Leader of Portugal's golden generation has to settle for silver

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The Independent Football

It was always to be an epilogue of Portugal's golden generation, crowned world youth champions in the original Stadium of Light more than a dozen years ago, and consequently spawning such great expectations. There was supposed to be a happier ending, in which Luis Felipe Madeira Caeiro, 31, better known as Luis Figo and captain of his country, was to be the last survivor who ensured all his former play-mates would not look back in sadness at so many years of hurt with nothing to show for them.

Instead, the memories will be of a night of anti-climax in which he was a peripheral figure who might even have suffered the ignominy of substitution as against England.

Throughout the game he tried everything to disturb the man-for-man marking that had served Greece so well in the past three weeks. Beginning on the right with Panagiotis Fyssas breathing down his neck, he had swapped flanks with Cristiano Ronaldo after less than three minutes and would so do constantly from then on. If Giourkas Seitaridis, the right-back, lost possession or Fyssas ventured forward, there would immediately be another white shirt or two homing in. The Greeks under Otto Rehhagel are nothing if not well drilled.

With so much at stake even the greatest suffer nerves: Figo's set pieces were disappointing, corners and free-kicks either not clearing the first defender or hit too long. Even before the end of the scoreless first half, frustration was visible in his body language and could be imagined in the words directed at Pauleta when the latter selfishly shot from 35 yards.

As the Greek goal went in, the great man's head dropped briefly before a clap of the hands attempted to rally troops, most of whom wore a distinctly shell-shocked look. Ronaldo, the sorcerer's teenage apprentice on the other wing, looked more threatening but from the captain, though, there was nothing until one twist and shot in the last couple of minutes. He may even have looked up with some relief to see that Pauleta's number was up when the coach decided at last to send on Nuno Gomes. Now Figo's surely is as well.

Against England down in the Algarve last February he had reached 100 international appearances; last night's, his 109th and probably last, equalled the national record set by Fernando Couto, who cannot be expected to add to his total either

The latter was one of that celebrated generation to fall by the wayside during the tournament, dropped after the first game here - against Greece of course - along with his near-contemporaries Rui Jorge and Rui Costa, the latter announcing his international retirement on the eve of the final. More will surely follow before they are pushed.

Others of the same group had been cast aside even before the tournament, like the goalkeeper Vitor Baia and Jorge Costa (who both became European club champions with Porto in May) and Joao Pinto with them.

But Figo remained through it all, European Footballer of the Year and World Player of the Year along the way, a triumph with his country at senior level his greatest desire. "Nothing beats the national team," he insisted in the match programme: "Playing in the national team is the maximum objective for any football player. Ever since I started at 16 I've been enthusiastic about offering my services. And one of the nice things about playing at home is that the fans can get out into the street and really show their support for the team. The people express the spirit of discovery and conquest that we have had for generation after generation." Time now, at last, for a new generation to take on the mantle.