National spirit fortified by strength of Figo's character

Hosts' talisman can now claim his final fulfilment as the so-called masters fail to deliver
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The Independent Football

It may host a European Championship final tonight, but this is a city with that emptying, "end of the gold rush" feel. Already, the most celebrated would-be profiteers have slunk empty-handed out of town, leaving a soon-to-be retired legend and a few boisterous young prospectors.

Zidane, Beckham, Raul, Totti, Ballack and other illustrious names of whom so much was anticipated are long gone. Nedved joined them on Thursday with the semi-final elimination of the Czech Republic, to leave us with the promise of Portugal, Europe's great under-achievers, matched against Greece, perennial non-achievers.

Just under a month ago, at Porto's Dragao Stadium, we witnessed Greece overcome the hosts in the inaugural contest. Not a soul among us imagined that Portugal, carelessly failing to profit from home advantage, would find themselves in the final, even less that they would be accompanied by their unlikely conquerors that evening.

In that game, Luis Figo, the totem of Portugal's much-vaunted "golden generation", appeared a man who acknow-ledged that his own gradual decline, culminating in his retirement from international football after the tournament, would coincide with the hosts' inevitable and premature exit. He has since demonstrated the fallacy of that impression. You could argue that, among his own team-mates, the central defender Ricardo Carvalho, resolute physically and an articulate reader of the game, or the outstanding midfielder Maniche could wrest any prize for player of the tournament from the Real Madrid man on their pure performing arts. Yet, in terms of sheer dynamics and the galvanising effect he has on those around him, it is difficult to look beyond Figo.

Arsène Wenger, working here as an analyst for French TV, has no issue with that assertion. "In every game when Portugal had difficulties, Figo was a man who had character," declares the Arsenal manager. "He stood up with the right personality, and took responsibility in the game. They gave him the ball and he did the rest.

"True, when he was taken off [against England] he showed a bad reaction. But I feel that, without Figo, this team would never be where they are today."

One suspects that Figo's stony-faced march to the tunnel after that substitution against England was less about bruised ego, and more a register of despair. Portugal were still 1-0 down, and it would have represented an ignominious departure from the international game. Suffice to say, his response against Holland was phenomenal.

You would have to nominate Figo's fellow flank-relishing team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo as young player of the tournament, if only because his team have progressed to the final. The Manchester United player remains an enigma at times, but there is no faulting his contribution since yielding that penalty against Greece.

Certainly, Wenger believes this tournament has enriched Ronaldo as a player.

"He has made a big step forward, and I think he will be a different animal next year back with United," says the Frenchman. "He has shown on this big stage that he is not scared. This boy is 19, yet he has gone out there and said, 'Come on. I will play in front of the whole country, I will go on one-on-ones and I will take responsibility'. You need something special to do that."

Some would argue Wayne Rooney's case if a comparison between the Premiership teenagers was debated. But the Everton striker is one of many imponderables after a tournament which has produced some inspirational performances, but too few from the acknowledged masters.

What would have been journey's end for Rooney - and for that matter England - had that bone in his foot not snapped? What would have been the outcome had Nedved not retired early against Greece, leaving his Czech Republic team with the dynamo removed from their engine? One suspects not the low-key final we await at the Estadio da Luz tonight.

Greece are there by dint of a superb coach, in Otto Rehhagel, and some herculean performances. While we commend them for that, they are not a team to raise you from your seat in admiration. They will attempt to stifle the life out of Luiz Felipe Scolari's men. One hopes the hosts resist, score early and force Greece on the offensive. Portugal have the personnel to do so.

"For me, Figo, Maniche and Deco were absolutely outstanding figures because they dominated the middle of the park, where you expected Holland to be very strong," Wenger reflected on the hosts' last performance. "I was impressed by the discipline of this Portuguese team when they were pulled back to 2-1. They found the resources to defend as a real team. That for me is a quality enough to win the tournament."

Elsewhere, such quality has been mostly lacking in teams. But it should not prevent us applauding some splendid individual exhibitions: Michael Ballack, arguably Europe's most visionary midfielder, confined within one of the worst German teams; Sol Campbell, one of the few causes for genuine England expectancy in 2006; the Czech goalkeeper (and soon to be Chelsea's) Petr Cech and his team-mates Karel Poborsky and Tomas Rosicky, and, until Thursday, when they spurned opportunities that should have condemned Greece, Milan Baros and Jan Koller.

But in this, our adopted nation for the past month, we will remember Figo. Tonight the curtain rises for the final occasion on a celebrated inter- national career. It will be his 110th cap. In this city, they are simply willing him to add to his 31 goals. Then the "encores" can begin in earnest.