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'Golden generation'

Figo and Co. aim to fulfill Portugal's promise at Euros

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Posted: Friday June 02, 2000 07:03 PM

  Barcelona midfielder Luis Figo could emerge as one of the stars of Euro 2000. AP

LISBON, Portugal (AP) -- In the 1990s Portuguese soccer produced a golden generation, but precious little silverware. Euro 2000 gives Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa and co. what could well be their last chance to turn a decade of glittering promise into some real glory.

Portugal's Group A could hardly be tougher, with matches against Germany, England and Romania, which beat the Portuguese in qualifying. Despite the imposing opposition, many believe this could finally be the big one.

"With this team, Portugal can be champion of Europe," said Benfica striker Nuno Gomes. "We just have to believe in ourselves, and have a little luck."

Humberto Coelho's squad is still based around the nucleus of Portuguese players who dominated world youth soccer a decade ago. They grew up to find fame and fortune at foreign clubs, helping the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund to European success.

In the red-and-green national colors they've flattered to deceive, producing plenty of fancy footwork, but faltering in front of goal and failing on the big occasions.

"A golden generation is a winning generation," Rui Costa said recently. "It's a long time since we've won anything."

Three times in the 1990s, Portugal failed to qualify for the World Cup finals.

In England for Euro 1996, their midfield wizardry earned them a "Brazilians of Europe" tag. But sloppy defending and a dearth of good goalscorers saw them crash out in the quarterfinals.

Four years on and Portugal's good and bad points are little changed.

The midfield built around the supremely skillful Figo is as good as any Europe. The defense is fast, strong, adept at surging forward on the counter, but prone to lapses in concentration.

Up front, there's little but a big question mark.

Benfica's Joao Pinto is a forward whose speed and ball control can unsettle the best defenses. But he lacks the killer instinct and Coelho badly needs a marksman who can turn all that style into goals.

The options are limited.

Ricardo Sa Pinto of Real Sociedad can do it on occasions but is notoriously erratic. Benfica youngster Nuno Gomes has yet to prove himself at the top level. Nor has Pauleta done much to impress internationally, although he helped Deportivo La Coruna to the Spanish championship.

Hopes that FC Porto's explosive goal-machine Mario Jardel would respond to his long neglect by the Brazilian national team by accepting Portuguese nationality were dashed when the man who's notched up a league goal tally of 38 was finally asked to pull on his homeland's canary yellow.

Portuguese optimists look to France's World Cup winning side of 1998, which swept to victory without a recognized sharpshooter. They yearn for Figo and Rui Costa to emulate Zinedine Zidane and end up providing the lethal conclusion to their own midfield maneuvers.

Certainly both can score.

Since Portugal's Euro 2000 campaign started in August. 1998, Costa has been top scorer with 10 goals in 17 games. Figo has hit four goals in the last six games, including a stunning clincher in a March exhibition match against Denmark when he weaved through the defense with breathtaking dexterity for the 2-1 winner.

Figo, 27, and now Barcelona captain, could emerge as one of the stars of Euro 2000. Alongside him, Costa and Paulo Sousa have matured in Italy's Serie A into top class playmakers with pinpoint passing skills.

Sergio Conceicao, fresh from collecting a champion's medal with Lazio, adds pace and width on the right flank, while Luis Vidigal of Sporting Lisbon will likely be on call if Coelho wants to inject some muscle into the midfield.

Fernando Couto is another of Lazio's Italian league winners. His runs from the back, long range shooting and strength in the air can leave opponents shellshocked.

FC Porto's non-nonsense center-back Jorge Costa is likely to anchor the defense beside Couto. Carlos Secretario and Abel Xavier are competing for the right back position while the pacy Dimas is favored to guard the left flank.

Coelho's other main headache will be between the goalposts.

Vitor Baia, the FC Porto goalie once rated among the world's best, has been struggling to recover from a knee operation and had not played a competitive match since March until Thursday's Portuguese Cup final replay.

Pedro Espinha of Vitoria Guimaraes is the likely stand in if he breaks down again.


 
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