James Lawton: Helping 'Big Phil' seems like a job for San Antonio, the saint of lost causes

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The Independent Football

In the square outside the church of the Sacred Martyrs on Rua Janelas Verdes the feast of San Antonio had gone seriously wrong the moment Cristiano Ronaldo lunged into the back of a Greek attacker and conceded a penalty.

In the square outside the church of the Sacred Martyrs on Rua Janelas Verdes the feast of San Antonio had gone seriously wrong the moment Cristiano Ronaldo lunged into the back of a Greek attacker and conceded a penalty.

It was 2-0 to Greece, and the spirit of fado, the melancholy music of Portugal, had seeped into every corner of the working-class neighbourhood near the docks. The sardines and the vinho verde were pushed away on the pavement tables outside the Cafe da Luz - Cafe of Light. A familiar darkness had descended. One man shook his head and said: "It is always the same - we know how to play football very well but we don't know how to win."

Rita Oliviera, a young woman in red and green who had been stamping her feet in frustration for the 45 minutes of the second half as the hand of panic touched even the great Luis Figo, mustered the last of her hope and said: "San Antonio is the patron saint of Lisbon - also lost causes. He has a lot of work to do now." As much, certainly, as Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari who in the course of the opening 90 minutes of the European Championship lost so much of the aura he created as Brazil's hard-driving, independently-minded coach in the World Cup win in Japan two years ago. Scolari forlornly applauded Ronaldo's headed goal in added time, but the gesture was largely symbolic and the big man did concede: "It is all or nothing when we play Russia in the next game."

Portuguese football, buoyed by the recent Champions' League victory of Porto, had talked itself into the belief that this really was the time when the nation, as opposed to the fierce rivals Porto and Benfica, could share in their first major tournament victory. The prime minister, Durao Barroso, spoke emotively of the rewards of such a triumph on the eve of the match. "For the morale of our nation, winning this competition would be superb. We have many achievements in Portugal, going back to the great explorers, but now would be a good time to remind the people of our potential in the world."

Unfortunately, all this depended on Big Phil's ability to negotiate the treacherous waters of a national game filled with great individual talent - but littered with competitive frailty. In this, on current showing, as a navigator of glory the Brazilian is not threatening to supplant the reputation of Vasco da Gama.A hard-bitten character who won a battle with the Brazilian public over the last claims of the superhero Romario - star of the 1994 World Cup win in the United States - is now looking rather more misguided than determined. After just one half of the first game of the tournament which he pledged to win, he was condemned by his own hand, bringing on as afterthoughts a Ronaldo who has been in sizzling form and confidence, and replacing the skilled but ageing under-performer Rui Costa with Deco, the architect of Porto's unlikely Champions' League triumph.

Ronaldo, despite his gauche mistake in the penalty area, showed up the folly of his original omission and was a constant source of pressure on the Greeks. However, under the prompting of their German coach, Rehhagel, the Greeks grew strong at Portugal's broken place - the shattering mistake by Chelsea's new full back from Porto, Paulo Ferreira. His new owner Roman Abramovich may, or may not, have picked up on the scale of the error which allowed Giorgios Karagounis to run at Portugal's indecisive defence and fire a low shot past the leaden response of the goalkeeper, Ricardo, who many believe is much inferior to the deposed former No 1 Vitor Baia. That was just seven minutes into a game which had brought all of Portugal to a standstill.

Even in the Café da Luz, where players of Porto are not normally lionised, there was much dismay at the absence of the sensationally in-form central defender Ricardo Carvalho, who was many people's idea of the outstanding player in the Champions' League final in Gelsenkirchen. In his place Jorge Andrade mostly floundered, and was, in his failure to put pressure on Karagounis, at least as responsible for that deadly early blow.

The great Figo, much criticised after Portugal's abject showing in the World Cup two years ago, could this time at least not be criticised for any lack of effort. He ran relentessly against the hard and impressively composed Greek defence. Later, his face drained, Figo said: "We made two bad mistakes - they didn't. At this level the team who makes least mistakes wins."

San Antonio, who filled great churches in his adopted Italy with the passion and eloquence of his preaching, and nearly 800 years later draws desperate pilgrims to his basilica in Padua, was first inspired by the courage of Franciscan martyrs in Morocco. He was on his way to Africa to win the souls of their killers when he was shipwrecked off Sicily. Plainly he is not averse to a challenge. In football terms, this is no doubt just as well. Helping Big Phil looks like work for only the most resilient miracle workers.