Category: Archive

Brazilians aim to capture old magic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jay Mwamba

Spent force or team on a bad run? That’s the question hovering over once great Brazil as Japan/Korea ’02 nears. There was a huge sigh of relief across the vast South American nation when the four-time champions finally secured a place in the finals last November after a harrowing qualification campaign.

Six defeats, including a 3-1 pasting in Bolivia, had the Brazilians on the ropes going into the last qualifier at home to Venezuela. They triumphed 3-0 to avoid a dicey playoff — albeit on goal difference only — with Australia and preserve their record of participating in every finals since 1930.

But how will they fair in the Far East? Brazil have gone through three coaches and dozens of players in the last four years, denying current manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was appointed less than a year ago, the consistency of previous World Cup-bound squads.

A disciple of defensive soccer who has publicly repudiated the offensive philosophy behind the “beautiful game” concept that has long been the hallmark of Brazilian teams, Scolari has been left to mold a side short on both confidence and great talent.

Gone are the days when the yellow-shirted Boys from Rio would leave opponents chasing shadows and fans dazzled with their amazing ball skills.

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Yet while most of the experts tip either France or Argentina to scoop the World Cup, there are others who believe that Brazil can put their problems behind them and lift a fifth title this June.

This optimism, however, seems founded largely on nostalgia and the legend of a nation that has given the world such football immortals as Pele, Didi, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Socrates, and Zico.

In finals past, Brazil would take the opportunity to unveil a new tactical formation or a new coruscating star. But these are hard times for the former champions, who have lost their flair of old and who have yet to produce any phenomenal talent since the emergence of a teenage goal machine named Ronaldo in the early ’90s.

He’s arguably the most influential Brazilian player since Pele, and remains Brazil’s best hope for success. But the star-crossed Ronaldo, who can’t seem to kick a ball without getting hurt, must first overcome the injury woes that have plagued him since France ’98.

In Ronaldo’s absence, Rivaldo is widely hailed as Brazil’s best player. Yet as his erratic performances showed in the qualifiers, when he was substituted and dropped several times, the left-sided attacker is more of a potent force for Barcelona than for his country.

Besides Rivaldo, who will be 30 when the finals start, Brazil are thin in both midfield and attack when compared to their classical World Cup squads of yesteryear.

So critical is the need for a reliable scorer that the 35-year-old Romario, who’s still knocking them in for Vasco Da Gama, appears to be Scolari’s best option, even though he was repeatedly overlooked in the qualifiers. Less promising possibilities include Bayern Munich striker Elber and Ronaldinho of Paris St. Germain.

And while Juninho Paulista, the nippy blonde-haired runner who was once the darling of Middlesborough, is the most conspicuous figure in midfield, along with Serginho of Milan, it is in defense that Brazil’s best talent is concentrated. Real Madrid’s Roberto Carlos, the diminutive overlapping left fullback with a cannon shot, is the pick of the litter. There is also the veteran Cafu on the right, who can also play as an advanced winger; skipper Emerson and his frequent partner in the heart of defense Roque Junior; and the towering Lucio.

At any rate, as if a sop to a fading giant, fortune has smiled on the Brazilians who should have a manageable path to the quarterfinals out of Group C.

It is arguably the easiest first-round group they have ever faced, although Costa Rica, beaten by the odd goal in the two countries’ last World Cup meeting, at Italia ’90, and the improving Turks, might relish the challenge of claiming a major scalp. China is the fourth team in the group.

With a second round match-up against one of the top teams from Group H (Japan, Russia, Belgium, Tunisia) looming, Brazil could not have asked for a more favorable schedule to the last eight.

That, however, is when things might get tricky for the only nation to have played in all 16 previous finals. Brazil were winners in 1958, 1962, 1970 and 1994.

Bora building ‘Great Wall’?

Since taking the United States to the second round of USA ’94, Bora Milutinovic has been dubbed the “miracle worker” for his coaching exploits in the World Cup.

Milutinovic is likely to enhance his reputation should China make waves in their Korean backyard, in a group where second place may be a toss up between the Chinese, Costa Rica and Turkey.

China is the fifth team Milutinovic has led to the finals, although, notably, it’s the first side he’s actually steered through a qualifying competition. His previous trips were with countries (hosts Mexico in ’86, Costa Rica in ’90, hosts Team USA, and Nigeria in ’98) whose participation had already been secured before his appointment. Notably, still, Milutinovic has never failed to take any of his teams beyond the first round.

With just one significant European-based professional to call on in Dundee United utility man Fan Zhiyi, the world’s most populous nation faces many disadvantages against their more experienced Group C foes.

However, that’s where Milutinovic comes in. The wily Serb is a defensive whiz whose teams are taught to defend in numbers while seeking counterattacking opportunities.

Under Milutinovic’s charge, Costa Rica were able to frustrate Brazil before succumbing 1-0 at Italia ’90. Ditto the United States, who held out against Brazilians for over 70 minutes before going down 1-0 to a Bebeto effort in the second round of the 1994 finals.

China, as their qualifying stats show, have also learned how to play the game Bora’s way. In eight qualifiers, they won six games, with one tie and one loss, scoring 13 goals and conceding only two.

From his modus operandi, it is plausible to assume that Milutinovic may be plotting to build a “Great Wall” in defense to avert a deluge of goals while hoping his strikers bag a goal or two on the break.

And it might be to China’s psychological advantage that they’ll meet Milutinovic’s old boys, Costa Rica, in their opener in Gwangju on June 4. A point from that game would do boost Chinese confidence going into their second match — against Brazil.

In terms of personnel, Milutinovic has several Chinese league veterans, one star player, and a few young prospects to rely on.

The 32-year-old Fan Zhiyi, who cut his teeth with Crystal Palace before moving to the Scottish highlands, is the standout.

A defender who can also play in midfield, Dundee snapped him on the basis of work-rate, speed, strength in the air, and overall commitment.

Support for Zhiyi is expected to come from Ma Mingyu, a 31-year-old goal-scoring midfielder who had a stint with Perugia in Serie A, and veterans Hao Haidong, Sun Jihai, Li Tie and Qu Bo.

A rare sighting at major soccer events, China will be making their World Cup debut after a 44-year wait. They were runners-up in the 1984 Asian Cup and participated in the 1988 Olympic Games tournament in Seoul.

(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain and South Africa.)

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