No Alternative to Victory for National Coach : 150 Million Brazilians Keep Heat on Zagalo

MARIO ZAGALO, the man paid to take Brazil to the defense of its World Cup this June, once memorably observed that the population of his country was 150 million, and therefore there were 150 million who regarded themselves as the national team's soccer coach.

In his 66th year, Zagalo knows his history — and has cause to worry that history might repeat itself. As of Wednesday, there are 91 days to the kickoff of the World Cup tournament in France, and Zagalo will remember 1970 when he inherited the team that was to win the trophy.

Zagalo had taken over from Joao Saldanha, who was too leftist for Brazil's military government and was removed from his post. Thus did Zagalo achieve the third part of his unique World Cup record: He won two as a player in 1958 and 1962 and his third as coach in 1970. In 1994, he shared in Brazil's fourth World Cup triumph as an assistant to Carlos Alberto Parreira.

He still has a strong chance for a fifth World Cup. Brazil, as ever, has the most gifted players on the planet. But Old Mario must be feeling the breath of younger men on his neck — young players who, unforgivably, lost to the United States last month, and Zico, a former playing idol who was drafted a few days ago by Zagalo's employer, the Brazilian soccer federation, as "technical coordinator" to the World Cup squad.

The Brazilian soccer federation rarely makes these changes clean and complete. In 1970 it changed the coaching hierarchy by announcing that the technical committee in charge of World Cup preparation was being "dissolved."

"Cowards!" Saldanha thundered at that time. "They don't have the guts to tell me I'm fired. Am I an ice cube to be dissolved?"

Then the government set up a new committee with Zagalo in charge.

Some years later, I spent an enlightening morning in Saldanha's apartment in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. High-strung, highly amusing and still in defiant high dudgeon against those who gave his team to Zagalo — "a technician" — Saldanha spoke of the intrinsic flair and sense of fun of the true Brazilian, a mix that raises the game to a performing art.

Brazil was by then preparing for the 1978 World Cup. Zico was one of its star players. Saldanha was furious that these cowards — he used the term liberally — were putting Zico in a straitjacket. The national trainer was Claudio Coutinho, an army officer who, with Parreira and Zagalo, reasoned that Brazil needed more discipline to regain the World Cup.

The pragmatists have to some extent proved their point.

In Pasadena, California, where Brazil regained the World Cup in 1994 by keeping its nerve better than Italy on a penalty shoot-out, Dunga, the captain chosen by Parreira, said: "No more jogo bonito," or pretty play. "This is the Brazil of sweat and sacrifice."

Yes, there was order. Yes, Saldanha's commitment to liberty was sacrificed. But Brazilians cannot help themselves when the contest is going their way, cannot suppress entirely the extravagance of their gifts. That is why we love them. All the rest are pretenders compared to the boys from Brazil.

Parreira and Zagalo, the coaches in 1994, understood this, but to win back the World Cup they had to be stoical against critics like myself who want, always, the full Brazilian romance. Such critics believe — as another marvelous but mistreated Brazil coach, Tele Santana, believed — that art is infinitely preferable to method.

Zagalo has been there, done that, four times over. He knows Ronaldo, warns him about the demands and the fickleness of the viewers and the pundits. He knows more than any living man the diplomatic path between officials who know little but expect a lot. He knows the intrusiveness of the media, knows the signs of self-doubt and the Catch 22 danger of arrogant overconfidence.

Has Zico developed this awareness? Has he a proven record of coaching the best players on earth? He was a fantastic player, the "White Pele," they predicted, yet Zico never won the World Cup.

There may be a concealed depth to him, but Zagalo's record this time round is 52 games played, 2 lost. The two defeats were in the final of the 1996 Olympics to an astonishing Nigerian team, and the setback last month in the United States, where only the sponsors and possibly the Americans imagined that beating a weakened, uninterested Brazil was a real coup.

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