Football

They have the skill to reach the final

DISCIPLES OF DUNGA: Lucio, a warrior of the backline, and Luis Fabiano (right) who works for opportunities, along with Maicon are the key players to watch out for in the Brazilian line-up. Photo; AFP

DISCIPLES OF DUNGA: Lucio, a warrior of the backline, and Luis Fabiano (right) who works for opportunities, along with Maicon are the key players to watch out for in the Brazilian line-up. Photo; AFP   | Photo Credit: ANTONIO SCORZA

As the World Cup opens on Friday amid a celebration of exceptional vibrancy with host South Africa playing Mexico, two countries float above the field of 32 teams — Spain and Brazil.

Yes, Africa is the host. Yes, Asia is developing. And, yes, there are dark horses — the gifted but erratic Argentines, the talented Dutch and the ever self-confident English among them.

But player for player, performance on performance, the Spanish and the Brazilian squads look to be the best. And for both, anything less than victory in the final of this 64-game soccer marathon, to be held here on July 11, will be a bitter disappointment.

Spain, which has never won the World Cup, has stolen the higher ground from Brazil, a five-time winner. Not only are the Spaniards camped in a university town in the hills to the north, while Brazil's training is at a high school just outside the Johannesburg suburbs, but it is Spain that talks, and thinks, the Beautiful Game of individual creativity and sportsmanship within a team construct that was once Brazil's forte.

Winning alone matters

Meanwhile, Brazil is in retreat from the spirit it brought to the game as far back as 1958 under the one and only Pele. It now preaches that winning, however it must be achieved, is the only true virtue.

A training ground incident, when Brazil's aggressive midfield tackler Felipe Melo heavily fouled Kaka, the team's most inventive player, gave credence to the blunt words of coach Carlos Dunga. Several of Dunga's chosen players — Maicon and Luis Fabiano and captain Lucio — have spelled it out for us.

Superb players

They can all play superbly. Maicon's surging runs from right back give the team significant counter-attacking impetus. Lucio is a warrior of the backline, and has suppressed his inclination to join in attacking play. As to Fabiano, he forages away, often alone up front, waiting and working for opportunities to win matches.

All three have spoken at news media briefings as disciples of Dunga. They say they would rather win ugly, win dirty, than fail by trying to please the fans.

“To those who complain about style, I say nothing is more beautiful than winning,” Lucio said this week. “This is the kind of spectacle we should be giving to people.”

Indeed, those players, and others, could have performed in the great, more liberated Brazil line-ups. Today, however, we glimpse their flair, their adventure, only once the coach deems the cautious tactics have broken the opposition. This dulling of Brazil's approach was not invented by Dunga but has happened periodically since 1966, when Brazil felt referees did nothing to prevent Europeans from kicking Pele out of the tournament with their rough play.

And to those calling upon Brazil to return to Joga Bonito — the Beautiful Game — the response comes in a single word: Ronaldinho. His time has passed, Dunga said.

Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has lamented that his country left out Ronny, the smiling creative player whose form playing for AC Milan recaptured some of his former zest. Ronaldinho has the experience of winning the World Cup, in South Korea/Japan eight years ago, but of losing it in Germany in 2006.

He won the world player of the year trophy twice with Barcelona, but then lost that form, too. His comeback to nearly his best, however, did not impress Dunga.

Ronaldinho is a showman, Dunga a pragmatist. The coach was the workhorse of the 1994 Brazilian team that won the World Cup in the United States. And Dunga wants soldiers who will sacrifice to the end, not peacocks who flatter to deceive.

Hence, either Elano or Ramires, tireless conformists, will occupy the shirt number that Ronaldinho once so brilliantly wore.

Even with Kaka, even with Robinho on the wing, the command is obey the work ethic first, follow creative instinct second.

And it is not coincidence that Barcelona was where Ronaldinho was at his most joyous, as it is Barcelona that today provides the essence of the Spanish squad that won the European Championship in 2008 and that flamboyantly won all 10 World Cup qualifying matches

While its coach, Vicente del Bosque, is a Real Madrid man, his Spanish 11 is decidedly Barcelona in style and persuasion.

Sharing the ball

What Barcelona stands for, the collective spirit of sharing the ball through fluent, rhythmic passing and movement, is embodied in Xavi Hernandez and the suddenly rejuvenated Andres Iniesta. Even Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, defenders on the team, are products of the Barcelona school, where every boy is taught to think creatively when in possession of the ball.

The strikers, it is true, are usually imported by Barcelona. One such player, Spain's leading scorer, David Villa, with 36 goals in 55 international games, has just moved from Valencia to Barcelona. His speed and determination complement the outstanding physical qualities of Fernando Torres, the Liverpool striker who, when fit, makes every defender tremble.

Carefully nursed

Torres, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, were carefully nursed for this tournament after injuries that in any other summer would cry for rest and recuperation.

In that aspect, Brazil is the stronger. It also has an edge in experience — knowing how World Cups are won, how to cope with mounting expectation and tension.

Perhaps that is why Dunga preaches such sweat and toil. His men are older, but he thinks they are steelier, and ready for a first-round grouping against tough opponents North Korea, Ivory Coast and Portugal.

That obliges Brazil to be on its game from the beginning. Apart from Argentina in Mexico, only Brazil has ever won a World Cup outside its own continent. And with its bottomless talent and fierce preparation, it has done so four times — in Sweden, Mexico, the United States and Japan.

Brazil virtually invented the soccer camp, withdrawing its squad to eat, sleep, train and dream the event.

For generations, its players went into seclusion on a mountain above Rio de Janeiro, a peak named Dedo de Deus, Finger of God.

Now Brazil's talents are exported and employed abroad, mostly in Europe. The beauty of its style may have been coarsened by globalisation, and by men like Dunga who learned to respect and fear European organisation more than they cherish flair.

Yet Spain, at long last bearing the fruits of youth tournaments that blended rather than separated Catalan, Madrid, Basque and other regional factions, shows there is still room in today's far more disciplined game for creativity and style. Perhaps its time has come, if only it can believe in itself.

“We're not the favourites,'' del Bosque said, perhaps a bit too modestly. “But we are among the hopefuls.''

— © 2010 New York Times News Service

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