Crunch Time
July 6, 1998
Sideline Snapshots
July 20, 1998

Samba, But In Slo-Mo

THE Samba boys are through to the semis. The only flaw in the Brazilian quarter-final victory, if you can call it that, is that the magical Ronaldo has shown his magic only in flashes. The only player who doesn’t seek glory but defends it might soon discover that fame is like a shuttlecock and has to be hit on both sides to stay afloat.

But Brazil has definitely moved into a different gear, what with their 4-1 second-round demolition of Chile, followed up by a nail-biting 3-2 victory over Denmark in a match where they showed their class by recovering quickly from a second-minute Denmark goal and then calling the shots for the most part. And though Ronaldo didn’t score, he had two goal assists, one for Bebeto and the other for Rivaldo.

The thing about Ronaldo might be that defenders around the world are coming to grips with the fact that even the great Ronaldo has to pull down his zippers in the loo and the best way to stop Brazil is to stop him. But while they keep him in check, they might not be able to thwart the multitude of options he creates for others—something Brazil has not capitalised on—once he is near the D. So far, the forward has set up four goals, besides netting three himself. The world still awaits the world’s best footballer to rise to the occasion the World Cup presents. The Brazilian defence, too, is not what it’s rated to be—the sight of Roberto Carlos giving away the ball to Brian Laudrup in the D after trying a fancy bicycle kick clearance wasn’t exactly exciting.

Most of the boys have, however, gone home. Even the Italians. For the Azzuris, it was their third consecutive heart-breaking exit from the World Cup via penalties. In 1994, Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi missed their kicks against Brazil; this time it was Demetrio Albertini and Luigi Di Biagio. In 1990, they lost to Argentina in a similar vein. And though Italy largely defended during the match with Paolo Maldini in the lead, that’s their style of play. Roberto Baggio, for the second time in the tournament, put the ghost of 1994 to rest by taking the first shot successfully. But, only to see Biagio fail.

As French coach Aime Jacquet said: “The Italians work as one united block with short dagger thrusts.” Alas for Italy, even Christian Vieri, their dagger this time around, failed to carve any flesh. Instead, the Italians suffered taunts from French defender Marcel Desailly, who plays for AC Milan. Said Desailly: “The Italians are a bit pretentious saying they have got the best players. We have shown that the French players in Italy are from the top shelf and our team is as strong as theirs.”

All that remains is for the men to decide who will lift the World Cup of 1998, and what’s sure is that it won’t be a repeat of the last Cup final. After the first two quarters, it is Brazil who is emerging as favourites to relive its ’94 glory on July 12 at St Denis.

There are pretenders to the Brazilian throne—namely Argentina and Holland. But Argentina, despite the goal-scoring hunger of Batistuta and the silky skills of Ortega, lack the edge. Even in their encounter with England, which they won, the one memorable moment was the dazzling goal by the 18-year-old English striker, Michael Owen.

France, who qualified for the quarters after a drab match with unfancied Paraguay, failed to score against Italy during playtime. True, they whacked nine goals in their three qualifiers, but they were against inferior opposition like South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Their real test will now be a possible semis meet with the Germans. Denmark, who in Manchester United’s Peter Schmichel had arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, and had quietly strode into the last eight after damping the fireworks of Nigeria, found Brazil too hot to handle.

If all goes to plan, the Brazil vs Germany or Argentina or France or whoever final should be a classic, if only to erase the memory of the dour Italy-Brazil outing in 1994. If France goes all the way, Brazil will look to settling an old score. The last time the two met was in the ’86 quarters where France defeated Brazil on penalties—the celebrated Socrates missing in the shootout and Zico one during the match. But, about the quality of football, there were no complaints.

There are moments of joy left to be savoured—that might come from Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bergkamp, Zidane, Henry, Klinsm-ann, Beirhoff and Batistuta, the remaining gladiators. There is still a chance for one of them to leave a historical stamp on the cup. For one of them to be king.

(Shekhar Bhatia is on the staff of ‘The Express’, London)

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