Oliveira's oracle clouds over

Phil Shaw finds the precocious Portuguese professing caution
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The Independent Online
Portugal have been described as the Brazilians of Europe, and not simply because they share a language. Their arrival at the quarter- final stage of Euro 96 might have been expected to coax their coach into putting his stern countenance on hold yesterday, but Antonio Oliveira's mood again appeared to be more sombre than samba.

For once it was not Oliveira's strained relations with the Portuguese press or his seemingly paranoid allegations about victimisation by referees that accounted for a dourness which contrasts starkly with the youthful abandon of his team. Instead, it was his announcement that Sunday's match against the Czech Republic at Villa Park would be "dedicated to the children of East Timor".

Difficult as it may be to imagine, the British "mad cow" crisis and the beefs of Little Englanders are not the major talking points beyond these shores. In Portugal, the main topic (apart from the finals) is repression in the former colony of East Timor where, Oliveira claimed, thousands of children have been killed or starved since Indonesian troops invaded the island nearly 20 years ago.

Making sure no one could represent Oliveira as taking victory for granted, his interpreter pointed out the game was being dedicated - not victory. The sub-text was that the Portuguese do not regard a place in the last four as a formality - at least not publicly - even though the Czechs are rank outsiders among the survivors.

The Portugal squad uprooted last night from their base at a converted 13th-century priory just outside Derby in order to set up camp at Sandbach in Cheshire. They will stay in the hotel vacated by the vanquished Italians, and train, as did the Azzurri, at the Manchester Metropolitan University grounds at nearby Alsager.

All of which appears strange given that these facilities are further from Birmingham, until you realise that Portugal will play at Old Trafford in the semi-final if they beat the Czechs. Whether that counts as presumptuousness or planning is open to conjecture.

Either way, Oliveira was never likely to be effusive about their prospects. Those with a smattering of Portuguese swore he said something along the lines of taking each game as it comes. "Our first concern is our own team," he was translated as saying, "though we've had the Czech Republic watched and we have videos of them."

Oliveira's concern about the Timorese problem was a reminder that when Portugal reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1966, losing to England in the tournament's best match, the backbone of the team came from their imperial outposts. From Mozambique there was Eusebio, and Mario Coluna; from Angola, Jose Aguas.

Three of the current squad - Oceano, from the Cape Verde Islands, and the Angolans Helder and Paulo Madeira - share a similar background. In the main, however, Portugal's return to respectability has been built on the youth policy initiated by Oliveira's predecessor, Carlos Queiroz.

Most of the side who beat Croatia 3-0 on Wednesday graduated together, or a year or two apart, in the World Youth Cup-winning sides of 1989 and '91. The average age of those on duty at Nottingham was 25, with only Oceano, 33, over 27.

Fresh-faced flamboyancy has a tendency, alas, to be stifled by more experienced and rugged opponents or by a lack of mental toughness. How did Oliveira feel his fledglings would cope with the magnitude of their next match? "That is a question," he mused, his bat so straight he should have been playing down the road for Derbyshire, "that we can only answer after the game."

Attempts to discover the post-Euro 96 destination of those players not already established in Italy or Spain met equally dogged resistance. Fernando Couto, the centre-back coveted by Manchester United and Rangers, declined to elaborate on his plans. Jorge Cadete, now with Celtic, admitted his team-mate had asked him about Glasgow, but said he had no inkling as to his preference.

Fortunately, the Portuguese also have in common with Brazil a fluency in the language of the beautiful game. On Sunday we shall begin to learn exactly how articulate they are.

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