Whistle may blow for Brazil for foul play

 

Brazilian soccer, it would seem, is in deep crisis - again. Last weekend, it emerged that the four-time world champions could yet be banned from the 2002 World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan.

Meanwhile, Brazilian soccer's most famous son, Ronaldo, is due to appear before a Brazilian congressional inquiry to explain, yet again, just what happened prior to the 1998 World Cup final in France.

The threat to ban Brazil from the next World Cup was revealed by FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the course of an interview with Brazilian news weekly Epoca.

While the threat may contain an element of provocative rhetoric, it nonetheless underlines FIFA's concern about the level of possible political interference in crisis-hit Brazilian soccer.

At the heart of FIFA's misgivings are two parliamentary inquiries into Brazilian soccer, inquiries prompted by allegations of corruption, by the serious financial difficulties of top clubs, by the continuing exodus of top players abroad and by the infamous Ronaldo "incident" prior to the France '98 final.

"If we consider that there has been outside control of football, then the situation is clear: Brazil will be suspended from all international activities . . . In practice, Brazil will not take part in the 2002 World Cup . . . they will not be able to compete in competitions in South America," said Blatter in the magazine interview.

"Brazilian referees will not be used. In addition, we will not allow the transfer of Brazilian players abroad."

Ironically, the parliamentary inquiries, launched last month, have been welcomed both by the press and by ordinary Brazilians, tired of the chaotic administration the game.

The upper house is scheduled to investigate the domestic game, in particular the relationships between players, agents and the Revenue.

The lower house will be looking into the relationship between the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF) and Nike. The sportswear giants sponsor the national team and hold individual contracts with top players.

That Brazilian soccer is in a state of crisis has been clear for some time. Fixture chaos sees Brazilian clubs playing as many as four matches per week, often in front of half-empty stadia as fans prefer not to watch games punctuated by up to 100 fouls per match.

Blatter does not say it, but he, like many others, must be worried about what exactly will emerge when the investigation gets into full swing.

What indeed will the inquiry tell us about the CBF's relationship with Nike? Nike have a 10-year contract with the CBF that requires, among other things, the Brazilian team (including eight top players) to play 50 friendlies or exhibition matches between 1997 and 2006.

That contract has prompted endless speculation about Nike's possible interference in team matters. Despite vigorous Nike denials, many Brazilians still believe the company had a hand in the astonishing decision to field Ronaldo in the Brazilian side that lost the France '98 final 3-0 to France in Paris.

Ronaldo suffered a much-discussed seizure in his hotel room only hours before the game. Normally, there would have been no question of him playing. So why did he turn out to give an inevitably listless and dull performance?

Ronaldo's room-mate, Roberto Carlos, team coach Mario Zagallo and team doctor Lidio Toledo, as well as Ronaldo, will all be called on to answer that same question.

While the inquiries go about their business, the national team continues to be surrounded by performance-related polemics.

Even though Brazil are currently joint second with Paraguay on 17 points, five behind leaders Argentina, in the 10-country South American World Cup qualifying group, coach Wanderly Luxemburgo has been shown the door.

Group defeats by Paraguay and Chile, not to mention the Olympic side's quarterfinal exit in Sydney at the hands of Cameroon, cost Luxemburgo his job.

His successor, former World Cup goalkeeper Emerson Leao, takes over for a qualifier at home to Colombia in a fortnight.

He will not need reminding that, as far as the result is concerned, he has only one option - to win.