Men of style and steel

Stan Hey reports on the sense of history which is motivating Portugal
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The Independent Online
THE YEAR 1966 may have been a great one for English football, but it was also very nearly a good one for the Portuguese, too, until they were beaten 2-1 by England in an epic World Cup semi-final. Their team won all their group matches by clear margins, and then came back from three goals down to beat North Korea 5-3 in the quarter-finals. Eusebio, who scored nine goals, was the star of the tournament.

But it isn't just the imminence of the 30th anniversary of Portugal's best-ever international performance which triggers these reflections, but the sight of Eusebio himself - tubbier, but retaining his panther- like athleticism - warming up alongside the current Portuguese squad at their training ground in Ilkeston.

Eusebio's presence, as ambassador and totem, also seems to be an endorsement from the past that Portugal's hopes of success in Euro 96 have acquired momentum with a belief that this is their best team since 1966.

Certainly, the players who bounded into the Ilkeston FC clubhouse last Thursday morning were still bubbling after their 3-0 win over Croatia, which qualified them for the quarter-finals on top of Group D, circumstances which not only allowed them to avoid Germany but, as it transpired, Italy too.

Paulo Sousa, the 25-year-old Juventus star who is the engine of the Portuguese midfield, was quick to express his sympathy for his Italian colleagues but professional loyalty wasn't about to get in the way of patriotism. "I am unhappy for my friends in the Italian team, but our success is what matters now and the team is beginning to believe in itself."

With his long, dark hair tucked under a baseball cap, Paulo Sousa looks uncannily like a young Ayrton Senna, and it soon becomes evident that he shares the late driving champion's passion for winning. Since his move to Italy from Sporting Lisbon in 1994, he has helped Juventus to a League and Cup double and then last month, despite a season disrupted by injury, he completed a hat-trick of honours over Ajax in the European Cup final.

Now, in a deep, rhythmic voice, he expresses a conviction that his national side can add to his trophy cupboard. "Portugal have always played with a certain style, but now we have changed our mentality so that we can combine style with winning. We have ambition now, and our game must not only be half about fantasy and imagination, but also half about strength and competitiveness."

This is an inadvertent summary of Paulo Sousa's own role in the team, as the "holding" player in a fluid and eminently flexible midfield. He is not only a tremendous ball-winner and a sound passer, but he has the stamina to carry the ball up to his attack, too.

Rui Costa, his midfield ally and fellow Serie A player with Fiorentina, is primarily responsible for the final ball, the run into the box or the powerful long-range shot, as Jack Charlton's Irish team found out in Lisbon last November.

The intuitive combination between Paulo Sousa and Rui Costa was demonstrated in a delightful cameo in Nottingham last Wednesday, when the Portuguese quickly took advantage of Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic's bizarre team selection. A through-ball from Sousa found Rui Costa's run to the edge of the box, where an extravagant back-heel set up an acrobatic volley by their midfield partner Oceano, which very nearly added to their goal tally.

That the Portuguese have now developed, as Sousa insists, a cutting edge to their sumptuous approach play was only arguable in terms of the strength of the opposition. But as Sousa pointed out "We still had to beat 11 Croatian internationals, and even with Suker, Boban and Asanovic on for the second half, we still scored another goal. And the fact that our attackers, Domingos, Figo and Joao Pinto, all scored their first goals of the tournament was a great psychological boost to us."

Paulo Sousa neglects to mention his own outstanding contribution, referring modestly to play down his role in the team. "I like to work to help my colleagues. It is very important to me to make things happen for the team, to keep winning the ball and bring other players into the game. It doesn't matter if I don't score (he has yet to register an international goal) as long as I can contribute to the making of goals. What matters to me is that at the end of each match I must be able to walk off with my head held high."

Sousa's job today, assuming the Czechs have recovered from their emotional switchback ride against the Russians, will be to stop the midfield runs of Patrik Berger and Karel Poborsky, and then feed the sinuous running of his forwards.

But apart from whatever Paulo Sousa can contribute, the biggest single factor lying behind Portugal's momentum goes back several years to when two of their squads won successive World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991. Paulo Sousa and Rui Costa were among the winners, together with Figo and Joao Pinto, and their much-coveted centre-back Fernando Couto, as well as two other players in the current squad. "We have played together for over six years now and it is time we put our international experience to good use," Sousa said as he left.

Outside, Eusebio was juggling a ball as though 30 years had never passed. If the youthful promise of players born since that memorable semi-final of 1966 is translated into the achievements of manhood today, Eusebio will be the first to cheer.