James Lawton: Abramovich circus points to game's new values

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The Independent Football

Not so long ago the great stirring here in a land which has worshipped its football heroes from Eusebio to the prime of Luis Figo would have been reserved for the arrival of a prince of the European game - a Zidane or a Henry, a Totti or a Beckham.

Not so long ago the great stirring here in a land which has worshipped its football heroes from Eusebio to the prime of Luis Figo would have been reserved for the arrival of a prince of the European game - a Zidane or a Henry, a Totti or a Beckham.

That now belongs to another age. While the England captain and his team-mates worked out in the morning sun under the protective eye of a small detail of Portuguese police, a few miles away on the banks of the Tagus a decidedly higher level of security was shielding the two massive luxury vessels flying the Red Ensign.

To be fair to Roman Abramovich, he provided much of it himself. The owner of Chelsea, and potentially more or less any piece of football he might come to covet, has brought 70 minions here to serve and protect the great conga-line of guests who will come and go over the course of the European Championship. Many of workers are crack bodyguards. There are also waiters and masseurs and beauticians and hairdressers - plus two Russian chefs who will provide the delicacies of the homeland for those of the oligarch's guests flying in from Russia. Eight luxury cars - top of-the-lines Mercedes and BMW's - are parked on the dockside.

Abramovich has also brought two boats - one for his guests, one for his servants. What is it that Abramovich cannot buy? Not much, no doubt, except perhaps the hope of some dreamers that in football money can buy you everything - and almost everyone - except a guarantee of success on the field.

Whether that old principle will survive the onslaught of Russian wealth is at the very least an intriguing sub-theme of the drama which opens here in Oporto on Saturday when Portugal take on Greece and moves into its highest gear here the following day when the reigning champions France meet England. This is because no matter how many flags of St George are manufactured and snapped up in England, however many patriots in Italy and Germany and Spain dream of their footballers reaching a point of perfect, winning coherence in the next few days, it has never been harder to draw a picture of the primacy of international football.

The big boats at the docks speak more than anything of a time when football is defined not by national boundaries but the wealth and ambition of a few owners of mega-clubs. Silvio Berlusconi was moving towards this when his Milan side and three brilliant Dutch mercenaries, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard annexed the European Cup, but that was before he decided that while owning the most successful football club in the world was nice, owning Italy would be even more fun.

The thought that a football club empire could ultimately weaken the ascendency of international football and tournaments like the European Championships and the World Cup was most seriously provoked in Japan and South Korea two years ago. That was when the world's best player, Zinedine Zidane arrived for the World Cup injured and exhausted after his brilliant, European Cup-winning season with Real Madrid, and his team-mates Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, after superb work for Arsenal, struggled to lift their legs, and failed to conjure a goal, before slinking home, deposed champions before the tournament had reached the knock-out stage.

Another symbol of the relentless rise of club football was the decision, subsequently revoked under the weight of protest, of the president of the Italian club Perugia to terminate the contract of a South Korean whom he judged to have performed with more passion for his country than his employers.

It was around about then that Roy Keane walked out on Ireland and flew home. His transport was arranged by Manchester United.

Yesterday, as Abramovich's small navy brought the new boat Pelourus to a fine pitch of luxury, there was another memory underlining how much the world of sports has changed. During the Seoul Olympics of 1988 the Soviet government decided that the team's superstars, including the great pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, should be provided with a little bit of peace and privilege. It was a berth on a converted Russian navy vessel. Now, with so much of the wealth of Russia in his back pocket, Abramovich, makes a sad oddity of that Soviet lunge towards the pampering of superstars.

One of his guests will be his new coach Jose Mourinho, a hero of Portugal until he accepted the Tsar's shilling. In the French camp there are conflicting views about the decision of another top coach, Jacques Santini, who has brought his team here with the astonishing record of not conceding a goal in 11 matches, to agree to the huge rise being offered by Tottenham Hotspur. Portugal's coach "Big Phil" Scolari, who led Brazil to the World Cup two years ago, will be a national hero here if he is able to whip Figo and the brilliant but unfulfilled Rui Costa into championship-winning performance, but on the eve of the tournament he is at least a little distracted by contract talks with Benfica - the Portuguese club shattered by the work of Mourinho for Porto these last two years.

Mourinho is in Abramovich's pocket now, as will sooner or later, it is reasonable to imagine, any player who presents an exciting profile here over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Abramovich's player John Terry worries over his fitness for the French game - and his England coach Seven Goran Eriksson perhaps does the same over his decision to honour his England contract rather than accepting the offer of Chelsea.

He may wonder, if results do not go well, whether he has missed the only boats in town.