Final chance for Figo's generation

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The Independent Football

You know there is something going on when Mssrs Lineker, Hansen and Wright roll off the plane together, but you could have been forgiven that they were in town for a golfing three-ball as they unloaded their clubs. All except Hansen that is, whose prize possessions were still stranded in London.

You know there is something going on when Mssrs Lineker, Hansen and Wright roll off the plane together, but you could have been forgiven that they were in town for a golfing three-ball as they unloaded their clubs. All except Hansen that is, whose prize possessions were still stranded in London.

However golf in Portugal is strictly reserved for the south. Here in Porto, the working heart of the country, the BBC trio will be concerning themselves today with the opening game of Euro 2004, with the hosts under greater scrutiny than ever before.

It is not so much because they are playing Greece, before further games against Russia and Spain, as to what the next month represents. The Portuguese have enjoyed almost five years of build-up for the tournament and for the team itself this is the culmination of something like 15 years of expectation.

This is the first time that this country of 10 million people has hosted an event of this scale but it will be the last time that Luis Figo, certainly, and Rui Costa and Fernando Couto possibly - with virtually 300 caps between them - will play for their beloved homeland.

The last two formed the backbone of the so-called "Golden Generation" who won the World under-20 Championship in 1989 and two years later, and much has been said about this being the final chance for the country's most illustrious players in over a generation to demonstrate their worth by winning a senior tournament.

But that time has, arguably, long passed and the golden generation has been tarnished and chipped. The failure to qualify for successive World Cups in 1994 and 1998 and a dismal first round exit in Japan/Korea two years ago finally put to bed the myth that those players alone, talented though they are, could carry them to football's summit. Reaching the semi-finals in the European Championship four years ago has been their peak. Until now, or so the locals hope.

The Portugal manager's task is to forge a successful side from the promising youngsters without diluting the influence of Figo in particular. The man in charge is Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian who, unlikely though it seemed at the time, guided his country to their fifth World Cup in 2002. He has changed jobs but has stuck to the same language and he has now to prove that he can be the first coach to manage teams to victory in football's two top international tournaments.

"I can't come to Portugal thinking I won't get to the Euro 2004 final," was what Scolari declared as his minimum objective on taking the job but that will be no mean feat given a derby with Spain awaits in their deciding group game, in Lisbon, on 20 June. Get past that and a quarter-final against England is possible, before they get stuck into the other half of the draw where Italy or the Netherlands lurk.

But whatever happens Portugal are looking forward, naturally buoyed by Porto's success last month. Also Cristiano Ronaldo's performance in the FA Cup final three weeks ago certainly helped to whet people's appetites although Scolari is not showing signs yet of giving the Manchester United winger any special treatment.

"All players have the same importance to me, young or old," he said yesterday. "The young ones just need a bit more information."

Portugal held their final pre-tournament press conference in the country's only contemporary art museum, the Fundacao Serralves, rather than in the Estadio das Antas where they will play this afternoon.

Somehow that small act symbolises the renewal of football in this most western part of Europe, as well as the burgeoning feeling of optimism that pervades the streets of Porto.

Apart from the obligatory wall-to-wall sponsors' adverts, drumming up a passion for this tournament is not proving difficult. National flags drape from balconies and people talk about precious little else although that is perhaps not surprising given the public's own investment in this four-week long event.

Staging it has cost the country something like 650m euros (£464m), with 208m euros (£148m) coming from the public purse. Put a different way, every Portuguese person has paid the equivalent of a car journey from Porto to Lisbon towards the tournament.

It is in the capital where the final will be played but Figo, who considers his side outsiders, was only thinking about today and was imploring his teammates not to relax. "We have to play better and be psychologically and physically better than Greece." That should add up to victory but anything less will come as a big shock and will give Lineker and co something to talk about other than golf.

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