FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First magazine, July 4, 2004
By Chris Hunt


When Figo leads Portugal onto the pitch of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz tonight for the final of the 2004 European Championship, he might finally achieve something that Eusébio, his country’s greatest ever footballer, never managed – to win a major international trophy. In front of a passionate home crowd of 65,000 – and millions more via television sets around Europe – Figo will contest his country’s first-ever tournament final, while Eusébio will watch from the touchline, leaving it to this latest golden generation of Portuguese stars to bring home a much-wanted trophy.


It is a day that the 62-year-old football legend thought that he would never see. “The Portuguese people deserve this because they love football,” Eusébio tells me just 24 hours before the big game. “Look around – there are flags on every building, on every car, everywhere. You have everything here, you even have good weather.”


In a 15-year playing career at Benfica there were just two seasons in which Eusébio didn’t win either a domestic or European club honour ,but despite scoring 38 goals in 46 games for Portugal he was never to win a tournament with his country, his closest shot coming with a third-place at the 1966 World Cup Finals in England. Over the years, Portugal have promised much but have always failed to deliver. This time Eusébio thinks that they will finally lift a trophy.


“Tomorrow I believe Portugal are going to win,” he says. “Tomorrow is the day for Portugal. I’ll talk with the players for two or three minutes before they go out on the field, as I do in every game that Portugal play. And at the end of the game, I’ll be on the pitch to celebrate with the players.”


Eusébio isn’t worried that Portugal are contesting the final with the only team to have beaten them in the competition so far. In fact, he attributes much of the improvement in Portuguese form to the shock of that opening game. “I talked with the players after that first game against Greece,” he says, “and it was very important for Portugal because the players then knew they HAD to win their final two games to qualify.”


For Eusébio the decisive match came when Portugal beat the English. “That was a tough game,” he says, “but when Portugal won with the penalties I finally believed that we would get to the final, because although Holland were a good team, they played with just one centre-forward. They have five of the best strikers in the competition, but they play with just one – Van Nistelrooy – alone up front. Even at Manchester United he doesn’t play alone.”


The true stars of European football – like Zidane, Beckham, Henry – have failed to shine in this tournament, but Portugal’s Figo is just starting to come good at a time when his world class style and flair could be most needed. But how important does Eusébio think the maverick midfielder is to the national team?


“He is a good player,” says Eusébio. “We have other good players, but in that position he is the best. You have other important players like Ronaldo, Simăo Sabrosa, the defender Ricardo Carvalho, the left-back Miguel. We have some good young players for the 2006 World Cup in Germany – and I think we are prepared for that now. Figo might not be there but that depends on Figo.


“As for this final, he has been prepared for the last two games now. In the semi-final against Holland he played very well. He gave everything – and he helped with the other players too. I think tomorrow he is going to play well, because someone told me that it will be Rui Costa’s last game. I don’t know, maybe tomorrow it will be Figo’s last game too. If Portugal win, I think maybe it WILL be his last. Maybe not. But this is the decision of the players, not the public and not me.”


The Greeks will be tough to break down, with their rock-solid defence, but Eusébio is so delighted to see Portugal in the final that he really doesn’t mind what team will be lining up to face them. “It could be any team,” he says. “The Czech Republic, or Greece, or England, or Italy? Any team. We’re in the final and we don’t have a preference. But for football maybe it would have been better if it was the Czech Republic, because they play with the same style as Portugal – with many goals.


“I like football to be attacking,” he continues. “I like to see goals and I won’t like it tomorrow if the game finishes at 0-0 and then goes to penalties. I don’t like that in a final. I remember in the American World Cup in 1994, the Brazil v Italy final was decided on penalties and it was no good for football.”


And as for Eusébio’s vote for the best player of the tournament – well it had to be, didn’t it? “It is the young English player who was injured,” he says. “It is Rooney, because he is a young player and he is very good. He has a future.”




© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007