Team's determination wins through
AFTER an almighty scare, Brazil's soccer stars are back on course for the World Cup finals next year in the United States.
The Brazilians - the first team to win soccer's most prestigious trophy three times and the only country to qualify for every World Cup finals since the inaugural tournament in 1930 - have been made to fight hard throughout this year's qualifying campaign.
They will go into their final match in South American qualifying Group B, at home to Uruguay, knowing that a draw will be enough to ensure they make the trip to the US.
The 1993 Brazilians have found it hard to live up to the glorious tradition of brilliant, attacking football, which made their predecessors so famous.
The spectres of such legends as Pele, Garrincha and Zico (the latter still entrancing fans in the new Japanese league, aged 40), have loomed large over the current national squad.
Add to this the fierce demands of Brazil's huge army of fans and a harshly critical national press, and it is easier to understand why today's players are under massive pressure every time they take the field.
Brazil's campaign for the 1994 finals got off to an unconvincing start in July when they drew 0-0 away to Ecuador.
Then disaster struck a week later when Bolivia condemned them to their first ever defeat in a World Cup qualifying match.
The canny Bolivians used their home advantage to the full, deciding to play the match at high altitude in La Paz. Brazil clearly felt worried about playing in the thin air 3,700 metres above sea level - they even brought 10 oxygen masks to refuel the players at half-time - and their fears proved well-founded in a disastrous final two minutes.
Firstly, a mistake by goalkeeper Taffarel, who let a harmless-looking cross from Marco Etcheverry slip under his body and into the net, left the visitors 1-0 down.
One minute later, Bolivian substitute Alvaro Pena ran through the demoralised Brazilian defence and scored with an angled shot that went through Taffarel's legs.
Just nine minutes earlier, Taffarel had been Brazil's hero when he saved a penalty from Erwin Sanchez.
The historic defeat led to calls for the sacking of coach Carlos Alberto Parreira - one poll showed 70 per cent of Brazilian fans believed he should be replaced - and there were demands for former national coach Tele Santana, now in charge of current world club champions Sao Paulo, to take over.
But with two teams qualifying from the five-nation group, the country's soccer federation refused to panic.
Parreira held on to his job and his players gave him a much-need boost with a convincing 5-1 victory in their next qualifying match, away to Venezuela.
Star striker Bebeto fired home two goals, captain Rai tucked in a penalty and Branco and Palhinha finished off the scoring to put a smile back on the face of Brazilian soccer.
That smile was quickly wiped away in the following game when Brazil missed an excellent chance to assert their authority on the group.
They missed a vital point when they drew 1-1 against a disorganised Uruguay side in Montevideo.
Rai had put the visitors ahead in the first half, but they missed three gilt-edged chances to seal victory and had defender Ricardo Rocha sent off before conceding a 78-minute equaliser.
Brazil, with Parreira under more pressure than ever before, showed their mettle with a vital 2-0 win over Ecuador in Sao Paulo. Spanish-based forward Bebeto was again their star, scoring the opening goal in the first half and helping make the game safe by laying on the second for midfielder Dunga.
That result helped settle Brazilian nerves - and in their next match they provided a performance designed to satisfy even their harshest critics by demolishing group leaders Bolivia 6-0.
The home team were so impressive that Parreira, who had been ridiculed by the press and jeered at by the public in previous weeks, had his name chanted by the 80,000 crowd in Recife.
His stars played with extraordinary determination, as if intent on teaching the Bolivians a lesson for the historic defeat in La Paz.
They were 5-0 before half-time, thanks to goals from Rai, Muller, Bebeto, Branco and Ricardo Gomes, and Bebeto added a sixth in the second half.
A solid 4-0 home win over bottom team Venezuela - thanks to goals from Ricardo Gomes (2), Palhinha and Evair - at the weekend put Brazil where their fans believe they belong, on top of the group.
Now September 19 looms large for Parreira and his men, for that is when they will play hosts to Uruguay in their final qualifying match.
It has been a rocky, unforgiving road to the World Cup finals for Brazil this time around - but, at last, they are almost there.