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Group A: Troubled Brazil Still Odds-On Favorite

By Alex Johnson
Wednesday, June 3, 1998

Brazil | Norway | Scotland | Morocco

World Cup champions: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994. Runners-up: 1950. Third place: 1938, 1978. Fourth place: 1974.

No other team starts a World Cup with higher expectations than Brazil does every four years. The record four-time winners have, if anything, even more talent than their 1994 championship team, and in Ronaldo, they boast the consensus choice as the planet's best player. In Roberto Carlos, they have a defender who was runner-up to Ronaldo in the annual voting for best player in the world. In Mario Zagallo, they have a coach who has been a part of all four Brazilian titles. No other nation matches their history or their talent. They have a seemingly easy qualifying group. They are the bookies' favorites to make it two in a row, five overall.

And yet ...

Brazil has its problems.

The team is beset by more distractions than it was four years ago. The Brazilian federation refused to sequester players from cannibalistic European agents who swarm the top teams' camps, and divisions within the team seem to be worse than usual, even for Brazil. A veteran Brazilian sports writer called the team a "cauldron of vanities."

Of more practical concern are on-the-field weaknesses. It was considered something of a joke in 1994 that the goalkeeping talent was so thin that Claudio Taffarel, who was playing amateur soccer in Italy at the time, was the best keeper Brazil had. Four years later, he still is. At least he has a full-time job now, with Atletico Mineiro.

Uncommonly problematic is the midfield, an un-Brazil-like collection of non-attacking strong men. On paper, a Brazil that plays midfield defense would seem to be almost unfair, but in practice, Zagallo has gone so far overboard for strength that Ronaldo must wonder where his chances are going to come from. Dunga is back, joined by Doriva and Leonardo, thrower of the infamous elbow that sidelined Tab Ramos four years ago. Fine players all, but all of a type, and perhaps overkill given what may be Brazil's best collection of defenders in at least 28 years, good enough that the injured Marcio Santos will hardly be missed.

Rivaldo can run the attack from midfield, but he has never lived up to his reputation in the national team. And Juninho, the best playmaker of them all, isn't on the roster; Zagallo said he hasn't sufficiently recovered from a broken leg, even though the team's own doctor assured reporters that "Juninho is fine." That leaves Giovanni and Denilson as the default choices for midfield creator, a role they have the skills to fill, but not the experience, certainly at this level, and maybe not the inclination. Giovanni is a natural forward, not a midfielder, and even Zagallo admits that Denilson is most effective as an old-fashioned winger. But they're all he has if Rivaldo again fails to come through.

Worse is that Ronaldo has been deprived of his striking partner. Romario, who had retooled his game and struck a fine understanding with Ronaldo, misses the tournament with an injury. Brazil, being Brazil, has strong options, notably Edmundo and Bebeto. But Edmundo is almost a Ronaldo clone; the problem is whether one ball is enough for these two classic central finishers. And with Edmundo, there's always the chance that he could be expelled in the first minute of any game. Bebeto, improbably, is once again the choice.

The uncertainty has caused doubts in the team. Even Dunga, the captain, acknowledged the obvious. "In 1994, the team had played through the World Cup qualifiers together and had been together for nearly two years," he said. "This time, we are trying to achieve in five weeks what we previously did in two years." A disorganized 1-1 draw with Spanish club Athletic Bilbao didn't help morale.

Of course such doubts surround Brazil every year; they did four years ago, and look who's defending the trophy. Not surprisingly, Zagallo, who has a very high opinion of himself, finds the carping annoying. "Yes, I am [in a bad mood]," he said recently. "And I was in a bad mood in '58. I was in a bad mood in '62. I was in a bad mood in '70 and in '94."

What do those years have in common? Mario Zagallo personally picked up a World Cup winner's medal in each of them. He could pick up another one. Ronaldo solves a lot of problems.

Norway is not particularly talented, and it may not go far past the first round, but it is a tenacious, smart, disciplined team that is almost uniquely suited to spring the big first-round surprise and take a point – even three – off of Brazil.

Norway has a history with Brazil, getting a win and a draw in the only two games they have played. The win was a thorough 4-2 victory just last year, the Brazilians' first loss since they won the World Cup. Nor was it a particularly stunning result. Coach Egil Olsen, who has revolutionized Norwegian soccer in his seven years in charge, also has wins over Italy – potentially Norway's second-round opponent – Holland and England since taking over. And in pre-tournament friendlies, his team has been on a rampage, culminating in 5-2 and 6-0 wins over fellow qualifiers Mexico and Saudi Arabia last month; in fact, it is undefeated since January 1997.

Olsen makes no apologies for his defense-first, long-ball counterattacking style, a style that is more English than anything that has ever been played in England. For instance, his center forward, Tore Andre Flo, doesn't even start for his club team, Chelsea, but he is 6-feet-3 and can outjump any defender for balls lobbed into the box from 40 yards away; that makes him, in Olsen's eyes, "among the best in the world."

And that is one of Norway's biggest weaknesses. Olsen picks players to fit his rigid system; talent doesn't make much difference in this light, and so Norway will take a team of disciplined role players to France, some of whom rarely play even for their clubs. Frode Grodas, for example, who will start in goal and captain Norway for the second straight World Cup, hasn't played a league match since May 1997.

But they do the job for Olsen. Their discipline and their uniquely annoying hyperpressing style in midfield mean they are strongest in the areas where Brazil is weakest, and so a repeat of last year's upset is not out of the question. Brazil will go a lot further in the tournament, but Norway might well win this group.

Scotland has never made it past the first round, despite some good teams, and it won't this year. Like Norway, it is well-coached, disciplined and spirited. But you can't out-Norway Norway.

The Scots are old – the starting defenders average 31.5 years of age. After starting goalkeeper Andy Goram's abrupt retirement last month, the job went to Jim Leighton, who is 39. Ronaldo should enjoy Brazil's opener against Scotland.

Nor are they particularly talented. The strike force is so weak that Ally McCoist, who at 35 was riding off into the sunset as a part-time player for Rangers, was nearly called back into the national team. But coach Craig Brown thought better of things and went with Gordon Durie, instead, who is only 32. He will join Kevin Gallacher, 31, up front. Gallacher will not even start next season for Blackburn Rovers, which spent more than $12 million last month for a younger striker to replace him.

Scotland has a solid defense, granted, and that makes it very hard to beat. But it scores so few goals that it is very hard to lose to, too. It will give Brazil and Norway a headache, but it won't make it out of this group. Most likely, the Scots will have been eliminated by the time they meet Morocco, their best shot at a win.

The Moroccans face a rough time in this group, and injuries don't help. As recently as last month, coach Henri Michel – yes, another Frenchman in charge of an African national team, and the same one who made such a hash of things with Cameroon in 1994 – undertook a whirlwind tour of Europe hoping to find undiscovered players who might qualify as Moroccans to join his team.

The Atlas Lions, as they are known, had an unexpectedly strong World Cup '94, playing well despite losing all three group matches, one of them an impressive 2-1 showing against Holland. The team is built on a trio of players with Deportivo La Coruna in Spain: Mustapha Hadji, who will give all three of Morocco's opponents trouble, captain Noureddine Naybet and Salaheddine Bassir, a proven goal scorer. But they will not be able to sneak up on anyone this time around. Scotland and Norway are too well-coached to be taken by surprise, and Brazil is on another planet in terms of talent.

Morocco is one of the stronger African teams, but it doesn't have quite enough to make a mark. A 1-0 loss to England last month was more than respectable, but it was a loss nonetheless. That looks to be what Morocco will have to settle for in France.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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