||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2004
Monday, February 16, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: February 18, 11:21 AM UK
Bridging the generation gap
Chosen as guests at an opening party for Portugal's spanking new Estadio Algarve, England will be hoping to pull off a win over a national side that rather resembles a 'lads and dads' outfit.
Luis Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian World Cup winning coach given the assignment of leading the host nation to victory of Euro 2004, faces the challenge of having to marry two golden generations of Portuguese talent.
The original kids on the block are the likes of Luis Figo, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa. The young ones snapping at their heels are players like Hugo Viana, Ricardo Quaresema and Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo.
For the fabled Portuguese 'Golden Generation', this tournament may have come too late, as most of them are past their peak.
Euro 2000, in which their campaign collapsed amidst shameful scenes in the semi-final, now seems like their best chance of senior honours to go along with the twin World Youth Championships of 1989 and 1991, especially when the disaster that was World Cup 2002 is taken into account.
The international days of Abel Xavier, Vitor Baia, Paulo Sousa and Joao Pinto are finished while Sergio Conceišao, now back at Porto, is out of favour after drifting through the Italian leagues in recent years.
Now just another galactico and with another big name sure to arrive at the Bernabeu this summer, Figo is perhaps not quite the influence he once was at Real Madrid. Many observers expect him to move on from the Spanish giants once Euro 2004 is finished.
Couto, whom Figo will join as a cap centurion in the England match, remains at cash-strapped Lazio, never having been quite the top level performer he could have been. Rui Costa, a true star of Serie A in the last decade, now often finds himself playing second fiddle at AC Milan to Brazilian wunderkind Kaka and Italian midfield general Andrea Pirlo.
With the tried and perhaps not so trustworthy on the wane, Scolari has chosen to look to the future.
But for the new bloods, the tournament surely comes too early in their development. Viana, Europe's Young Player of the Year when he signed for Newcastle United in 2002, cannot find a first-team place at St James' Park. The time seems right for Viana to hone his talents somewhere other than Tyneside and his lack of Premiership participation may yet cost him a place in the summer.
Quaresma, not part of Scolari's squad this time round, has occasionally glittered at Barcelona but has recently been sacrificed as coach Frank Rijkaard seeks to add solidity to his Nou Camp side.
Ronaldo seems likely to be named in Scolari's line-up and will do so after having his best game in a United shirt at the weekend. The much mocked stepovers took a backseat against Manchester City as Ronaldo put in a performance of genuine endeavour. The young man from Madeira's hard running placed real pressure on a City defence that should have been enjoying respite against ten-man United.
Applauded off the Old Trafford pitch and congratulated by Michael Tarnat, the full-back opponent he had left with the archetypal 'twisted blood', this was Ronaldo's most mature performance yet for Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet maturity, or the lack of it, remains an issue and his greatest handicap.
The 18-year-old is yet to instinctively know when to play the pass instead of running, and his crossing, with the marked exception of the beautifully dug out ball to give Ruud Van Nistelrooy the chance to pull off a 4-3 win at Everton, is often below par. Yet Ferguson and Scolari seem happy enough for Ronaldo to do much of his growing up in public, while being as protected as possible from media glare.
Another Premiership performer, Spurs' Helder Postiga, has had his own struggles at his new club. He had to wait until January 31 for his first Premiership goal and then, as Jermain Defoe arrived at White Hart Lane to further increase the battle for striking starts, was hit by the hamstring injury that sees him miss the England game.
The absence of Postiga and Nuno Gomes, the line-leader at Euro 2000, has opened the door for another teenager, Uniao Leiria's uncapped striker Hugo Almeida. Porto, Postiga's former club, loaned Almeida to Uniao in the summer and he has been in sparkling form this season. Expect to see him come on as a sub or alongside PSG's Pauleta, the in-form PSG striker who is likely to play a lone striker role from the outset.
Alemida has joined a healthy Porto contingent in Scolari's squad. The UEFA Cup holders, runaway leaders in the Campeonato Nacional, have supplied another five players from the team that Jose Mourinho built.
One of the Porto contingent, Deco Sousa, is a figure of some controversy. Brazilian by origin, the playmaker became naturalised Portuguese in 2002 and Scolari had no qualms about calling on a player uncapped by his country of origin.
Something of a late developer, Deco struggled at Benfica before moving to Oporto in 1999-2000. He has not looked back and is regarded as one of Europe's leading playmakers, deadly from the deadball.
It was the contribution of Deco that won Porto the UEFA Cup on that May evening against Celtic. And despite open dissent from the likes of Figo and Rui Costa at his selection for his debut against Scolari's former charges Brazil in March last year, a trademark free-kick winner silenced the doubters and proved what an asset he can be. Deco's talking was done on the pitch.
Another Scolari favourite is Benfica midfielder Cardoso Mendes Tiago, who the Brazilian coach recommended to Juventus during the recent transfer window. A complete midfielder with attacking and defensive qualities, the 22-year-old is another of the young generation who may find himself in the bigger European leagues once the tournament has finished.
Scolari's preference for the younger generation over the likes of Joao Pinto, Baia and Xavier is not the most popular of stances in a country which holds the classes of 1989 and 1991 so dear. Ending a decade of underachievement is the aim for 'Big Phil', believed to have a clear idea of what his final 22 will be for the championship hosts in the summer. As a man known for success at club and international level, he would seem to have little time for underachievers.
Instead, he is prepared to turn to potential.
Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin