Surprises in store
Pele fears for quality in most open World Cup in yearsPosted: Wednesday May 29, 2002 1:46 PM
Updated: Wednesday May 29, 2002 4:14 PM
From World Soccer magazine.
I am certainly not writing off Brazil if I say that right now the countries who would be most people's favorites to reach the World Cup semifinals are Argentina, France, Italy and England.
To me these appear to be the teams in the best form in the run-up for the finals. But, of course, it is more complicated than that. In the second round the two top teams from Group A -- which includes France -- must play the two top teams from Group F -- which includes England and Argentina. Even if they all go through from their groups, at least one cannot even reach the quarterfinals, let alone the semifinals.
Maybe that is good news for Brazil, because I expect to see a very different side in Korea and Japan compared to the one which struggled through the qualifying competition. Our traditions mean that Brazil in the finals are a very different force to Brazil in the preliminary matches or in friendlies.
Spain, Portugal and Croatia could be among the surprises and I think one of the African teams, perhaps Cameroon because of their experience, could easily reach the semifinals as well. It's one of the most open tournaments for a long time.
One of my concerns, however, is about the quality of football. I was worried about what I saw in a lot of the friendly matches which the teams have been playing over the last few months.
Many of the players were more concerned about their club tournaments. They were frightened of getting injured because that would have upset their club coach -- and that, in turn, would have given the club's directors an excuse to stop them going off to play for their country again.
It's most difficult for the Latin American countries because, if they wanted their best players, they had to send to Europe for them. If they didn't, then they had to use home-based players who knew they have little chance of making the squad of 23 players for the finals.
Look at Argentina. They played a friendly against Cameroon in Geneva in Switzerland. Not many Argentinian fans there to cheer them on!
Paraguay, who finished runners-up in the South American qualifying group, tried the same trick and played Nigeria in a lower division club's stadium in London.
That was not all, either. Ecuador, for example, will be going to the World Cup for the first time in their history. But they beat Bulgaria 3-1 at my old Cosmos home of Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Incidentally, Ivan Kaviedes, who scored two of the goals and made the other, could be one of the surprise stars of the finals.
But if teams do not play in the sort of emotional atmosphere their own fans produce then how can they consider that adequate preparation for a World Cup? There's nothing quite like the passion of a World Cup crowd. You need to rehearse properly just as actors need to "get the feel" of a theater ahead of opening night.
At least I can be happy that Brazil said a winning goodbye to our own fans in Fortaleza against Yugoslavia. The return of Ronaldo was good news, too.
Everyone knows how highly I rate him, but I was starting to worry that he was running out of time. He has played only a handful of times this season in Italy for Internazionale and his coach said he was losing confidence in his own capabilities.
Confidence is the crucial factor for a striker. He has to believe he can score goals every time he runs out to play. I hope we have "rescued" Ronaldo in time. I said before that Brazil will be much better in the finals than in the qualifying tournament. I think the performance against Yugoslavia was a start on proving my point.
More good news for Brazil, of course, was the Costa Rican situation. They surprised me by qualifying from Central and North America but I have seen nothing yet to persuade me that they can worry Brazil in the first round of the finals. Losing at home to Morocco's reserves was not merely disappointing, it was a big setback.
They only got a few thousand fans out as well. It doesn't help the players to feel their own public are not right behind them. But then, they had also had Europe club problems without Paulo Wanchope to play in attack.
That brings me back to my starting point: how can players concentrate properly in these games, particularly now when the coaches use so many substitutes? As a player, it's difficult to commit yourself to a match when you know you'll soon be coming out.
Of course, in the finals everyone will have their best players fully committed. But I wonder whether they will be fully tuned up.
Remember too that these World Cup finals start on May 31. That is at least one or even two weeks earlier than usual. Coaches and teams may have skipped on preparation -- and that, in turn, may bring some very surprising results in the first round in Korea and Japan.
Pele, prime World Cup analyst for sponsor MasterCard, was talking to Keir Radnedge.