The ghosts of 1998 and 1982

IT could well be the footballing equivalent of Ethiopia believing the country can colonise the United States, taking advantage of American brashness and confidence. But sport being slightly more unpredictable than politics and commerce, international football's powers-that-be would have gained some confidence from two recent developments in the Brazilian camp even as they entered the World Cup calendar year.

Firstly, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), in the last week of December, booked a castle hotel in Dortmund as the team's base. If you wonder what's wrong with that, it's just that Dortmund is where Brazil will have to play their second round match if they top Group F, which also features Australia, Japan and Croatia. National governing bodies of all other 31 countries were working on hotel bookings for the first round at the same time.

Secondly, Ronaldo, the top-scorer of Brazil's 2002 World Cup winning campaign with eight goals, recently expressed his desire to break the world record of most World Cup goals. Ronaldo, who is third on the list with 12, has France's Just Fontaine (scorer of 13, all of them in the 1958 edition) and Germany's Gerd Muller (14, spread over the 1970 and 1974 tournaments) ahead of him.

Other teams will take heart from what happened the last time the man nicknamed `The Phenomenon' put his talented foot into his big mouth about the World Cup scoring record. That was in early 1998, when the 22-year-old FIFA World Footballer of the Year, looked forward to breaking Fontaine's record in France and inspiring his team to its fifth Cup victory. Home boys France, inspired by Zinedine Zidane, shattered Ronaldo's aspirations after the striker suffered mysterious convulsions the night before the final. Ronaldo was rushed in from a Paris hospital to Stade de France at the last minute to start the final, a decision that according to many unofficial reports was forced on team manager Mario Zagallo by team sponsor Nike. In the run-up to the 2002 campaign, Ronaldo had played only eight minutes of football in two-and-a-half years and naturally he was worried more about whether he would last the length of the tournament than any goal-scoring records.

The last time that the CBF behaved as if all other teams were there in the premier sporting tournament of the world merely to make up the numbers was in 1982 during the run-up to the World Cup in Spain. The Celecao went into the tournament with what Pele described as their best national side at a World Cup after he was last seen in Mexico 1970. Zico, Falcao, Socrates, Toninho Cerrezzo as attacking midfielders and Serginho and Eder upfront were expected to rip apart all rival defences. Manager Tele Santana vowed that the function of football was to enthral. He nominated his team as the sole purveyors of `the beautiful game' (an 18-year-old Argentinean youngster called Diego Maradona who was making his World Cup debut and who was sent off in the second round defeat against Brazil seethed in rage at Santana's statement, as he stated in his autobiography years later) and scoffed at suggestions that Brazil should think in terms of bolstering its defences ("We will score at least one more than what we concede," he said memorably.)

Needing only a draw in the second phase match against Italy for a place in the semifinal, Santana continued his attacking strategies even when the match was 2-2 in the 75th minute. Paolo Rossi's third goal of the match in the 76th minute sealed the Brazilian fate.

This time around, Brazil are not only the defending champions but like in 1982 they have a luxury of attacking talents (two of Adriano, Ronaldo and Robinho will start upfront with Ronaldinho and Kaka just behind) and they have won everything in sight after World Cup 2002 — the Copa America of 2004, the South American World Cup Qualifiers (though they lost in Argentina to their archrival) and the FIFA Confederations Cup of last year, when they trounced Argentina 4-1 in the final. Going into the 1982 tournament, Brazil had won the Copa America title, all matches of the South American World Cup Qualifiers and had beaten England, France and Germany at their homes.

In 2006, perhaps Italy could well get the first shot at doing the impossible — if Brazil top Group F and Italy finish runner-up of the strong Group E, the defensive and counterattacking masters of world football would be up against the high priests of offensive football in Dortmund. Brazil's biggest challenge in Germany could well be in penetrating the Italian back four (likely to be spearheaded by the formidable Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro) and surviving the counterattacking force of midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso. It also matters that like in 1982, the Italian attack is likely to be spearheaded by three people, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Cassano, who are anonymous to all other than die-hard European league fans. Ghosts of Paolo Rossi may well stalk Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira — who this time swears by attack unlike his defence-oriented approach in 1994 — in the Dortmund castle hotel.