For coaches, pressure out of this world


LOS ANGELES -- The coaches of the teams in the World Cup final live on different continents and speak different languages, but they're alike in one respect: Their countrymen can't stand them.

Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was booed by a pro-Brazil crowd before Wednesday's semifinal at the Rose Bowl, after each of his players had been wildly cheered.

After Italy reached the final by beating Bulgaria, 60 percent of the respondents to a national television poll said that Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi's success was due to luck more than skill.


And Johnny Oates thinks he's got it tough.

Parreira's and Sacchi's teams have a combined 9-1-2 record since the Cup began, outscoring their opponents 19-8. But the home fans aren't satisfied.

Part of the problem is that anything less than a Cup victory won't satisfy either country's raging thirst for soccer success. Part of the problem is that you can't possibly be popular coaching a team with 50 million fans encompassing dozens of different agendas and opinions.

But there is more to it than that. Brazilians are disappointed that Parreira's team isn't showing more creativity and scoring more goals, as Pele's teams did years ago. Italians just think Sacchi is clueless.

When Sacchi continually experimented with different players and lineups during Cup qualifying, and his team struggled, an Italian magazine ran mug shots of the 72 players he had used, along with mug shots of the Pope, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo and Robin Williams as Popeye. "Have you left anyone out, Arrigo?" read the headline.

After Brazil's 1-1 tie with Sweden in the first round, the following people went public with suggested lineup changes for Parreira:

* Parreira's mother.

* The president of Brazil.

* Pele.

To his credit, he is sitting on the hot seat with a bemused smile.

"My mother is easy on me," he said the other day. "She only wanted to make one change."

Pele suggested six.

Parreira speaks fluent English and has a dry sense of humor and a second career as a painter. He coached mostly in the Middle East until agreeing to come home and take on the task of bringing joy and success back to his country's national team, which hasn't won the Cup since 1970.

He was criticized for sticking with mediocre midfielder Rai and refusing to use high-scoring, trouble-making Romario during Cup qualifying, and bombarded after Brazil lost a qualifying game for the first time, 2-0 to Bolivia. He made up with Romario and got his team into the Cup, but the public's dissatisfaction lingered.

Brazilians don't just want their team to win. They want to win artfully, balletically. Style matters; winning defensively won't do. Never mind that defenses are so tight now that playing attacking soccer is almost impossible. As the Orioles can testify, expectations take on a life of their own.

Thus, Brazil's 2-0 round-robin win over Russia was regarded as a disappointment. One newspaper called the tie with Sweden "a national tragedy." Pele said that the team "couldn't play worse." Parreira's mother publicly implored her son to use Ronaldo, a rising young star.

Fans were furious with him for bringing in Rai in the second half of the semifinal against Sweden, to offset a height disadvantage.

In his news conferences, Brazilian journalists don't ask him questions so much as challenge him with statements. Parreira begins four of every five answers with the phrase, "That is your opinion . . ."

This is a team that has not yet lost a Cup game.

"Being a soccer coach is my life, and it's a pleasure," Parreira said, "but being coach of Brazil in the World Cup is something else. It's a compromise, a commitment, a death sentence sometimes. You can't have fun. Only if you succeed will there be full pleasure."

It is ironic that his last remaining obstacle is Sacchi, whose story so closely mirrors his own.

A bald, enlightened Milanese with ever-present sunglasses, Sacchi enjoys traveling and reads Faulkner and Hemingway. He took over the national team in 1991 after a hugely successful run as the coach of AC Milan, one of the world's best club teams. He said his goal was to take the ego out of the team, which is loaded with high-salaried stars. Immediately, critics said he couldn't succeed.

His team also struggled during Cup qualifying, at one point losing a practice match to a fourth-division Italian League team. His incessant tinkering with the lineup left him open to charges of indecisiveness.

Since the Cup began, Sacchi's maneuvers have become the center of a hysterical national debate. He substituted for his best player, Roberto Baggio, in the first half of a game Italy had to win. He has moved Giuseppe Signori, the leading scorer in the Italian League, from the starting lineup to the bench. Back home, the fans were about to explode with confusion.

Yet Italy has survived with a truly operatic performance, twice advancing with the help of Baggio goals in the 88th minute. The players admit they haven't played that well. But they're in the final.

Few fans think Sacchi deserves the credit. Yet, is it possible that his efforts to build an ego-less team have paid off?

No one knows for sure, of course, which is one of soccer's beauties. There's always room for debate. The sport is so simple that every fan, even a coach's mother, can be a coach. In 1970, an influential Brazilian newspaper columnist was so critical that the national federation finally made him the coach. He was fired for threatening to leave Pele off the Cup team.

This year, the winning coach in Sunday's final might succeed in silencing his critics, at least until the next game.

4( The loser? He'll probably get fired.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad