Brazil, in name only


There were Romario and Bebeto and their “rocking the baby” goal celebrations for Brazil en route to winning the 1994 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl.

American soccer fans remember them.

There were Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, the one with the goofy grin and the other with his strange half-moon haircut, leading Brazil to victory in the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, Japan.

American fans remember them.

There were countless other Brazilian stars of recent vintage, players such as Roberto Carlos and Cafu, and of an older generation, such as Rivelino, Rivaldo and Jairzinho.


And, of course, Pele

But what of the Brazilian players who will take the field today against the United States in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup? Will they be remembered?

Possibly, but not necessarily for the same reasons as the players mentioned above. Flair and fantasy were always the hallmarks of Brazilian soccer. Imagination and invention went hand in hand. The unexpected was always expected.

But the current Brazilian team is a different matter altogether. Because of it, the U.S. stands a chance. Not much of one, but a chance.

The Brazil team put together by Coach Dunga, the defensive midfielder who captained the 1994 side, is big, it is fast, it is strong, it is experienced and top-heavy with high-salaried players.

But it is also vulnerable.

Egypt proved that in taking Brazil to the wall before falling, 4-3, to a last-minute penalty kick during group play in the Confederations Cup.

The U.S., meanwhile, proved by upending Spain, the world’s No. 1-ranked team, 2-0 on Wednesday, that it cannot be taken for granted, as the Spanish apparently did. On the right day and with the right amount of luck, the Americans can get the job done.

Of course, it has been 11 years since the only time they had that sort of good fortune against Brazil. And, of course, Brazil is unbeaten in the dozen games it has played on the African continent.

And then there is the matter of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Ramires, the attacking spearhead of Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Stop one of them, fine. Stop two, even better. But stop all four, and at the same time keep tabs on the likes of Felipe Melo and Maicon?

It’s a tall order for U.S. Coach Bob Bradley’s team, especially with the mind-set Dunga has instilled in his players. Creativity is admired, but not at the expense of teamwork and application.

The style or approach might have changed, but the goal has not.

“Brazil’s main objective is to win,” Robinho said earlier in the tournament. “Of course, we want to play well too. Sometimes you can do both, but sometimes you have to play ugly to win. The priority is always to win.”

Gilberto Silva, the midfielder the U.S. has to get past even before it reaches the Brazilian defense, has happily accepted Dunga’s philosophy.

“You cannot score lots of goals in every match,” Silva said after Brazil’s 1-0 semifinal victory over South Africa, which plays Spain in today’s third-place game in Rustenburg. “You need to show some strength, some patience, and you have to stay focused. You cannot win every game easily.”

Brazil is on a 16-game unbeaten streak, but despite thrashing world champion Italy in this tournament it has not exactly lighted up the Confederations Cup stadiums.

Kaka, for instance, has not looked worth the $94 million Real Madrid paid AC Milan for him this month, perhaps because his mind is elsewhere.

He was quoted on the Brazilian federation’s website Friday as saying that he considers himself a business, much like David Beckham. “I have to think this way because of the millions of things that surround me,” he said. “The football player has to think like that today.”

The key for the U.S. is to employ the same intensity that was evident for 90 minutes against Spain, and to allow the Brazilian players no time or space to work their still potent, if seldom manifested, magic.

There was a deer-in-the-headlights look about the U.S. team that was trounced, 3-0, by Brazil in the first round, but that is unlikely to be the case today.

“I think they learned from the first match against us,” Kaka said at a news conference Friday. “It’s going to be much harder this time around.”

Dunga said that the U.S. “showed against Spain what a good team they are,” but added: “I still think we can beat them again.”

There will be one-one-one battles all over the field -- Carlos Bocanegra against Maicon, Oguchi Onyewu against Fabiano, Ricardo Clark against Kaka, Clint Dempsey against Ramires, and Landon Donovan against Robinho, to mention just some of the possible matchups.

Who wins the individual contests and which team can collectively impose its will is likely to determine the outcome.

If an anticipated Brazil victory is achieved with flair and flamboyance, so much the better. But don’t look for it to happen.