The stage for a defining moment

Portugal v Greece: Curtain rises on three weeks which will make reputations for a lifetime
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It is tempting to suggest that the BBC conceptualisers were partaking of mind-expanding substances when creating their trailers for their Euro 2004 coverage. "The beautiful game," a mellifluous voice-over informs us gravely, "by the greatest artists in Europe."

It is tempting to suggest that the BBC conceptualisers were partaking of mind-expanding substances when creating their trailers for their Euro 2004 coverage. "The beautiful game," a mellifluous voice-over informs us gravely, "by the greatest artists in Europe."

Words, music and images (TV footage transposed into artistic representations, complete with signatures) are presumably an attempt to gain the cultural high ground, aimed at aesthetes as well as mere patriots. The target audience less ale-consuming yob and more Alan Yentob. The featured "artists" include Figo, Raul, Ballack, Zidane, Owen and Beckham. You have to forgive the understandable local bias.

History informs us that the cream can sometimes just turn to froth. But not in the case of those who distinguished themselves in the competition which began life in 1960 as the European Nations' Cup. Luminaries such as Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Franz Beckenbauer, Marco van Basten and Zinedine Zidane roll off the tongue as principal performers down the years.

This is a tournament where some celebrated reputations will need to be confirmed - Luis Figo, on his final sequence of appearances for Portugal, for one, starting in the opening game against Greece on Saturday - if their teams are to prosper. But it will also offer a glimpse of treasures which, potentially, can be handed down through the next decade.

A single contribution during the next month can represent a defining moment in a player's career. Four years ago, France included a substitute named Robert Pires, who self-deprecatingly des-cribed himself then as a "bits and pieces" player and, ignoring his instincts to pass to the unmarked Zidane, fashioned a golden-goal winner for David Trezeguet. "That one great move, with a goal at the end of it, was like a turning point for me. The next day I flew to London to sign for Arsenal," is his memory.

England followers will demand that Wayne Rooney leaves an equally significant imprint on this tournament, one that justifies Gary Lineker declaring that he could reach the level of Zidane.

The problem with potential is that it is a readily acquired commodity, but not so easily exchanged into genuine hard currency. There will be many eyes scrutinising not only Rooney but others among the Premiership's élite, including Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, to determine whether they are as Euro-friendly as their burgeoning reputations indicate. And what of the Czech Republic's highly regarded Tomas Rosicky, or Portugal's late developer, Pedro Pauleta?

The last-named is the only Portugal player to have hailed from the Azores, and is regarded by his coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who orchestrated Brazil's 2002 World Cup triumph, as one of best players in the world, despite the fact that he was rejected by Porto and Benfica as a youngster.

The redoubtable Scolari preferred a three-man strike formation when in charge of Brazil. His 2002 team had Ronaldo with Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in support. Here, "Big Phil" prefers a strategy in which Pauleta is supported by Manuel Rui Costa, Simao and Figo. England's possible quarter-final opponents undoubtedly possess the élan and unpredictability that make them always capable of scoring. Yet Portugal always appear to have a fragility about them. It is difficult to imagine Scolari becoming the first coach to win a World Cup and European Championship with different teams.

Scolari's bedside reading is said to include the Art of War, written by a Chinese general, Sun Tzu, in the fifth century BC. Among many theories, it suggests that enemies are defeated before hostilities commence. In the case of Greece, who will regard their first Group A match against the hosts with considerable trepidation, that may prove correct. However, Scolari will counsel his team against complacency. His counterpart, the German Otto Rehhagel, achieved a rare distinction by galvanising his team to a six-match winning run - including a win in Spain - to ensure their qualification.

Spain have not won the event since 1964, and Inaki Saez's team are only here by virtue of a play-off victory. While Raul may not be quite the force he was, Fernando Torres, known as El Niño (The Kid), of Atletico Madrid, a player coveted by Sir Alex Ferguson, is in the ascendancy. Alfredo Di Stefano believes Torres has the same humility and will to win as Raul.

Speaking of which, brings us to Zidane, the player of the tournament four years ago, whose injury is said to have contributed to France's 2002 World Cup elimination. There can be no such excuses this time. The names of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Zidane alone endow Jacques Santini's team with a quality that will be the envy of all.

However, whether France can convince us that they have recovered from their World Cup malaise is one the many imponderables in a tournament where the victor will almost certainly emerge from six teams. One is Italy, the 1968 winners and runners-up four years ago. In Fran-cesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri and Filippo Inzaghi they possess some key attacking performers. Alesandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro remain inspirational defenders, while Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the best keeper in the tournament. One can foresee Giovanni Trapattoni's men again reaching the final.

It should not surprise any of us if Germany arrive there, too. Regarded as a pallid imitation of the teams who were five-times finalists and three-times winners, Rudi Völler's side arrive in Portugal viewed with a similar level of disenchantment to that which accompanied them to Japan and Korea. Lest we forget, they finished runners-up there. WhileMichael Ballack, Jens Nowotny and Dietmar Hamann remain, it is foolish to ignore their claims.

It is difficult to look beyond Germany and Holland, the latter of whom can choose from a trio of celebrated strikers - Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Makaay, Patrick Kluivert - to progress from Group D, but Karel Bruckner's Czech Republic side may just have something to say about that. Undefeated during their qualifying campaign, they boast in Rosicky, Borussia Dortmund's attacking midfielder, Germany's most expensive player, as well as Juventus's Pavel Nedved, European Footballer of the Year.

Which leaves us with England, who remain buoyant, despite some indifferent exhibitions. To this observer, there are too many areas of concern. Rooney, for one, has been burdened with an awesome responsibility for such a young player. Is he truly ready to do himself justice at this level? Will the midfield conundrum ever be solved? Will Paul Scholes ever score for England again? And, with the rearguard in mind, what will be the true legacy of Rio Ferdinand's forgetfulness?

Experience should persuade us to exercise caution. England have never reached a European final. Four years ago, under Kevin Keegan, they did not even progress from the group stage. If they fail in that initial aim this time in Group B, which also contains France, Croatia and Switzerland, Sven Goran Eriksson will be fortunate to get a job at Chester, let alone Chelsea.

They should achieve that, and are capable of reaching the semi-finals. After that, Eriksson can but pray that key performers remain uninjured - and David James does not concede the kind of goal that condemned England in Japan.