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Beholders to Eye Beauty of Brazil vs. Netherlands

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, July 7, 1998; Page B1

MARSEILLE, France — It will be Ronaldo versus the "Clockwork Orange." It will be two ardent groups of fans providing a colorful backdrop of yellow and orange, of fervor and faith. It will be a country that never has missed a World Cup finals and has won a record four times against another that is eager to shed an implausible history and win its first World Cup. Brazil and the Netherlands will meet Tuesday night for the right to play for the Cup on Sunday against France or Croatia.

It would be hard to ask for two more distinct soccer traditions representing South America and Europe to come together in this southern French port city. If Brazil and the Netherlands live up to their promises of the past two days, their semifinal could be historic. Players from both teams promise their versions of "a beautiful game," the name the Brazilians have given the sport when it is played the way they prefer. That would be with offense and flair. The Dutch are not known for flair, but they promise offense.

This will be a night when thousands at the Stade Velodrome and millions on television will be watching the most celebrated player in the World Cup, the 21-year-old Ronaldo. The reviews on his Cup performances to date have been mixed. Many thought he would have more than three goals by now. But he has been as valuable assisting as he usually is scoring. Twice in timely fashion he set up goals to help Brazil edge Denmark, 3-2, in the quarterfinals. Since Bebeto, Rivaldo and Cesar Sampaio also have scored three times, it will be difficult for the Dutch defenders to know from where the scoring might come.

The Dutch have only one three-goal scorer, Dennis Bergkamp, but in Patrick Kluivert they have an additional in-form striker who would like to steal the samba show from Ronaldo. Ronaldo will be facing Jaap Stam, who cost Manchester United $15 million, a record transfer fee for a defender. This is not to say that Ronaldo and Brazil's tournament are about to end, because Stam had trouble containing Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta. Stam will need help.

"Ronaldo is very fast and you must not let him turn and come toward you with the ball because that is his strength," Stam said the other day at the Dutch camp on the Cote d'Azur. "You must mark him tight and make him play with his back to you. It's important not to let him control the ball too easily.

"I don't think Brazil is a much stronger team than Holland. I've seen them play a number of teams and I don't think it's going how they want it to go. Norway beat them. Denmark came very close. So why can't we?"

The Dutch promise that they will not "adjust" to Brazil's game. "We will not play defensively," Stam said. But none of the Dutch talk about what happened to Chile when it attacked Brazil in the round of 16. That was a rainy but thrilling Saturday evening at Parc des Princes in Paris, as thousands of fans from both countries celebrated the game in duplicate outpourings of joy. But when Chile took the game to Brazil, the Brazilians countered with their best demonstration of "the beautiful game" in this tournament and had little trouble winning, 4-1.

Brazil fully expected its semifinal opponent to be arch rival Argentina, which instead lost to the Netherlands, 2-1, Saturday. But as Brazil's coach, Mario Zagallo, said: "We cannot fight it. Our destiny is the Netherlands." The Netherlands played a classic game against Brazil in the 1994 World Cup quarterfinals, recovering from a 2-0 deficit to tie at 2, only to see Branco send home a curling free kick. "It was a great goal," said the Netherlands' Ronald de Boer. "It was a pity."

In 1974, defending champion Brazil was beaten by the Dutch, 2-0. They played "artistically," according to Zagallo, Brazil's coach then as well. And it was the only time in five tries that Zagallo has not won the World Cup with Brazil as either player, coach or team coordinator. As a result of that '74 meeting, Brazil still is trying to repeat as champion for the first time since 1958 and 1962. Brazil's 1958 victory in Sweden was the only time a South American team has won the Cup in Europe.

Something small could play a large part in the outcome. Daniel Passarella, Argentina's coach, said that Brazil has the advantage over the Netherlands because of an extra day of rest. The Dutch were weary after Saturday afternoon's game in the heat; this one will be a night game when it will be cooler and suit them better. Injuries and suspensions would appear to favor Brazil. Two defenders are suspended: Brazil's Cafu and the Netherlands' Arthur Numan. But Numan's replacement, Winston Bogarde, broke his leg in practice Sunday. And veteran Dutch attacker Marc Overmars has been troubled by a pulled thigh muscle.

Then again, the game could be determined by the obvious, its most gifted player, Ronaldo. He led Barcelona to the European Cup Winners Cup in 1997 and Inter Milan to the UEFA Cup in 1998. But the World Cup is a more prestigious trophy. "I know that if I want to enter peoples' hearts, I need to win the World Cup," Ronaldo said before the finals. "Everything else I have done will count for nothing."

So what will be the outcome? I asked a respected colleague, Hartmut Scherzer of Frankfort, with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing the past three World Cups. This is his 10th World Cup. This time he especially has enjoyed watching the "creativity" of the Dutch. To him, they are the most appealing group of players in the tournament because of their teamwork — an oddity because in spite of the talent they brought to many past World Cups, individualism has cost them as much as any country. But against Argentina on Saturday, they played a much-applauded team game with their passing, and dominated play.

So does that mean Scherzer predicts a Netherlands upset of Brazil? Not exactly. "The Brazilians have changed over the years," he said. "Like Germany, they are not as strong as they once were. They have individuals, but not as strong a team. But they respond when they have to. They respond almost immediately. Against Denmark, they broke the tie by scoring their third goal quickly and were safe. They react when challenged. In the end, I think they will win."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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