To watch the Brazilian national women's team play soccer is to understand the Portuguese expression, o jogo bonito -- "the beautiful game."

Clad in the country's famous canary yellow jerseys, its athletes turn the sport into an art with dazzling dribbles and one-touch passes that bewilder opponents and captivate fans.

Brazil's stylish play makes it one of the most closely watched teams of the Women's World Cup and puts it among the early favorites to vie for the title.

A respectable finish could pull Brazil out of the shadow cast by its counterparts on the men's national team, which has won a record four World Cup titles. It would also vindicate the recent growth of the women's game there.

"The evolution of women's soccer, not just in Brazil but in all of Latin America, will depend a lot on their performance in this World Cup," said Brazilian Coach Wilson Oliveira Rica.

With a 2-0 victory over Italy Thursday night, Brazil leads Group B and already has qualified for the quarterfinals, a vast improvement over its dismal ninth-place finishes in 1991 and 1995. The Brazilians also have secured a coveted berth in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"It's a great feeling, but it's not quite there yet," Rica said Thursday after the game. "We still have another phase to complete."

Brazil plays Germany in its final first-round match Sunday at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium at 1:30 p.m., with the loser likely to meet the United States in the second round.

"This will be a hotly contested tournament," said diminutive forward Pretinha, who scored three goals in Brazil's 7-1 win over Mexico last Saturday. "I think it has everything to be a great World Cup. All the teams have a lot of talent and are well-trained."

As eye-catching as their individual ballwork may be, representing the country that unabashedly calls itself "the land of soccer" is a tall order. For decades, soccer was considered too violent and unfeminine and kept virtually off-limits to Brazilian women, according to members of the team's delegation.

"I think that, bit by bit, those biases are being destroyed," said Luis Miguel Esteva~o, director of special categories for the Brazilian soccer federation (CBF). "It is already much better than it was before."

Economics also stunted the growth of women's soccer. Brazil's brightest stars, male and female, come from poor families and learn the game playing barefoot in hard-luck urban slums -- all the while dreaming of soccer stardom as a way out of grinding poverty.

But because professional opportunities in women's soccer did not exist until the early 1980s, it made no sense for a poor family to encourage its daughters to chase soccer balls full-time.

Four current national-team players -- Pretinha, Fanta, Elane and Marisa -- competed together a decade ago on the now-defunct Radar Sport Club, a professional team founded in Rio de Janeiro in 1981 that doubled as the national squad during the mid-1980s. They remember well the skepticism and bias that shadowed those precarious early days.

"Everybody had always looked at women's soccer in relation to its return to the family," said Elane, 30, a tall defender with 11 years of national team experience. "People would say, `Women's soccer doesn't pay anything -- go out and get a job.' "

The turning point was the national team's strong fourth-place finish in the 1996 Olympics. Although they qualified only because England did not send a team, the Brazilians reached the semifinals, where they lost to China, 3-2 -- narrowly missing a chance to play the United States for the gold medal.

"Those results opened a space for us, bringing us more support," said defender Fanta, 35, the national team's oldest player. "It's still not ideal, but what we get helps a lot."

Increased attention after the Olympics encouraged more girls to start playing and sparked fan interest. According to CBF estimates, there are more than 300 women's soccer clubs with up to 50,000 athletes, from beginner to professional levels.

Several of Brazil's soccer powerhouses, mostly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, field professional women's teams. Most national team members play for one of two clubs: Sao Paulo or Portuguesa, where Rica is head coach.

Full-time players typically earn about $1,000 per month, although a few stars can command up to $6,000 per month -- nowhere near the money an elite men's soccer player makes.

"We're not getting rich, but it's enough money for a decent house and a car," said Elane, who plays for Sao Paulo.

Although Brazilian television occasionally shows state and national women's soccer championships, there is little instant media recognition and even fewer sponsorship deals like those available to American star Mia Hamm. In fact, when asked to list their sports idol for the CBF's media guide, most players picked a star from the men's team.

Though relatively unknown, the players follow Brazilian custom and go by catchy, one-word nicknames.

Their goalie is called Maravilha -- "marvelous" in Portuguese [pronounced mah-rah-VEEL-ya]. She already proved herself worthy of her moniker with a stunning fist save on a penalty shot against Italy to preserve the shutout.

Maravilha may find herself busy Sunday against Germany, a much more skilled squad than Mexico or Italy. The Germans play a physical and, tactically, more deliberate, game, but Brazil is no stranger to a tougher style. Their defense is anchored by Elane, the team's captain, and Nene -- both of whom are known as punishing tacklers.

On offense, Brazil deploys several scoring threats, including Pretinha, at forward, and Sissi, a midfielder who leads World Cup scorers with five goals.

Like every team in the tournament, Brazil would love nothing better than to beat the United States, and the teams could meet in either the quarterfinals or in the semifinals, depending on Sunday's results.

Soccer federations have devoted many more resources to prepare their teams for this tournament than in 1995, according to Marla Messing, president of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup organizing committee.

"Countries like Brazil and Germany and Italy that have such a great heritage with the sport are getting tired of seeing the United States beat them at their own game," Messing said.

To acclimate, the Brazilians arrived in the United States on May 20 for a pre-Cup training tour sponsored by Nike. Two years ago, the sports-apparel giant signed a $200 million deal with the CBF that emblazoned its swoosh trademark on the men's and women's team jerseys. On its U.S. tour, they suffered a stinging 3-0 loss to the United States in Orlando.

But Brazil already has beaten the United States once, 1-0, in Sao Paulo in December 1997, and has geared its preparations to doing it again. "Brazil is the land of soccer," said Fanta, "and it is only right that the women's game grows there and that more people believe in us."

CAPTION: Thanks to Sissi, left, Nene, Brazil's women are slowly emerging as a soccer power.