DALLAS — DALLAS -- It had been 20 years since they had played each other in the World Cup. They'll be talking about this one in Sao Paulo and Amsterdam and a hundred thousand soccer bars for another 50.
"I had help from above," Branco said yesterday afternoon after his free kick in the 81st minute pushed Brazil past the Netherlands, 3-2, at the Cotton Bowl and into a World Cup semifinal (against today's Romania-Sweden winner) for the first time since 1978.
The real help the Brazilians had, charged the furious Dutch, was from a linesman who didn't see that Romario was offside when Bebeto put Brazil up 2-0 in the 62nd minute.
"It's terrible," said forward Dennis Bergkamp, who cut the lead to 2-1 less than two minutes later. "The linesman was absolutely blind. Romario was three yards offside."
Soccer buffs will argue about that noncall into the next millennium. But they'll agree that this was a brilliant and dramatic duel between two of the sport's most storied teams.
Brazil, which taught the world to play with elegance and verve and joy. And the Netherlands, whose Clockwork Orange side of the 1970s gave birth to the idea of "total football."
"This game contained everything that football should contain," said Dutch coach Dick Advocaat.
The last time the teams met, in 1974, the Brazilians were defending champions, but the Dutch won, 2-0, and went on to lose to West Germany in the final. This time, they played each other cautiously until halftime, then fiercely until the end.
All five goals were scored in the final 38 minutes. And when Costa Rican referee Rodrigo Badilla blew his whistle six minutes into injury time, the Dutch were frantically trying to send the game into overtime while the Brazilians were praying for the end.
"I said it would be a pretty match, an open match," said Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who is gradually -- if grudgingly -- gaining respect from the critical fans back home and the media here. "It was probably the best match of the tournament -- and certainly the most dramatic."
The Dutch, playing in only their second Cup since 1978, seemed all but finished after Bebeto had set up Romario in the 52nd minute, then scored himself 10 minutes later. Only once in 41 Cup matches -- the 2-1 loss to Uruguay that cost Brazil the 1950 Cup at home -- had Brazil lost after scoring first.
So the Brazilians relaxed, took a Dutch throw-in for granted and watched in shock as Bergkamp motored into the box and drilled the ball into the goal in the 64th minute. Then, a dozen minutes later, Aron Winter headed in a corner from Marc Overmars, and it was tied.
"Many teams, seeing the score 2-2 after being ahead 2-0, would go down," said Parreira. "Brazil went back on top."
The man who put the Brazilians there, the 30-year-old Branco, had been all but invisible in the tournament until yesterday. He had played in the 1986 and 1990 Cups, but millions of his countrymen felt Branco should have been left off the team this time.
Parreira had left him on the bench for the first four matches. Then, with Leonardo kicked out of the Cup for fracturing the skull of U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos with an elbow, Branco got the call yesterday.
What he was supposed to do was stifle Overmars, the Netherlands' swiftest striker. What he did instead was set up Bebeto's goal, then score the one that had Pele, broadcasting the match back to Brazil, pumping his fists in delight.
Branco's goal -- a blast from beyond the penalty area -- came just as the Brazilians were beginning to let all the demons from past failures creep in.
Branco had come slanting toward the middle when he was cut down and awarded a direct kick. He slammed it low through a hole in the Dutch wall and watched the ball zip between Romario and defender Stan Valckx and kiss the far post before ricocheting past keeper Ed De Goey.
"A lot of people thought Branco should not be on the national side," said Branco. "This will shut them up."
It should also snuff out the calls for Parreira's scalp -- at least until Wednesday's semifinal. And it may convince the skeptics home and abroad that this Brazilian team has the resilience and poise to rule the World Cup.
"This team has emotional equilibrium," said Parreira. "We came from behind against Sweden. With 10 players, we beat the U.S. And today . . ."
WORLD CUP TODAY
* Bulgaria vs. Germany at East Rutherford, N.J., 12:05 p.m., ESPN
* Sweden vs. Romania at Palo Alto, Calif, 3:35 p.m., Ch. 13
(Ch. 7 to join in progress after Orioles game)