Category: Archive

Seasoned and talented, Portugal dare to dream

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jay Mwamba



Group D



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Group D

Thirty-six years ago, Portugal, led by a dazzling African-born player considered by many to be the immortal Pele’s equal, made its World Cup debut in England.

Behind the awesome goal-scoring heroics of the devastating Eusebio, the Portuguese produced one stunning result after another, including a bruising 3-1 victory over Brazil in a thrilling run that came to a screeching halt against Bobby Charlton and England in the semis.

Eusebio returned to the Iberian Peninsula as the tournament’s top scorer with nine goals, and a bronze medal from his adopted country’s third-place finish. But it would be another 20 years before Portugal would be heard from again in the finals, albeit briefly, at Mexico ’86.

Fast forward to 2002 and the Portuguese are back for just their third crack at soccer’s most coveted prize, with arguably the best crop of players since the golden era of Eusebio.

Coached by Antonio Oliveira, the current squad comprises the cream of Portugal’s successful youth sides that won consecutive titles at the FIFA World Under-16 Championship in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and the Under-20 crown in Lisbon two years later.

Other team members were runners-up in the European Under-21 Championship in 1994, and some were in the Under-23 side that finished fourth in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The squad is built around Real Madrid attacking midfielder Luis Figo, until last year the world’s most expensive player and, undisputedly, one of the game’s best performers.

Pundits like Portugal’s chances on account of the 29-year-old Figo’s brilliant skills, and his immense experience, with 21 goals in 72 appearances over the last decade. Yet there are other players in the side that make Oliveira’s men odds on favorites to clinch first place in Group D and strong contenders for the Cup.

Men like Figo’s alter ego, Rui Costa, the savvy and highly seasoned AC Milan playmaker with 18 goals in nearly 60 appearances, cool-headed defensive anchor Fernando Couto of Lazio, who boasts of over 70 caps, and the colorful Liverpool wing-back, Abel Xavier, born in Mozambique like Eusebio, and unmistakable with his bleached blonde Neptune-style haircut.

Figo, however, remains the fulcrum. Although kept under wraps by the Irish defense in the two games between the nations in the qualifiers, he brought out his full repertoire of skills in Portugal’s home match with Holland.

Figo sparked a dramatic late rally with the Dutch up 2-0, keeping Portugal on course for the finals with two goals in the last seven minutes to force a 2-2 tie.

First capped by his mentor, Carlos Queiroz, who will lead South Africa to the Far East, at age 18 in 1991, Figo has left a trail of success at every level of the game. He won both FIFA Under-16 and Under-20 championship honors before receiving his first senior international cap, and seemed on the verge of leading Portugal to the Euro 2000 final when a foolish Xavier handball in extra time gave eventual France a 2-1 “Golden Goal” victory.

Figo moved to Real Madrid from Barcelona on a then world record $56 million transfer after that tournament, and has since more than proven his worth.

As a team, Portugal, who were undefeated in the qualifiers with 33 goals scored and only seven conceded in 10 matches, are a technical marvel. Their rich pedigree can be traced back to Eusebio’s great Benfica side that reached five successive European Championship Club finals between 1961 and 1968, winning two titles.

Still, they face intriguing opposition in Group D. Portugal’s first game will be against a cagey U.S. team capable of making life difficult for any side.

Hosts Korea’s fanatical home ground edge should make them a hard nut to crack, and resurgent Poland, with their world-class goalie, a solid defense and one of the qualifiers’ most opportunistic strikers should be their toughest foe.

But it’s because of Figo’s quality and their solid reputation for playing attractive football that the odds favor Portugal to advance and make a strong run for Japan/Korea ’02.

Even then, as Oliveira has observed, playing good may not be enough this time. “We have to be the first, instead of being the best,” he has pointed out.

Return to glory days

Like Portugal, Poland return to the finals for the first time since Mexico ’86, with a team that may draw favorable comparisons to the outstanding sides of the 1970s and early ’80s.

Those were the glory years of Polish soccer that started when the likes of Grzegorz Lato, the late Kazimierz Deyna, and eccentric goalie Jan Tomaszewski powered the Poles to third-place at the 1974 tournament in West Germany after shocking the world by eliminating England in the qualifiers.

Poland would go on to reprise their third-place finish at the 1982 finals in Spain, after which they slipped back into obscurity following a quiet appearance at Mexico ’86.

Sixteen years later, the red-shirted Poles are back, thanks in equal measures to a feline-like goalie worthy of donning Tomaszewski’s mantle, a towering center half whose throw-ins cause havoc, and a Nigerian-born striker with a lethal touch.

Conventional wisdom suggests that these resurgent Poles will advance from Group D along with Portugal. But to do that the Jerzy Engel-managed side must first reproduce its sparkling qualifying form against co-hosts Korea in its opening match in Busan on June 4.

The Polish game had long been in the doldrums when a young Nigerian import named Emmanuel Olisadebe began lighting up the local league with his pace and predatory instincts around the penalty box.

Impressed by Olisadebe’s form for long-time stragglers Polonia Warsaw, who he took to the League and Cup double in the 2000 season, Polish officials, led by former World Cup star Zbigniew Boniek, began a campaign to secure Polish citizenship for the then 20-year-old striker. Olisadebe’s papers came through before Poland’s first qualifier, and the Polish revival was on. Seven goals in 10 qualifiers later, Olisadebe had helped shoot Poland back in the finals from a competitive group comprising Ukraine, Belarus, Norway, Wales, and Armenia.

Small, quick, and explosive, the first black player to represent Poland is a hugely popular figure in his adopted country, and the man an entire nation will be banking on for success in the Far East. Olisadebe plays his club soccer with Greek outfit Panathinaikos.

The Poles are, however, by no means a one-man side. On the opposite end of the field, they have one Jerzy Dudek, the Liverpool shot-stopper who could be on track for the title of World’s Best Goalie. As he has shown with Liverpool in the English Premier League, the 6-foot-1 Dudek is brave, agile, and comes off his line very quickly.

Main cover for Dudek, who turns 29 on March 23, is provided by a towering defense whose lynchpin is the 6-foot-5 Schalke 04 center half Tomasz Hajto.

Equally competent on the ground and in the air, the 29-year-old Hajto is renowned for his incredibly long throw-ins that pose as much danger as corner kicks to opposing defenses. He is also a fierce competitor, strong in the tackle, but prone to picking up yellow cards.

Given the strength of their key players, it’s no surprise that Poland’s game features a strong counterattacking component that utilizes the resiliency of the backline and Olisadebe’s pace.

This will be the Poles’ fifth World Cup — their first was in Italy in 1938 — and if only a source of inspiration, their last game in the finals was a 1-0 decision over Portugal in Mexico ’86.

(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist or finalists. The teams profiles to this point are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States and South Korea.)

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