Portugal the best of two worldsPosted: Monday June 03, 2002 2:22 AM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SEOUL -- Trickiness on the ball and fluidity up front are hallmarks of the Portugal team the USA faces in its World Cup opener Wednesday in Suwon.
The Portuguese are a potent meld of European structure and Latin flair. They roared through their qualifying group-which included the Netherlands and Ireland-without losing a match.
And with or without World Player of the Year Luis Figo, whose bothersome ankle has been a hot topic for months, they present the most potent of two doctrines.
"They're all good on the ball and their attackers are all dangerous, but they're also very well organized defensively and very experienced," says midfielder John O'Brien, who watches Figo and Co. when not occupied with club duty for Ajax Amsterdam.
"They all play for big clubs in Europe, but they're different than a lot European [national] teams in that they can do more things with the ball. Some of them are like South American players in that way."
An unlucky 2-1 loss in the 2000 European Championship to eventual champion France on a golden-goal penalty kick whetted the ambitions of the Portuguese, whose last World Cup appearance in 1986 ended in the first round.
Expectations are much higher this time around. The legendary Eusebio has said Portugal can duplicate and perhaps surpass the feats of the 1966 team he led to third place.
Prior to their departure for South Korea, the players and coaches met with recently elected Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso.
"It's normal for people to want us to be champions but we don't feel worried or under pressure because the prime minister wants us to do well, because we all want to," said defender Nuno Frechaut, who will start in place of the injured Abel Xavier at right back.
"But we have to be aware of the difficulties, cool things down a bit and take things one step at a time."
Portugal plays a four-man defense behind a pair of central midfielders, one of which is crafty playmaker Rui Costa. The attackers, led by Figo and primary striker Pauleta, are given the freedom to play and move as they see fit.
"We're going to tell our defenders and midfielders if they expect to go up against the same guys in the same part of the field for the entire game, they're mistaken," said assistant U.S. coach Glenn Myernick, who drew the assignment of scouting Portugal and helping prepare the game plan.
"They interchange all the time. The key for us is to keep numbers around the ball. We'll need covering players all over the field. In one-v-ones a lot of those guys can go right past you."
On paper, Pauleta as a true forward with the other three swirling behind and aside him. "He's a box player, a very good finisher," says Myernick.
Pauleta led Portugal in qualifying with eight goals and is coming off his best club season ever, a 22-goal performance and French League Player of the Year honors for Bordeaux.
Figo is the best all-around attacker on the team and when healthy may be the best in the world. Dribbling, combination passing, finding players in space, getting on the end of passes for shots and finishing are all in his repertoire.
"He can do whatever it takes," says Myernick. "But they don't necessarily rely on him to do it all." Indeed, the Portuguese are not counting on Figo to be 100 percent for the U.S. game, preferring to get him ready to later games in the tournament.
Figo and Sergio Conceciao often take up the wide positions, with Joao Pinto lurking deeper from where he likes to hit killer passes or make late runs. In reserve is Nuno Gomes, who scored seven goals in the qualifiers.
Portugal's other injury concern had been Rui Costa, but he came through the team's last international friendly-a 2-0 defeat of China-unscathed.
Along with central defenders Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa, midfielders Petit and Rui Costa form a square that collapses quickly when the ball enters it. The outside backs seldom overlap but they will push up the flank in support.
Coach Antonio Oliveira has a decision to make in goal. Victor Baia missed 17 months because of knee problems that required four surgeries and got the starting spot against China.
He didn't play in any of the qualifiers because of his injuries but is far more experienced (76 caps to 10) than Ricardo.
This World Cup marks the last chance for the Portuguese "golden generation" of players that won the Under-20 World Championship in 1989 and 1991.
"Figo has made it pretty clear this will be it for him in the World Cup, and it'll be the same for a few of those guys," said Myernick. "I hear all this about him being injured and Rui Costa being hurt, but I expect them to bring everything they have."
The so-called "Brazilians of Europe" must also deal with the specter of emulating their neighbors in Spain, who despite boasting some of the best players in the world have never been able to conquer it on the soccer field.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.