The completion of a stunning collection. That is what Brazil supporters desired and demanded from 2004. Then the joint-record FIFA U-20 World Cup winners, and the owners of an unprecedented number of FIFA U-17 World Cup and FIFA World Cup™ titles, there was only one honour conspicuous by its absence in the Seleção's trophy cabinet. That, so believed a majority of Brazilians, would change on 28 August of that year, when the Men's Olympic Football Tournament final unfolded.
First, however, Ricardo Gomes' star-studded U-23 cast needed to book a trip to Athens, and almost nobody foresaw them failing to realise this goal heading into their last qualifier in Vina del Mar, Chile. There, Brazil needed only a draw against Paraguay, whom they had overwhelmed en route to a 3-0 victory in their curtain-raiser. And there, the unthinkable happened, La Albirroja running out 1-0 winners to deny their more illustrious neighbours the right to compete for Olympic gold.
Santos revelations Diego and Robinho, 18 and 20 respectively at the time, were made the scapegoats for this fateful day in January 2004. And while the latter has emphatically atoned for his part in the tragedy, the opportunity to follow suit is only just about to present itself to the former. For although Diego Ribas da Cunha has 36 Brazil caps and two Copa America winners' medals to his name, he has been largely utilised as a substitute and did, in truth, only perform subordinate roles in those continental triumphs.
However, two stunning seasons at Werder Bremen, coupled with the absences of Kaka and Ronaldinho, mean that Diego is likely to start at the apex of the Brazilian midfield when they resume their bid to qualify for South Africa 2010 on Sunday. Ironically, he will be charged with unlocking his old nemesis Paraguay, whom he also appeared against in a 2-1 defeat at the Copa America 2004, and it promises to be a stern test of the Ribeirao Preto native's mettle. Indeed, Paraguay top the CONMEBOL standings on ten points from four outings, during which time they have conceded only once.
" . It's impossible to forget this defeat," lamented Diego. Revenge is, nevertheless, not the only thing on the mind of the 23-year-old, who is also determined to stake a claim for a regular place in Dunga's team.
"I'm desperate to play," Diego said. "I feel in great shape physically and if the coach selects me against Paraguay, I'll be very well-prepared. There couldn't be a better time to win a place in the starting line-up. Players like Kaka and Ronaldinho would be missed by any team, but I've been in good form and I hope to get the nod and do enough to retain my place."
The long road
After inspiring Santos to the Brasileiro title as a 17-year-old, Diego was heralded as a future automatic in the No10 shirt of his country. However, following his Olympic nightmare, a mid-2004 transfer to Portuguese giants Porto was to initiate an alarming tumble from eminence. Underused at the Estadio do Dragao, he consequently failed to start a game for Brazil for three years.
By then, Diego's magic was enthralling followers of Werder Bremen and after two seasons at the Weserstadion, his Bundesliga goal return stands at 26 in 60 matches. Not bad at all for a player whose principal forte, he believes, is creating chances, something his dribbling, vision and execution of pass enables him to do at will.
"Competition for places in the Brazil squad, especially in
my position, is fierce so I was very honoured to be called
up," said Diego, who scored the opener in a 3-2 friendly win
over Canada last week. "Things have not always gone well for
me with the
"We have two very important qualifiers coming up against Paraguay and Argentina. These will be very difficult games but we have what it takes to achieve two victories and take a step towards a place at the World Cup."
If Diego can help Brazil take maximum points from Matchdays 5 and 6, which would almost certainly leave them at the summit of the standings, he may well become a fixture in Dunga's starting XI sooner rather than later.