July 10, 1998

World Cup: Brazil Reaches Final With Talent Still Untapped

By Peter Muello

MARSEILLE, France - Outside the locker room, an exhausted Mario Zagallo held up one finger. His personal countdown had reached one game.

``Only one left,'' said the Brazilian coach, his shaky voice firming. ``Our mission is almost accomplished. And we will win the `penta,' have no doubt.''

`Penta,' fifth in Portuguese, is how Brazilians intimately refer to the World Cup title they fully expect to win on Sunday. They had just passed - barely - the biggest hurdle in their path.

For much of their epic semifinal battle on Tuesday, the Netherlands outplayed, outhustled and outsmarted the defending Cup champions. They did almost everything except win.

After 120 minutes and the game deadlocked 1-1, luck made the difference. Goalie Taffarel guessed right twice on penalty kicks by Philip Cocu and Ronald de Boer, giving Brazil an insurmountable 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker and a spot in the finals.

``God was with us at the right moment,'' Taffarel said.

``Luck is fundamental, no question,'' added Bebeto. ``No one is champion without it.''

Faith, luck, destiny - the fact is Brazil reaches the finals without displaying the overpowering soccer so many expected from the four-time champions.

With a young generation brimming with talent, Zagallo switched the defense-first style that won the '94 Cup for a ``killer'' attack, led by two-time FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldo. But the attack has been less than overwhelming.

Against the Netherlands, Brazil showed only glimmers of greatness. There was a goal and a handful of chances by Ronaldo, some disconcerting dribbles from Denilson, and not much more.

Credit the Dutch defense. They tied Brazil in knots in the first half, when striker Patrick Kluivert repeatedly missed from close range on chances that could have decided the game. Still, Brazil looked little like a champion.

``We had problems,'' Zagallo admitted. ``The Dutch were superior in the first half.''

Through six games, Brazil has played just well enough to get by against an unexceptional field.

After beating Scotland and Morocco in the first round, they could afford to lose to Norway - and lost. Then came a 4-1 win over unpretentious Chile and a dramatic 3-2 victory against Denmark, with the drama heightened by Brazil's defensive lapses.

Though it's hard to argue with success, Zagallo knows his team should be playing better.

``Some players aren't performing 100 percent yet,'' he said. ``Imagine if they were.''

Among them is Ronaldo. He was brilliant in the second half, lethargic in the first. Some blame his erratic pay on tendinitis in his knee, others hint he's a tad overweight. Though he leads the team with four goals, many expect more from the world's best player.

Another subpar performer is Roberto Carlos, the Real Madrid defender who finished second to Ronaldo in the Player of the Year balloting. His booming free kick was supposed to be a major weapon in Brazil's arsenal, but he hasn't scored yet, and his defense has been spotty.

Roberto Carlos says he's had trouble adjusting to the lighter ball used at the Cup. It doesn't ``take'' the spin that makes a shot curve, he says, but instead flies off in odd directions.

When the inspiration isn't there, though, Brazilians have shown they can dig in and scrap with any team.

``Our heart was on the field, our willpower, our determination,'' said Rivaldo.

If it isn't art, it may be enough.

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