Figo leads Portuguese hopes
Carlos Alberto Pontes and Martin Roberts
Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira has been preparing his talented players for this year's World Cup finals with one important motto in mind: "Stop being the best and come first instead".
Portugal, dubbed the Brazilians of Europe by fan and foe alike, are determined to complement their aesthetic appeal with a tangible achievement.
Oliveira knows that, with some of European football's biggest names at his disposal, Portugal have never had a better chance to claim their first major title in only their third appearance at a World Cup finals.
Real Madrid's Luis Figo, the World Player of the Year, highlights how Portugal's players are now plying their trade -- with great success -- at big clubs across Europe.
They are no longer the underdogs who merely want to entertain.
"The (players) play to win every day around Europe," said Oliveira. "Winning is in their blood. But we are also aware that a World Cup is a tremendous challenge for all of us.
"Every world or European champion has had the world's best player of the day. Now we, too, have the world's best player (Figo), so let's see how the 2002 World Cup finals go."
Portugal's first appearance at the finals was in England back in 1966, where the underdogs upset many favourites to finish third after striker Eusebio thrilled the crowds and scored nine goals to become the tournament's top scorer.
After finishing third at the 1984 European championship, they qualified for Mexico 86 but were eliminated in the first round and it was 14 years before they made people sit up and take note again.
Then, inspired by Figo, they reached the semifinals of Euro 2000, before losing to eventual winners France after defender Abel Xavier conceded a penalty by handling the ball in sudden-death extra time.
An undefeated qualifying campaign for this year's finals saw Oliveira's men finish top of European qualifying group two by the end of last year and the draw for the finals has pitted them against co-hosts South Korea, Poland and the United States in group D.
Favourites to come through that section without too much fuss, Portugal face their first match against the U.S. in Suwon on June 5.
Oliveira insists he has no intention of tinkering with his side in his attempt to finally fulfil their potential with a World Cup victory.
"The team is built around playing open football, with two wingers and one striker, backed up by playmaker Rui Costa and by Figo's dribbling power and inch-perfect passes," he said.
"To field two strikers I would have to restructure the team and use another scheme because someone would have to go. So I prefer to make changes while games are under way."
Pedro Pauleta will probably spearhead the attack, leaving Nuno Gomes in reserve on the bench, even though the Fiorentina player has come on in his last three international games to score seven times.
In the Andorra qualifier, "super-sub" Gomes scored four goals, the first Portugal player to do so in an international match since Eusebio, who plundered four against Korea at England 66.
November's game with Angola, designed as a showpiece occasion to highlight friendly relations with Portugal's former colony, descended into farce and had to be called off after four Angolans were sent off and one was taken off injured, leaving Angola with only six men on the field. Matches have to be stopped when a team is left with fewer than seven players.
Oliveira was much happier when his side held Spain to a 1-1 draw with a classy performance in Barcelona in February.
"I liked the team performance and without singling people out, I liked Figo, Hugo Viana and Joao Pinto," he said.
Figo's explosive mixture of speed and dribbling ability often culminates in deadly passes or spectacular goals, like the one in Portugal's 5-0 qualifying win against Estonia when the former Barcelona man lobbed the ball over the keeper's head.
Figo and many of his team mates are at the peak of their careers and can combine experience in a tightly-knit team unit which has been together for more than 10 years.
Yet the finals may be the last chance to shine for the so-called "golden generation" which graduated by winning the FIFA world youth championships in 1989 and 1991.
Figo and AC Milan midfielder Costa will have joined Sporting striker Joao Pinto, Charlton Athletic defender Jorge Costa and Lazio defender Fernando Couto as 30-somethings by the time of Euro 2004 -- to be staged in Portugal -- and the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.
So Figo, for one, will certainly take Oliveira's message about winning to heart.
"It is maybe the most important time for a player to go to the World Cup finals," said Figo.
"Fortunately, I have achieved great success at club level but I have yet to have that chance at international level."