WORLD CUP : Brazil's Record Perfect, but It's a Troubled Team

Times Staff Writer

There is something very odd going on here, but what it is, no one can quite say.

It has to do with Brazil's soccer team, the only unbeaten, untied, unscored-upon team in the World Cup competition.

Brazil kept that record intact here Thursday afternoon when it defeated Northern Ireland at Jalisco Stadium, 3-0. But even in victory, there was a sense that all is not well.

Tele Santana, the Brazilian coach, could not have looked more nervous or ill at ease during the postgame press conference if he'd had a gun to his head. And, in a sense, he does.

Brazil, under Santana's guidance, was the favorite to win it all in Spain four years ago. The team was looked upon as the best that Brazil had produced in more than a decade, with Zico, Junior, Socrates and others at the height of their games.

But, inexplicably, Brazil failed, bowing to eventual champion Italy in the second round. Now, four years later, Santana is under intense pressure to make up for that failure. The problem is, he no longer has the players.

Zico, for example, is injured. His 20 minutes of playing time as a substitute Thursday marked his first appearance of this World Cup. Then, too, Junior's unquestioned skills have eroded considerably since 1982. And Socrates? Well, Socrates is a story in himself.

After Brazil's 1-0 opening-game win over Spain, the tall, bearded midfielder--who is also a fully-qualified medical doctor--was quoted in the Spanish press as saying that for economic reasons the World Cup is stacked in favor of the bigger, more powerful teams and that referees might be influenced by this when making split-second decisions.

Understandably, that statement brought down the wrath of Joao Havelange, the president of FIFA, world soccer's ruling body.

It also brought a decree from the Brazilian soccer federation. From now on, the federation said, no player will be allowed to make political statements of any kind. Anyone who does so will find himself on the next plane home. As for Socrates, federation officials said he had been misquoted.

"There is no restriction of liberty, but we are all here to play soccer and we cannot be distracted," said Nabi Abi Chedid, a Brazilian federation vice president, when questioned about restrictions on the players' freedom of speech.

Then, just as soon as that controversy showed signs of dying down, another erupted. Earlier this week, defender Edson, under a team doctor's orders to rest, slipped out of camp for a night on the town. Two other players, Casagrande and Alemao, were pictured in a Guadalajara newspaper stripped to the waist, each enjoying a beer.

In times past, each of these incidents would have been laughed at and pointed to as further evidence of Brazil's relaxed, easygoing approach to the World Cup. The Brazilians, fans and the media would have said, know how to enjoy themselves and win at the same time.

Not so this year. Santana's team may be winning, but there doesn't seem to be much enjoyment being had.

A couple of embarrassing defeats in Europe during a pre-World Cup tour and the even more embarrassing refusal of star Leandro to join the team on the eve of its departure were further blows to Santana's hopes.

When the team finally left Rio de Janeiro several weeks ago, Brazil's no-holds-barred press called it the worst Brazilian team in 30 years. The fans, too, offered only a lukewarm send-off, apparently having resigned themselves to the team's probable failure.

Even now, after victories over Spain, Algeria and Northern Ireland, there is the feeling that the failure could occur at any moment. The mood may have brightened in Rio, but here in Guadalajara there is still a definite feeling that all is not as it should be.

Brazil's defense has not allowed a goal, but scoring against it does not look like an impossible task for the right team.

Brazil's midfield is capable, but Santana's insistence on playing two defensive midfielders has given the team a conservative, cautious, totally un-Brazilian look. Gone is the flair, the unpredictability, the inventiveness of Brazil's winning World Cup teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Brazil has scored five goals, but it has yet to play against a strong defense. Spain, Algeria and Northern Ireland hardly qualify.

In short, Brazil may well advance all the way to the final, but its ability to do so has yet to be proven.

Thursday's victory, although clear-cut, was not impressive. The Irish offered almost nothing in the way of an offense, and the Irish defense was both slow and, ultimately, porous.

Brazil scored in the 16th, 41st and 88th minutes. Careca got the first, volleying a shot past Irish goalkeeper Pat Jennings from close range after taking a pass from Muller on the right wing.

The second was a long-range effort from Josimar, whose 20-yard shot dipped and swerved and finally found the upper left corner of the net beyond Jennings' reach.

The final goal, with just minutes to go, resulted from a back-heel pass from Zico to Careca, whose shot hit the back of the net before Jennings could react.

Northern Ireland's coach, Billy Bingham, praised the Brazilians, but the defeat was due as much to his own players' shortcomings as to anything the Brazilians did.

It was not the way Jennings, who turned 41 Thursday, would have liked to have ended his 22-year international career, but Northern Ireland's elimination was not unexpected.

The same might be said of Brazil soon.

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