Maniche has a duty to perform against team of honest Greeks

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Every instinct but one says it must be Portugal now. They have Figo and Deco, and Cristiano Ronaldo, a World Cup-winning coach - and the best defender in the tournament, a big force of nature called Ricardo Carvalho. They have their nation on fire and an extra day's rest.

They also have the distinctly unglamorous guy with the lank hair and the goofy smile who is telling you that the Greeks have one huge asset which could yet deny the Portuguese dream of a first major championship win in international football.

It is something quite rare in the upper echelons of football these days and Maniche - whose impact has grown with each relentless midfield performance - knows all about it. What the Greeks have, Maniche says, is honesty - total, lung-tearing honesty - and already it has beaten Portugal in a group game and broken the teams who were supposed to set the standard here - France and then the prematurely celebrated Czech Republic.

"Yes, they are a very honest team - there is no easy way against them," says the man whose superb goal against Netherlands last Wednesday night represented the most intensely visionary piece of action in the entire tournament. "We found how tough they were in our first game. We know we can win if we stay calm and play our best football, but when people say this final is easier now because we face the Greeks and not the Czechs they cannot have been watching all the games. Every minute of a game, the Greeks play with great desire. It is not usual to play with such force."

Coming from the supremely consistent Maniche, it is a compliment which means that the Greeks will go home with at least one trophy - the professional respect of a player who, like his Porto clubmates Deco, Carvalho, Costinha and Nuno Valente, is now just 90 minutes away from a stunning double of Champions' League and European Championship.

"There are many ways to win a football game and the Greeks have found one that is good for them," adds a man of such modesty he was named not for some global superstar but an obscure Danish pro who played for the local club.

But is this virtue which Maniche so admires in the Greeks good for this showpiece of the game? Does it make the blood run fast like a Figo break or a Ronaldo dash? Does it have the craft of Deco - or Maniche - at his best? No, we cannot say that. However, something huge and vital at this point in the history of football can be said of Greece under their brilliantly astute, veteran German manager Otto Rehhagel. They have reminded those of us too quick to herald greatness, who saw, for example, in the Czechs a new major force, and who assumed that these last few weeks would be dominated by traditional powers like France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Germany and England, that real achievement is something that cannot be produced by a mere sprinkling of talent.

There has to be that commitment and a passion expressed by the Greeks and which so often seems to have been lost in the world of pouting celebrity.

Greek players like Angelos Basinas, Giorgios Seitaridis and Traianos Dellas are never likely to decorate the pages of a glossy magazine - though Seitaridis has drawn the attention of European champions Porto - but here they have done something that deserves to be remembered long after the cheers have died at the Estadio da Luz tomorrow. They have said to the big football nations: "So you are the best, you are the galacticos, show us how to play - blind us with your skill, run us down with your multi-million pound pace." So far it has not happened and in the warning words of Maniche there is a reminder that it is not inevitable.

Certainly the work of the 65-year-old Rehhagel (base salary £100,000) should provoke a little reflection in the offices of the FA - and the question, what, quite, does Sven Goran Eriksson do for his £4.5 million wages? What did Giovanni Trapattoni, Rudi Völler or Jacques Santini do? Did they bring teams here drilled to a fine degree? Or did they, as in England's case, have 'democratic' debates on how they would play the following day? Did England have a midfield schooled in containing the likes of Rui Costa, Deco and Figo by holding on to the ball under pressure, and relieving an exhausted defence? Or did they offer the ball as they might a bag of sweets? Did England have any kind of serious plan? The evidence said no.

The big nations not only failed themselves but all of football. The Czech Republic (population 10 million) did some excellent work in the void and, if Pavel Nedved had not been injured and the big striker Jan Koller had put away the most sweetly created chance of the semi-final, it may have been that the Greeks would have found they were suddenly operating at the bottom of the well.

But they did not do that. They rediscovered something in the first half of extra time - both spirit and method - that was too much for the Czechs. It was the Greeks who suddenly looked most likely to win, and when they did it their reproach to the established football powers could not have been more profound.

In the process they also gave fresh fuel to the suspicion that in some ways international football is on the slide. The Greeks, like the South Koreans under another veteran coach, Gus Hiddink, two years ago, came to the big tournament largely unjaded by the biggest rewards, and the greatest of pressure, in the Champions' League. For them, the monster boat moored on the banks of the Tagus belonged to somebody merely inordinately rich. They did not see Roman Abramovich, patron of Chelsea and paymaster of some of the most overpriced players in the history of football, as a potential employer ready to change their lives. They came to play - at least it is the powerful impression - not for themselves but for Greece.

That fervour, partly by the circumstances of being host nation, is also shared by Portugal, and perhaps the strongest single reason why these two teams have made it through to the final while so many of their alleged betters are sunning themselves in the Caribbean and on the Côte d'Azur.

Yesterday Maniche was asked about his relationship with his former Porto coach Jose Mourinho, now the man presumably nominating new players for Chelsea - and could he imagine playing at Stamford Bridge? Maniche's lopsided grin faded and he said: "He's a great coach and I know him well. But he's got his life and I've got mine. I am contracted to Porto for two more years." And, of course, to his country for two more days.

It is a duty he has undertaken with less flamboyance than young Ronaldo, less awareness of his own destiny than the haughty Figo. Maybe he, like the Greeks, is the player who has best grasped the challenge facing big-time football today. It is to get back to the oldest truth that you have to work to be great. It does not just happen.