James Lawton: Fury propels Figo's quest to end career with the major prize

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The Independent Football

Maybe it's true that, at 31, Luis Figo is no longer one of the world's great footballers, but no one appears to have told him. Perhaps they did and have been hiding away while recovering from the force of his scorn. Yesterday a Malaysian visitor to the training camp amid the olive trees made a rather feeble attempt to bring him down from the gods, asking what he hoped to prove when he returns to the Portuguese side in tonight's semi-final with the Netherlands.

Maybe it's true that, at 31, Luis Figo is no longer one of the world's great footballers, but no one appears to have told him. Perhaps they did and have been hiding away while recovering from the force of his scorn. Yesterday a Malaysian visitor to the training camp amid the olive trees made a rather feeble attempt to bring him down from the gods, asking what he hoped to prove when he returns to the Portuguese side in tonight's semi-final with the Netherlands.

A rifle shot could not have been more riveting. "Prove?" Figo confirmed the question as imperiously as the Roman emperor his fine, strong features often suggest.

"I don't have to prove nothing," he said, eventually. "I do not understand the question. The Portuguese people know Luis Figo. They know who I am and what I have done and they know that I care about my country. All I have to do is what I always do... for myself and for my country. I have to give my best."

That pride burned on his face last week when his coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, brought him off the field at a critical stage of the quarter-final with England and shocked the nation. The belief was that Figo's red and green shirt was his as long as he chose to wear it, and Scolari, who has made something of a career of colliding with icons like the demi-god Ronaldo and his boyhood hero Romario, had never done anything so audacious since taking over Portugal after his World Cup-winning work with his native Brazil.

Had Portugal lost, Scolari's effigy may well have been set alight. As it is, Figo carries the greatest weight of pressure at the Estadio Jose Alvalade. "When you play at the highest level of football there is always pressure and the only way to fight is to always be able to say you have given everything you have," says Figo.

"I was hurt, coming off the field, because I was no longer able to help with the objective, but I was still thinking of my country... and still hoping."

His refusal to rejoin his team-mates on the bench through the perilous extra time and the ordeal of the penalty shoot-out has been a source of unending speculation here for the last few days. Had Figo washed his hands of Scolari and the team? Had his ego been too deeply bruised? Scolari's explanation that Figo had rushed to the dressing-room and prayed for victory before a statue of Our Lady of Fatima has certainly not be accepted as the authentic version of events.

Figo has, in fact, been candid enough. He was bitterly disappointed that he had been unable to find the vein of form which, after the appalling season of his club, Real Madrid, he hoped would redeem both his own reputation and deliver Portugal's first success in a major tournament. He wanted to nurse his wounds alone. "Not once in these last few weeks have I stopped thinking about the importance of Portugal winning here," he swears.

His supporters argue that of the Madrid galacticos only he has been demonstrably playing to his physical limits. Not, certainly, with the deadly bite and poise which three years ago persuaded Real to spend £37m for his signature from Barcelona - and split Spain as wide as at any point since Franco's forces marched on the Ebro - but clearly with all the resources he possessed; and without excuses.

Certainly there is no inclination in Figo to attach blame to Real for the insipid showing here of his club team-mates - David Beckham for England, and Raul for Spain.

When told that Beckham had said the Madrid training regime was a factor in his own desperately poor performance in the tournament, Figo shook his hand and said: "I don't agree with David on this. I'm feeling fit enough at the moment. At Madrid we trained as we could while playing on Wednesdays and Sundays. It's how you look at it. I'm not feeling the same as I might at the start of a season, but I'm fine. I haven't spoken to David since we beat England. I don't have a phone number for him. But now I wish him a happy holidays."

Translation: when you reach a certain position in the game, when you come to represent many of your nation's hopes, you do not look for alibis. You run yourself into the ground and hope that in all the sweat there is a taste of glory.

Figo hasn't been firing but even Scolari, famous for attacking the star system at every opportunity, knows the emotional force of Figo's presence. Yesterday the coach said: "Sometimes you have to change the team at a certain point, but you're not criticising the guys who have worked so hard up to then. The substitutes worked well against England, [Helder] Postiga and Rui Costa scored the goals, but the guys before them had played their part in pushing back England. Figo has been working hard for his country. To win, it's not important to have stars. You have to have great players who know their responsibilities."

Scolari's reaction to Figo's statement that he will end his international career at the close of Portugal's tournament was laden with respect. "He has a great career but there is a time when you have to look at the future and what you can achieve," said the Brazilian. "I think he has made a very intelligent decision."

But before he goes, he has to do something better than ever before, something superior to the European Cups and the World Player of the Year award. He has to win for his country. That, he insists, still flies beyond the significance of superclub football. I ask him what winning for Portugal would mean. "Everything," he says. "It would be one of the most important things in my life - and my country's life. We haven't been to a final, never won it all and it is something I want to help give my people. That was the reason for my hurt when I came off the field."

He is told that the Netherlands coach, Dick Advocaat, is saying he would prefer a Portugal without Figo. "He must talk to my coach," snapped the greatest Portuguese footballer since Eusebio. It would be an idle conversation. Portugal starting without Figo tonight would be unthinkable. "I will give my best," he promises. It is, he knows, still enough to thrill - and maybe haunt - the nation.

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