In Brazil's first competitive game with
Robinho in the starting line-up, against Paraguay on Sunday, the world
champions played their most fluent and exciting football since winning
the World Cup three years ago.
It was a dream beginning for the much heralded Santos forward, who was
included only after Ronaldo was left out complaining of tiredness.
Robinho delighted home fans by performing several of his trademark "bicycle
pedal" (stepover) dribbles, including one that won a penalty, and he
scored the final goal in the 4-1 rout.
The easy victory brought Brazil to within a point of Argentina at the
top of the South American World Cup qualifying group. With both teams
virtually assured of going to Germany next year, their top-of-the-table
clash in Buenos Aires tonight was described by the Brazil coach Carlos
Alberto Parreira as a "luxury friendly game for first place".
While Brazil are enjoying a new-found confidence and public approval,
Argentina enter the match after a disappointing 2-0 defeat to
third-placed Ecuador on Saturday. Argentina's usually bombastic rhetoric
against their arch-rivals is somewhat subdued this time. "The statistics
and achievements show that [Brazil] are a small step above any other
team," said Argentina's coach José Pekerman.
Most of the attention in Brazil has been focused on Robinho, 21, whose
mesmerising dribbles and feints have made him the country's most feted
young star. The fans love him for his trickery and flamboyance. With
Robinho alongside Adriano in attack on Sunday, closely supported by Kaka
and Ronaldinho, Brazil passed the ball with more freedom and created
more chances than they have done when Ronaldo is on the field.
Parreira will maintain the attacking quartet for tonight's match,
although he stressed that Ronaldo still had a role to play. "Ronaldo
doesn't mess up any team. He is a very important presence for what he
represents, for who he is. He just needed a rest."
Robinho is widely expected to join Ronaldo at Real Madrid in the summer,
although his future has become an issue of sovereignty. The minister of
sport is studying a proposal made by Santos, with high-ranking political
support, for state-run industries to pay him to stay in Brazil in return
for image rights.
Because of his emergence at Santos, Pele's former club, and his physical
similarity, Robinho has often been compared to Pele. On Monday in Santos,
Pele's son Edinho, a former Santos goalkeeper, was arrested on suspicion
of links with a drug-trafficking gang. According to the local press, the
gang may have been involved in the kidnapping last year of Robinho's
Brazil and Argentina are the bookies' favourites to take the title in
Germany. Whoever wins today's match will be certain of qualifying for
the finals with three games in the 10-team group remaining.
Parreira, who was in charge at USA 94 and was criticised for his
defensive approach, is now applauded for encouraging an attacking style.
"From now own, this will be Brazil's characteristic. Obviously, we will
take precautions, but the tendency is we will attack all the time. We
are not going to play conservatively. It would be suicide to come here
and defend all the time."
Arsenal's Gilberto Silva made a brief substitute appearance against
Paraguay and Argentina will play at least one Premiership player -
Gabriel Heinze - tonight and possibly two if the Zaragoza defender
Gabriel Milito signs, as predicted, for Liverpool.
Pekerman, who took over from Marcelo Bielsa last September, has gained a
reputation for tinkering with his squad, which backfired when he played
a second-string team in Quito. Hernán Crespo, Roberto Ayala and Javier
Saviola were all rested and are expected to start tonight.
Paraguay, who face Bolivia tonight, lie in fourth place - the last
automatic qualifying spot. Fifth place - currently held on goal
difference by Colombia - wins a play-off against the winner of the
Oceania group. All 10 South American teams still have a chance of