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Simoes works wonders with Brazil

PIRAEUS, Greece -- At his first training session as coach of the Brazilian women's Olympic soccer team in April, Rene Simoes gave each player a yellow tennis ball.

"It looks like gold," he told the team. "It's yours. You have to remember what you're here for."

The Brazilians are here to make history. They already have earned at least a silver medal and are only 90 minutes away from accomplishing something that their male counterparts have failed to do in more than 50 years - capture an Olympic soccer gold medal in only their third try.

The Brazilian men have taken a victory lap with the World Cup trophy on five occasions, but never brought home the gold from the Summer Games, just having a pair of silver medals (1984 and 1988) and a bronze one (1996) to show for their efforts since 1952.

Of course, their women must get past one tough opponent before that can be accomplished - the United States, whom they meet on Thursday (NBC, 2 p.m. ET).

The Brazilians are assured of their best showing in the seven major international tournaments -- at either the Women's World Cup or the Olympics -- since 1991.

Simoes, who directed Jamaica's Reggae Boyz into the 1998 World Cup, is now working his magic with his country's women.

He said Thursday's encounter is women's soccer version of David vs. Goliath "because United States is the biggest. If this was the men, Brazil is the Goliath. There is no way. It's a five-star world champion. We have four Under-20, Under-17 (titles). We have everything, the men. But we have to be very humble to recognize that the United States women (are) the Goliath. You have the best women's soccer in the world. But we will try to beat you."

Since first meeting in 1986, the U.S. enjoys a 17-1-2 advantage against the Brazilians, outscoring its foes by a whopping 52-10 margin. Brazil's only win was a 1-0 victory in Sao Paulo on Dec. 15, 1997.

"They know they're going to face an unbeaten team," said Luciano Borges, chief editor of Bandeirantes television. ""It's mission impossible for them."

But not to Simoes, who felt the U.S. can be beaten.

"Definitely, yes," he said. "The World Cup final in 1998, Brazil had an excellent team and was beaten 3-0 by France. When you look at Euro Cup no one would rank Greece as a potential challenger for the championship. But they did (win it)."

"We are a very physical team now. We proved that against Sweden," he added of his team's semifinal triumph. "They came to play a physical game. We replied but with fair play but very physical. We were well prepared in that respect. What we haven't reached so far is the level of concentration that the Americans have for 90 minutes. That's one point we miss some times."

On Wednesday night, Simoes took his team to Karaiskaki Stadium to get acquainted with the field conditions, but five minutes into the 9 p.m. training session the field lights went out. It seems stadium officials wanted to water the field. So, Simoes spent the next half hour or so talking to his team in the locker room.

Simoes, who received an instant reputation as an outspoken coach after the 2-0 opening-round loss to the U.S., said he wasn't disappointed.

"I am a believer. I think everything that (happens) for the benefit of who believes in God," he said after the aborted practice. "For me it is a blessing. My team had a very strong semifinal against Sweden. We played a very physical game. Some of my players have some little pains, but not like what Julie (Foudy, who suffered a sprained right ankle) has for the United States. It's OK. We saw the field. The field's not the best one we've played so far. It's not the worst we've played on in the Olympics."

Simoes was asked about whether he felt the gold-medal match would be another physical game as it was in his team's Aug. 14 encounter with the U.S.

"We played the United States in Birmingham, Ala. and we lost, 5-1 and it was very physical," he said. "But it was a very, very fair game. What I was disappointed about and complained was the second half of the game in Thessaloniki. In the first half we shut down the United States. In the second half the coach did very good tactical movements, very clever.

"What I was disappointed with was the dirty tricks they played. They blocked our players and kicked them in the ankle when the ball was far away. They elbowed. They pushed. I do not agree with that. The United States doesn't need that because the United States is the most well developed country in the world in women's soccer.

"I attended a coaching class in SMU when I was recently in the United States. I was asked, hey, 'What are you doing?' I am learning because you have the best soccer in the world. I don't see for any reason the United States has to apply the tricks. Play the game. They are a very strong team. They are favorites to win the gold medal."

Asked if he thought the United States would use similar tactics this time around, Simoes replied, "I never have negative thoughts. I always have positive thoughts. Let the United States play the game they can play because they are very good, very strong. I read on the internet that I said the United States players are dirty. I didn't say that. I said that they use dirty tricks in the second half. What's it mean? It's a total difference when you say players are dirty. I didn't say that. Sometimes my daughters misbehave. I don't say my daughters are bad. I said they misbehaved and I had to punish them. I expected the referee to give them a yellow card and some of them a red card."

Brazilian women take a backseat to the men in many ways. There are no national or state leagues for women. The most any of them make is about $400 a month playing indoor soccer. The best bet way for them to improve and earn some serious money is to play overseas, as did forward Pretinha did in the old Women's United Soccer Association, and in Swedish semi-pro leagues, Borges said.

While the U.S. played the top National Teams in the world in its Olympic preparation, the Brazilians couldn't. They played 28 friendlies and settled for games against boys Under-17 and U-19 teams. The only international side the South Americans did play was the U.S., in that 5-1 loss.

"They lost a lot of games," Borges said. "They asked the guys not to treat them as fragile persons."

Simoes, 51, who also has coached in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Trinidad & Tobago, took over the women's coaching reigns in April and immediately reorganized the team structure. His staff numbers nine people, including a psychologist, trainer, doctor and two assistant coaches. He also taught the women tactics, which had been severely lacking.

He also stopped the practice of the team receiving hand-me uniforms from the men's team and had the squad stay in five-star hotels, Borges said.

"I am very pleased with the team," said Simoes, who has received recent offers to coach Morocco in World Cup qualifying and Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. "I didn't have five years like Apri (Heinrichs, the American coach). I have five months and have a better than even chance to capture it."

He already has captured most of the players' hearts.

"Three out of four players I talked to yesterday said, 'He's our father,' " Borges said. "He's too loyal to them."

The Brazilians are a sleeping giant in women's soccer, which is underfunded and unappreciated back home.

"I hope the Olympic Games give a boost to women's football in Brazil," Simoes said.

"We'll have to see," Borges said. "We don't have the infrastructure (like the U.S.). It's great to see they can do well and prove that anything is possible."

Most of the players come from either Rio or Sao Paulo. The country is so vast with so many unscouted pockets there might be another Mia Hamm or Sissi -- a deadly free-kick specialist now retired from international play -- waiting to be discovered. Marta, for example, was discovered in one of the countries poorest states -- Alagoas in northeast Brazil. The 18-year-old forward has been a vital force for the team, scoring three goals.

"No one knew her," Borges said.

Now the world does.

Every player has a story.

Monica, a defender, is an unmarried mother with a three-year-old son. She was forced to break up with the father of the child, a soccer player himself, who decided to play overseas.

"She cries every time she thinks about him," Borges said of her son.

If the Brazilians earn the gold, they'll probably get a parade back home. On Wednesday, Brazilians Torben Grael and Marcelo Ferreira extended their lead in keelboat sailing. If they earn a medal, they will be honored with a parade in Sao Paulo.

"Nobody sails in Brazil," Borges said.

But everybody knows soccer.

"Don't worry," he added. "These girls will be treated like queens. Even a silver medal is enough."

But the Brazilians would love to get a gold to match their tennis balls.

Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. Women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com