As Cup looms, Brazil hopes to extend magic ride that began in '94

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Fifteen years ago last month, the U.S. played host to an important moment in soccer history.

Of all five of Brazil's World Cup wins, USA 1994 was probably the least glamorous. The team didn't play with the style and swagger of 1958 or '70, and for all the superb strike combinations of Bebeto and Romário, there was no one to touch the heights of Garrincha in '62, or to match Ronaldo's magnificent and touching comeback 40 years later. The more workmanlike aspect of the '94 triumph is exemplified in the manner of its attainment: in a penalty shootout after a scoreless draw with Italy in the final at the Rose Bowl.

Nevertheless, USA '94 is a key moment in the recent development of the Brazilian game. A quick before and after makes the case. Going into the tournament, Brazil had gone 24 years without winning the World Cup, or even reaching the final. Subsequently, it reached the final in '98, and won the competition once more in 2002.

But as of '94, Brazil astonishingly had never even won the Copa América on foreign soil. After losing the '95 final on penalties, Brazil since has won in Bolivia in '97, Paraguay in '99, Peru in '04 and Venezuela two years ago -- four wins in the last five tournaments. Add to that the Confederations Cup successes in '97, '05 and, of course, this year.

That makes '94 a big moment. It's the time when the Brazilian national team got its confidence back. The storm clouds had been on the horizon since April 1963, when Belgium beat a strong Brazil lineup 5-1 in a friendly. Northern European soccer was on the rise, and its high-tempo rhythm, physical intensity and growing tactical awareness would present a new challenge. Eleven years later, in the '74 World Cup, the Netherlands made true on the threat, beating Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil with an authority that instantly made old-style South American soccer obsolete.

It took Brazil more than two decades to hit on the response. In '78, it tried to copy the Dutch. In '82 and, to a lesser extent '86, it tried to go with traditional strengths, and in '90 it went with a sweeper system, a la Italy, or Argentina's back three from '86.

In '94, the Brazilians found the formula. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira fielded a 4-4-2 formation, with a back four -- in other words, a system that kept with the tradition of Brazilian soccer, rather than attempting to copy something from elsewhere.

But there were innovations. The Brazilian game long had put great emphasis on physical preparation. But with the country's economy opening up, it was now possible to import more sophisticated machinery. Brazil's excellent conditioning staff thus was able to draw up individual programs for the players to ensure they peaked at the right time.

The fullbacks were given license to roam forward, keep the pitch wide and supply crosses into the penalty box. Attacking fullbacks were already part of the Brazilian tradition, but now, to ensure they could burst forward without leaving the team unprotected, the two central midfielders took on extra defensive responsibilities. Mauro Silva, with his capacity to read the game, would cover the gaps and shut the door on potential danger, while Dunga was an abrasive tackler who had worked at his game until he had become a crisp and efficient ball passer.

Physically prepared and tactically organized, Brazil was the only team that summer that -- in the hot temperatures of places such as Stanford Stadium, Dallas' Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl -- was able to maintain an efficient balance between attack and defense. The attack was based on the individual talent and collective combination of Romário and Bebeto. At the other end, the Brazilians conceded just four goals in the competition, despite being deprived of the three leading center backs: Ricardo Gomes and Mozer injured on the eve of the tournament, and Ricardo Rocha in the opening game.

When the tournament came to a close with Roberto Baggio's final penalty kick sailing over the crossbar, Brazil emerged as a worthy champion, and the team's influence on the domestic game was immense. I made Brazil my base just a few weeks after that World Cup win, and was struck by the fact that almost all the club sides were playing the same way: with a 4-4-2 system that threw the fullbacks forward and shut down the middle of the pitch with two defensive midfielders.

But there was a difference, one brought on by two factors: First, job security for Brazilian club coaches was (and still is) very precarious. The threat of being fired lead to an excessive fear of defeat, which increased the tendency to clog up the center of midfield with markers. Second, there weren't too many players around with the same quality as Mauro Silva and Dunga. The outcome was that many clubs were essentially fielding defenders in the midfield. In front of their center backs, they had another pair of center backs.

The problem became apparent in the national team in the build-up to the next World Cup, held in France in '98. Who would replace Mauro Silva and Dunga? The passing years meant that perhaps one of the two could play, but not both. In the end, Brazil went for Dunga, who had the added bonus of his inspirational leadership. Mauro Silva was replaced by the plodding and rather ordinary César Sampaio.

And the Brazil coaching staff was guilty of glaring self-deception in the case of Dunga. Deep down, they must have been aware he didn't have enough gas in the tank at age 34 to last another World Cup -- but this was conveniently forgotten because they thought he was indispensable. It inevitably ended in tears, with Zinedine Zidane waltzing his way through the middle of the pitch as France cruised to a 3-0 win in the final.

This issue has yet to be entirely resolved. Recently, '70 great-turned-pundit Tostão posed an interesting question: "Does Brazil no longer impose its style, its rhythm and dominate the game against any opponent because we no longer have outstanding players in midfield?" he asked. "Or because coaches, progressively, have changed the style of the Brazilian game in such a way that the brilliant central midfielders have disappeared?"

I would argue humbly that it's not a case of either-or. One is true because the other is. First comes the idea -- the concept that the central midfielder is there to defend. Players are then selected in accordance with the demands. Some three years ago, I asked Mário Zagallo, who won the World Cup as both player and coach, the following question:

What had happened to the likes of Clodoaldo from his team in '70, or Falcão and Cerezo from '82, players with a range of passing to run the game from central midfield? Zagallo shrugged. "These days we're paying much more attention to marking," he said.

There is plenty of talent in other positions. The last World Cup side was overloaded with top-class attacking options: Ronaldo and Adriano backed up by Kaká and Ronaldinho. After Brazil's bid for a sixth title came up short in the quarterfinals, the coach of the team confessed he had contradicted his own philosophy by selecting a side that effectively played in a 4-2-4 formation.

That coach, of course, was Parreira, the very man who had found the formula in the U.S. 12 years earlier. Parreira always had been a coach whose sides were characterized by their possession game. But the dynamic of the very movement he had unleashed left him with a side ill-suited to exercise controlled possession.

In the wake of Romário and Bebeto, lots of attacking stars had emerged. So too had millions of dollars from Nike, also attracted by that '94 win, which helped raise their global profile. But in central midfield, Parreira was fielding Gilberto Silva, a converted center back, and Zé Roberto, a converted left back -- two players with undoubted merits, but neither of whom were schooled in the arts of directing possession from center field.

During that '06 World Cup, Dunga appeared as a pundit on Brazilian TV. One of his main criticisms was that the team was not a typical Parreira side, in that the team was clearly unable to play a game based on retaining possession of the ball.

A month later, to general surprise, Dunga was announced as Parreira's replacement. Since then, Brazil has gone even further away from a possession-based game. As the recent Confederations Cup made abundantly clear, Brazil's present-day weapons are a variety of well-worked set pieces and a devastating counterattack.

"The team is unable to exchange passes in midfield," wrote Tostão after a World Cup qualifier at Uruguay at the start of June. Uruguay kept the pressure on, and had forced 15 corners to Brazil's two. No matter, Brazil won 4-0. The team is on top of South America's 2010 World Cup qualification table, it won the '07 Copa América even without its biggest stars and it just added the Confederations Cup this past June.

Will it be good enough to land the big prize on its return to South Africa for next year's World Cup? Or has time moved on, exposing Brazil as too limited in central midfield to beat the best when it matters? That promises to be one of the many fascinating questions at the first African World Cup, where a new chapter will be written in a story that began 15 years ago when Brazil set off on a run of success by striking gold in America.