It is 15 years since Portugal won the World Youth Cup, and yet still the Golden Generation totters on in search of glory.
Only Luís Figo remains of the side that beat Brazil on penalties in Lisbon to retain the title in 1991, but their influence, even if it is largely symbolic these days, remains strong. The whole story of Portuguese football is of talent unfulfilled.
Given the depth of passion for football in the country and the players it has produced, it is remarkable that before this World Cup Portugal had gone 40 years without reaching the knockout phase. They have made it this time, but in beating Angola 1-0 and Iran 2-0 they have not exactly set the competition alight.
Their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, notoriously once commented that he would happily win games by half-a-goal to nil, but the scratchiness of their performances has not been rooted in any tactical negativity. The problem, rather, seems to have been one of attitude.
“What sometimes happens is that when Portugal face opponents who are supposed to be weaker than us we don’t always respect them enough and end up getting a nasty surprise,” said Ricardo Carvalho. He was talking about Portugal’s downfall in the last World Cup, when they failed to progress from what looked a relatively simple group that included Poland, USA and South Korea, but his words have a universal application.
When Pauleta put Portugal ahead after only four minutes of their opening game at this tournament, Angola looked there for the taking, but then the old diffidence hit home. Carvalho may term it a lack of respect, which is true, but there is also a fundamental lack of ruthlessness. Only 11 minutes had gone when Cristiano Ronaldo needlessly and played a cross behind his standing leg, only to give the ball away.
Since Joe Cole’s Mourinho-inspired conversion to practicality, the Manchester United winger is easily the most frustrating player in the Premiership – somebody who could be a thoroughbred but who prefers to be a prancing show pony. Although he would not say as much afterwards, Scolari’s touchline gesticulations left little doubt as to how angered he was by Ronaldo’s extravagances.
There was an improvement against Iran, largely thanks to Deco, who had missed the opening game through injury. The Barcelona midfielder has developed in the past two years into Portugal’s most effective player, and the doubts that once surrounded the co-opting of a naturalised Brazilian are now forgotten. It is perhaps significant, though, that he was not born in Portugal: he does not live in the golden shadow. Figo most assuredly does.
After all the failures and disappointments, vindication was agonisingly close at the 2004 European Championships. When Figo skulked off to the dressing-room after being substituted against England in the quarter-final, it seemed the end for his generation, especially when his replacement, Helder Postiga, one of the bright young things of Portuguese football, scored the equaliser.
Figo, though, returned as man of the match in the semi-final victory over Holland. That game fell on the 13th anniversary of the Youth Cup final, and as Figo raged magnificently against the dying of the light, for Portugal the momentum of fate seemed irresistible. But then came unromantic Greece in the final, a thumping Angelos Charisteas header, and defeat. So Figo trudges on, questing still for the glories promised in his youth.
He is only 33, but his careworn face gives the impression of an older man. Many expected him to retire after Euro 2004, and when he left Real Madrid a year later, the end again seemed close. At Internazionale in this past season, though, he has been rejuvenated. In that opening game against Angola, he even outpaced the admittedly lumbering Jamba to lay on Pauleta’s goal.
It will not have escaped notice in Portugal that Figo could once again burn and rave on the anniversary of the golden triumph, in a quarter-final in Berlin on June 30. To do so, though, they would have to lose to Mexico today. That would leave them second in the group and facing a second-round game against whichever of Argentina or Holland tops Group C, which will be decided when they meet in Frankfurt tonight.
Given that both sides have made clear they will rest players, there is little value in Scolari attempting to second-guess the result to try to avoid Argentina, the best side of the tournament so far. Portugal’s main aim will be to attempt to discover the fluency they will need if they are to prosper later in the competition. With Deco likely to be rested after being booked against Iran, Figo will once again be centre-stage.