A hungry continent gets ready to settle an old score

NOBODY quite got it as right about the relevance of the Confederations Cup in Germany as the incumbent managers of the two great South American nations that have won an aggregate of seven World Cups from 1958, but absolutely none in Europe.


The Brazilian team savours its win in the final over fellow South American giant Argentina.-AFP

NOBODY quite got it as right about the relevance of the Confederations Cup in Germany as the incumbent managers of the two great South American nations that have won an aggregate of seven World Cups from 1958, but absolutely none in Europe.

Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira — who bagged one of the seven with his managerial skills in the USA `94 campaign that harboured on marrying traditional flair with a Continental obsession for tactical supremacy — did not, however, dilute his Latino-centric perspective on the importance of the final of the 2005 Confederations Cup. This Cup is deemed in the European superpower countries as an insignificant biannual tournament in the FIFA calendar, aimed only to tire and injure star players who are recuperating after an arduous club season before going into another one.

"This is the first time our two great teams are playing a final in Europe in an official competition and therefore the competition will be very open," said Parreira on the eve of the final. Given Argentina's excellent form in the tournament and before it, he can be forgiven for thinking that there would have been a tough battle ahead for his team. Little did he know that his wards, led by striker number one and top scorer of the tournament Adriano of Inter Milan, would decimate the organized Argentine midfield and defence in the tournament (and just before it in the South American World Cup qualifiers when Argentina defeated Brazil 3-1 in Buenos Aires) with a force that easily put to shame the thunderstorm which lashed Frankfurt even as the final was being played.

Jose Pekerman, who took over as Argentina supremo late last year from Marcelo Bielsa and who has continued his predecessor's mission of restructuring the national team along the European lines of an organized collective force, also preferred to see the event primarily through a South American optic. "Being staged in Germany, this tournament has been a great opportunity for us before the World Cup next year," said Pekerman, who gained prominence when he guided Argentina to a win in the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1995. "People in Argentina badly want us to be the first one from our continent to win the World Cup in Europe."

If the final was any indication, Argentina will have its work cut out even with the presence of number one striker Hernan Crespo, veteran in central defence, Roberto Ayala, and the gifted midfield playmaker Lucho Gonzalez — all of them missed the Confederations Cup. Walter Samuel, the Real Madrid central defender who was named in the squad but was mostly rested in the tournament, will also be a key player in the World Cup.

The desire to win a World Cup for the first time in Europe fires the imagination of the masses of the two countries as much as it does for their bourgeois leadership as well as their millionaire football icons, most of whom come from humble backgrounds and who retain their organic connections with the class of their origin — Brazilian striker Robinho's mother was kidnapped last year when she was visiting relatives in a favela, the urban margins populated by the underclass.

A World Cup win in the continent of the colonial masters would of course be an antidote in times of severe deprivation in the cities — high rates of crime, unemployment, drug use, collapsing football clubs and the cash-starved State selling off suburban public grounds to real estate builders — and when there is systematic plundering of natural resources in the countryside and the forests to serve interests of multinational companies based in the First World. It is also, in a manner of speaking, the obverse of the spirit of adventure that drove the Conquistadors to conquer `the unknown' many centuries ago. Replace `the unknown' with `the powerful', and you get the drift.

Though many Brazilian and Argentine stars have starred in many famous wins for their European clubs, in their national colours Europe remains a virgin territory in the matter of World Cup triumphs. As former Brazilian captain Socrates later regretted, the most appropriate symbolic chance to right the wrongs of history came and went away in 1982 in Spain. Diego Maradona, who was so near to doing it in 1990, added Italy to the list. Parreira and Pekerman have now taken the initiative to drum up the importance of Germany 2006 to motivate the set of talented individuals who are under them.

Parreira, along with the many supporters of Brazilian football across the world, might well have been living the dream a year earlier, but in Frankfurt instead of Munich. Brazil's scintillating performance in the Confederations Cup final underscored that its firepower up front could break open even the strongest of rival defences with the aid of a system that is a dream to both the aesthete and the most clinical scientist. Full backs Cicinho and Gilberto — who played because Cafu and Roberto Carlos were rested for the tournament — surged ahead in keeping with the rich history of Brazilian football. They fed the two strikers, Adriano and Robinho, who were cutting in to the centre from the flanks knowing well that two outrageously talented teammates — Ronaldinho and Kaka — would keep up the pressure from the centre in linking and attacking roles. The passes were quick, short and fast, and the movement — linear in the flanks and diagonal between it and the centre — was dynamic and fluid, mostly built on what the Latin Americans call `first touch football'.

Poor Parreira. One has to sympathise with him for the professional hazard of having to look at such sublime symmetry with a sense of clinical detachment. But, the manager's cool head would most certainly have figured out, even during the course of the final, that the key to his team breaking the European jinx next year would be his unsung defensive central midfielders — Emerson of Juventus and Ze Roberto of Bayern Munich — and the two men behind them in the central defence — Lucio of Bayern Munich and Roque Junior of Bayer Leverkeusen.

Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira has a `problem of plenty' before World Cup 2006.-AFP

So wonderfully did ice cool Emerson keep the creative vision of Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme in leash that it throttled the efficient Argentine midfield, where Esteban Cambiasso of Inter was having a poor match, and therefore Kaka and Ronaldinho hardly needed to fall back from attack to perform defensive duties. By the time the Argentine midfield got working with the introduction of Pablo Aimar deep in the second half, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaka had virtually finished off the match.

The added solidity of Lucio and Junior meant that the full backs could attack without worrying too much about the vulnerability in the middle. Parreira, would, of course be hoping that his unsung array of defensive central midfielders — people such as Arsenal's Gilberto Silva in addition to Emerson and Ze Roberto — and central defenders display the same sort of form they displayed in the final a year later.

But, the key to winning a World Cup also lies in making contingency plans. What if the central midfield and defence are not in their top form? Parreira, like other Brazilian fans, is sure to have his heart in his mouth when the shaky Brazilian defence is tested when his attacking full-backs and central midfielders are in the other half of the field. And, it is in anticipation of `Plan B' that he is most likely to start the World Cup campaign with a man who answers to the name of Ronaldo (what a luxury to have a man with 12 World Cup goals as answer to `Plan B').

There is no better soloist in world football today than the Real Madrid legend, and in the World Cup qualifier against Argentina in Brazil last year he illustrated this when he created and scored three penalties in a match where possession was virtually dominated by the Argentine midfield led by Riquelme, whom German manager Jurgen Klinsmann called "the most complete footballer in the world now." Ronaldo had little support in that match from his attacking midfielders and full backs who were kept busy by the Argentinian midfield in defensive duties.

Riquelme and Co., however, will not have Ronaldo on their minds now. So traumatised are they by Brazil's new sensation Adriano, who added to the stunning injury-time strike that levelled things up for Brazil in the Copa America final last year with a goal of rare beauty and guile to open the scoring in the final. Adriano's opening strike encapsulated all his strengths — power, change of pace, change of direction and foot, and superb balance. His edge over Ronaldo in aerial balls and in making use of space in the wings will surely mean that Parreira will chose him as his main striker for the World Cup.

Adriano, seen scoring in the final, emerged as the top scorer and the player of the tournament.-AFP

If Parreira has a problem of plenty when it comes to attacking options, Pekerman will have his task cut out to improve the quality of finishing. Luciano Figueroa, as he showed in the early rounds, is good when Riquelme, Cambiasso, Aimar and Co. keep things bustling with their incisive mixture of long and short passes. And when Juan Pablo Sorin and Javier Zanetti keep the flanks on fire and feed him regularly.

However, Figueroa had a poor match in the final when the midfield was quiet. Athens Olympics hero Carlos Tevez, who, interestingly, made a switch to Brazilian club Corinthians earlier this year, might be a better option as Argentina's strike partner for Crespo in the World Cup as he can rattle defences on his own with his pace and deft touch.

Hardly strange, then, that Argentina's secret weapon for its first World Cup win in Europe has a Brazilian connection.

The results: Final: Brazil bt. Argentina 4-1; Third place play-off: Germany bt. Mexico 4-3; Semifinals: Brazil bt. Germany 3-2; Argentina bt. Mexico 6-5 (penalties).