this World Cup: Humility.

The swagger is gone, the tone subdued when Brazilians talk about their quest for a record fifth Cup title. They're no longer No. 1, and they know the road back to the top is a hard one.

"France and Argentina are in better shape," Brazil's coach Luiz Felipe Scolari admits. "They still are ahead of us in various aspects."

Such modesty doesn't come naturally to Brazil, the only country to have qualified for every Cup, a six-time finalist and champion in 1958, 1962, 1970 and 1994. A World Cup without Brazil? You might as well play it without the ball.

But the unthinkable nearly happened. Brazil turned in its worst qualifying campaign ever, squeaking through in its final game against Venezuela. After seven years atop FIFA's world rankings, Brazil fell to second, then third. Disgusted fans booed their own team.

What went wrong? Almost everything, from injuries to scandal. Most of all, Brazil was a victim of its own constant demand for perfection.

The outlook seemed very different in 1999, when Brazil won its second straight Copa America and coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, who replaced veteran Mario Zagallo after the '98 Cup in France, was acclaimed as a wizard.

But Luxemburgo became embroiled in a congressional probe into accusations that he used false documents, evaded taxes and juggled lineups to raise the sale price of players. His head already was on the block when Brazil was ousted from the Sydney Olympics by Cameroon, the eventual gold medal-winner, and Luxemburgo promptly was fired.

He was replaced by former all-star goalkeeper Emerson Leao, who scrapped the team Luxemburgo had developed and drafted a new one exclusively from players on Brazilian clubs, snubbing the big name stars from Europe. When the team finished a dismal fourth in the Confederations Cup last year, Brazil's soccer bosses didn't wait for Leao to get home -- they fired him at the airport in Japan.

Enter Scolari, and Brazil again was back to square one.

Despite his reputation as a quick fixer of broken teams, Scolari couldn't work magic. Brazil's defense of its Copa America title ended in a humiliating 2-0 loss to a second-string squad from Honduras.

Meanwhile, the team that had lost only one Cup qualifier in 70 years -- a 2-0 defeat by Bolivia in 1993 -- was losing to Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and even tiny Ecuador. The inventors of "samba soccer" looked slow, disjointed and utterly predictable.

Scolari blamed the lack of practice time. European clubs were understandably reluctant to release their Brazilian stars, and the players often assembled in the airport a day or two before the match.

"We have very little teamwork," admitted goalie Marcos "We arrive, train for two days and play, so there's nearly none. I think the defense will mesh only on the eve of the World Cup."

Can Brazil get its act together in time?

With its wealth of raw talent, Brazil can't be written off. And its modest adversaries in Group C -- Turkey, Costa Rica and China -- suggest that Brazil should coast into the second round. But Scolari has spent months testing different formations and players, and time now is running out.

"I don't want to criticize, but Scolari is wrong not to have defined his team months ago," Brazilian soccer legend Pele said in March. "Brazil has never been so discredited as it is today. Of all the major selections, it's the only one that hasn't defined its team."

Part of Scolari's dilemma is whether he can count on Internazionale striker Ronaldo.

The two-time FIFA Player of the Year was idle for two years with a torn right knee ligament and recurring muscle problems. While he looked promising during a 45-minute stint in a 1-0 win over Yugoslavia in March, doubts remain whether "the phenomenon" will return to his old form, and in time for the Cup.

Brazil's Cup team will be a mix of old and new.

Scolari plans to use the backbone of the '98 team: Ronaldo, wingers Cafu and Roberto Carlos, and midfielders Emerson and Rivaldo. But the defense is all new, with a three-fullback system that will likely feature Roque Junior, Lucio and Edmilson or Anderson Polga.

If the team has a weakness, it's in the midfield. Emerson and newcomer Gilberto Silva are essentially destroyers, and Barcelona star Rivaldo hasn't performed well in the role of playmaker. Scolari hopes that Paris Saint-Germain's Ronaldinho can fill the slot and has hinted that fans will likely see the "triple R" attack -- Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho -- at the Cup.

 
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