'Winning is the only option'

June 9, 2006
By Kevin Palmer
(Archive)

They say football is Brazil's most popular religion and spending time in the company of a man who helped them achieve World Cup glory confirms as much.

GettyImages / BenRadfordLeonardo played in two finals - a winner in 1994 and losing finallist in 1998.

Leonardo was a member of the Brazil squad that ended his nation's 24-year wait to reclaim the game's holy grail at USA '94 and hearing him talk about the magic of this great tournament leaves you in little doubt about how deeply its significance is carved into the psyche of his nation.

While the majority of teams in Germany this summer talk a good game and hope to secure World Cup glory, Leonardo sums up why the men following in his footsteps have an entirely different mindset when this extravaganza rolls around every four years.

The optimism and dreams of the rest are replaced by expectancy and necessity for Brazil. While many countries involved this summer would reach for the champagne if they reach the semi-finals or beyond, such accomplishments are considered insignificant to a Brazilian.

'European teams seem to celebrate if they reach the World Cup Final, but that is just the start for Brazil,' confirms the midfielder who won 60 caps for his country.

'We need to be in the Final and anything less is not good enough. Celebrating a quarter-final or semi-final win is a sign you are not concentrating.

'We have to stay focused until after the final and then the party can begin. The pressure, the expectation means Brazilian players cannot relax until they win the World Cup, this is the way we are.'

Stepping into the mindset of a nation whose obsession with the World Cup knows no bounds, the eloquent Leonardo attempts to explain why Brazil have become the traditional favourites for every World Cup and a side who rarely fail to deliver.

'There are a lot of reasons why Brazil are so successful in the World Cup,' continues the former AC Milan star.

'Football in Brazil arrived in a different way to other countries. Sure, it came from the English initially, but in other countries it arrived as a complete game, with rules and referees. In Brazil, it started as a game with no officials and that encouraged us to play with the style you see today. We have stayed true to those rules throughout our history and that is my view why we play a different style to everyone else.

'Maybe in England or Italy, kids will be ordered to play in this position or that position when they are still very young, but in Brazil they are encouraged just to enjoy the game. Kids are told to develop their skills and tactics and positional play only comes in later. That is why we play with such freedom, such joy because there is no restriction. Much later, when you play properly, you should still have that freedom. That is what you see with a Brazil side.

The World Cup is our chance to communicate with the world, to show that Brazil has something special to offer and this is why we look forward to this competition so much.
Leonardo

'There is an incredible mix of races and cultures in my country, but we quickly began to realise that football could bring us together, especially in the World Cup. When we won for the first time and Pele made such an impact in Sweden '58, it changed everything in Brazil. It became our national obsession.

'The World Cup is our chance to communicate with the world, to show that Brazil has something special to offer and this is why we look forward to this competition so much.'

Of course, Leonardo's moment of glory at USA '94 was tarnished by the infamous clash that saw him shatter Tab Ramos' skull with a brutally-delivered elbow in a second round game. A red card duly followed and his participation in the tournament ended there and then.

Despite that scar on his reputation, his prized medal still takes pride of place among his collection and he suggests that triumph of 12 years ago was a turning point for the Brazilian national team.

'It was so hard for me because I had to sit out of the last three games of the tournament and it was not a moment that I ever expected in my life,' he states.

'It was the only time I was ever sent off and for it to happen in a World Cup finals was very hard to take. I cried for a long time. I remember Bebeto telling me they would win the medal for me and in the end he was right.

'Our success in 1994 was a big moment for Brazil. It saved our game. When you look back then, none of the top sides in Europe had Brazilian players and after that, the change came and it also gave the national team a chance to return to the football we like to play. It was the catalyst for the 2002 success and look at the team now and it has been inspired by our triumph in America.'

Turning his attentions to this summer's finals, Leonardo believes Brazil's primary challengers may come from Europe, suggesting England and Portugal will emerge as serious contenders.

'I look at this generation of England players and it is possible that they could win the World Cup,' he says. 'They have waited so long for a moment like they had back in 1966 and maybe this can be their time. Their midfield is very strong and hopefully Wayne Rooney can play a part at some point.

GettyImages / DavidCannonLeonardo's USA 94 was ended after his infamous elbow on Tab Ramos.

'I also think Portugal will do well at this World Cup because they have a top manager in Luiz Felipe Scolari, a guy who is the master at motivating players. Scolari proved he could win this tournament last time and he also did a great job in the last European Championships, so I am expecting to see Portugal do well this summer.

'Everywhere Scolari has been, the players have responded to him and having the respect of the dressing room must be the most important start for him.

'When he worked with the Brazil team in the run up to the 2002 World Cup, he changed things around very quickly and within a year you could see the impact he had made. Of course, that team went on to win the World Cup. He is a special coach.'

Compliments for the opposition are commendable, but this World Cup winner can only see one winner in Germany this summer and he is backing Ronaldinho to inspire his nation to a sixth world title.

'I keep hearing that the Brazil players are unfit or out of form, but don't worry about that,' he adds.

'When the challenge begins for real, I know they will be ready. They have a great coach who knows how to win the World Cup and fantastic players. I expect Ronaldinho to be the star of the tournament because he plays the game on a different level. He is the guy who likes the challenge of being the best. That is the way in Brazil.'

• Leonardo will be a member of the BBC's World Cup team in Germany this summer.

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