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Portugal’s current stars no match for “Golden Generation”

Cristiano Ronaldo contemplates Portugal’s exit from Euro 2008.

LISBON — For any child developing an interest in football over this past year, you could forgive them for believing Cristiano Ronaldo to be the greatest player the game has ever seen. The popularity of the Portuguese winger’s club, Manchester United, combined with the generally over-hyped Premiership coverage on Sky Sports would be enough to fool any impressionable youngster. But the fact that the football media can so strongly influence adult fans is much more surprising. Following Ronaldo’s fine form for United this season — in which he scored 31 goals (a Premiership record for a midfielder) — there was much talk amongst fans and journalists before Euro 2008 that the player might “do a Maradona”, and single-handedly (no pun intended) lead Portugal to European glory.

Of course, this suggestion was both unlikely and pointless, least because Portugal need not rely solely on one player. Deco, the naturalised Brazilian, is a playmaker in the South American mold, combining a compact physique with fine control and vision. But he can drift in and out of big games, often without ever leaving his mark. When I first saw Deco play — for José Mourinho’s FC Porto side which won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons — I was impressed. He was skillful and tricky, and the team revolved around him. At star-studded Barcelona he was one of many, sharing top-billing with the more imaginative (and popular) Ronaldinho. A similar fate may await him at Chelsea, for whom he signed following Portugal’s lacklustre quarter-final exit from Euro 2008 at the hands of Germany, and where he will be reacquainted with the now ex-Portugal coach, Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari.

Portugal’s two biggest stars enjoyed their best performance against the Czech Republic at Euro 2008.

At Euro 2008 Portugal perhaps peaked too early, making them instant favourites. Ronaldo and Deco combined well in the 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic, but neither player could galvanize the team enough to overcome the might of a German team in its stride. Though I risk descending into common football cliché by saying so, both Ronaldo and Deco also suffer from attitude problems, particularly when it comes to winning a free-kick, feigning injury, and, at worst, ensuring an opponent is booked. These cynical tactics are obviously common-place in football in all countries, but I find it unfortunate for a country that is renowned for its attractive football, that its two most celebrated players should adhere so closely to this ugly stereotype. Each is no stranger to controversy, on and off the pitch. At the 2006 World Cup Deco received a red card in the match with Holland, and Ronaldo was seen as provoking the dismissal of Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final with England. Meanwhile, both players have been involved in incidents concerning prostitutes and organized sex romps.

At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Deco scored a great goal against Iran, but saw red in the next match with Holland.

None of this does anything for either player’s likability — both Ronaldo and Deco are far too talented to resort to such lowlife behaviour, yet perhaps simply too stupid to recognize how they are tarnishing their image. This, for me, is one of the primary differences between the current Portugal team and the oft-heralded “Golden Generation” which helped win the World Youth Cup in 1991 and afforded the senior team the title of “Brazilians of Europe”, which had to do with much more than historical connections between the two countries.

By the late-1990s this crop of talent had spread itself throughout the best leagues in Europe, ensuring Portugal’s position as serious contenders at major championships. The national team’s two biggest stars in this period were Luis Figo and Manuel Rui Costa, without doubt the two finest players Portugal has produced since Eusebio. Like Ronaldo, Figo began his career at Sporting Lisbon, before making a name for himself at Barcelona and, in a controversial move, Real Madrid. A marauding winger in the old-fashioned sense, his slightly hunched-over forward stance meant he could beat players with just a drop of the shoulder and shove of the ball. He wasn’t as fast as Ronaldo, nor did he share the United star’s heading ability, but he won the Ballon d’Or in 2000, and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2001.

Figo at Euro 2000; the Portugal captain embraces former Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane after Portugal’s defeat to France in the World Cup semi-final, Munich, 2006.

Rui Costa was Portugal’s heart and soul, a serious man who lived and breathed football — the very first word to come out of his infant mouth was “Benfica.” (Cristiano Ronaldo was named after President Reagan — who do you prefer now?) After several fine seasons at the top in Lisbon, Rui Costa joined Fiorentina in 1994, where together with Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta he shared an excellent understanding on the pitch, and idol status off it. Perhaps unlike Figo, Rui Costa was an elegant playmaker in the mold of a classic number ten, and a joy to watch in full flight. The Florence club’s bankruptcy caused Rui Costa to somewhat reluctantly transfer to Milan in 2001 — he famously broke down on a local radio station trying to explain his move to la Viola‘s disappointed fans. He was also hugely popular at San Siro, but after an instrumental Champions League-winning season in 2003, he became marginalized by the arrival of an extraordinarily talented young Brazilian named Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite — otherwise known as Kakà.

Rui Costa’s joy after his spectacular goal against England was forgotten following Portugal’s painful home defeat to Greece in the Euro 2004 final.

Portugal were semi-finalists at Euro 2000 but flopped at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Deco and Ronaldo overlapped with the older generation at Euro 2004, which was held in Portugal, although the host’s campaign was marred by behind the scenes bickering. Figo allegedly disapproved of Deco’s presence within the squad, stating that he wanted to win with a team that was “100% Portuguese”. Despite the tension within the home side — and coach Scolari’s indecision over whether to field Deco or Rui Costa — this was undoubtedly Portugal’s best ever chance to win a major tournament. They almost did it, reaching the final only to lose 1-0 to surprise package Greece (for the second time in the competition).

Figo left Madrid in 2005 to sign for Inter, where he has won three consecutive Serie A league titles (although Inter’s detractors would recall the effects of calciopoli on these successes). In 2007 he even changed his mind on lucrative transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United States in order to stay with the Milanese giants for another season. Rui Costa left Milan in 2006, taking a significant salary-cut in order to fulfill a boyhood dream and end his career at Benfica. He made a final emotional farewell to football in May of this year at the age of 36, making his last appearance in front of Benfica’s home fans in a 3-0 victory over Vitória de Setubal at Lisbon’s Estadio de Luz.

An emotional Rui Costa salutes the public as he prepares to play his final professional match in the colours of Benfica, Lisbon, May 2008.

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