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Rediff.com  » Sports » Golden era to end in England-Portugal clash

Golden era to end in England-Portugal clash

June 30, 2006 11:22 IST
One of the two most celebrated "golden generations" in European soccer will reach the end of the road on Saturday when England meet Portugal in a tantalising World Cup quarter-final.

The fixture, in Gelsenkirchen, is entwined with intriguing human links and echoes of past clashes.

The two men who wear number seven captain their teams and for two years were club mates at Real Madrid. Manchester United's Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo faces a direct confrontation with his club captain, England's right back Gary Neville.

But hanging over both teams is a sense of the march of time with Neville admitting that for him, Beckham and the rest who represent the crop of players known as England's 'golden generation', the clash represents a date with destiny.

It could be a step towards realising a World Cup dream or the end of those hopes as many of the squad will be past their prime by the time of the next finals in South Africa in 2010.

For Portugal, and for Figo in particular, the same holds true as he remains the last survivor of their own 'golden generation' - a group that once included Fernando Couto, Manuel Rui Costa and Manuel Joao Pinto among others.

Like Beckham, once a running winger who crossed the ball with pin-point accuracy, Figo has lost some pace and penetration, but his guile and vision has helped guide Portugal through their best World Cup in 40 years.

At 33, he remains strong, swift and blessed with a supreme technique that Beckham clearly respects. "He is one of those great players that you always have to watch out for," said the England captain on Thursday.

FIGO'S TARGET

Figo, in the absence of Portugal's suspended playmaker Deco, may have to dictate play for his team as he bids to justify his decision to return from international retirement.

"We all have high hopes of winning, although it goes without saying that if we reach the last four, then it won't have been a bad tournament for us," Figo said recently.

A World Cup semi-final appearance for Figo would mean Portugal had equalled the feats of the Eusebio-inspired team that lost 2-1 at Wembley in 1966 when Bobby Charlton, in one of whose soccer schools Beckham developed his boyhood skills, thundered in two goals.

Having left Real Madrid for Inter Milan last year, Figo has found a new lease of life, looked fitter and sharper than many expected and delivered most of Portugal's assists for goals on their run to the last eight.

His exit from the Bernabeu ended competition with Beckham for a place on the right of Madrid's midfield from where the England captain shone last season.

Like Figo, Beckham has provided important assists for England goals as well as the crucial free-kick goal that defeated Ecuador in the second round.

But Beckham is approaching the veteran stage. He, Neville and fellow squad member Sol Campbell are all 31 already.

For them, it is a case of now or never.

Timothy Collings
Source:
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