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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK
Portugal must take their chance
Portugal's Luis Figo
Figo was on top form at Euro 2000

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Could Japan and Korea be the stage on which Portugal finally rise to the occasion?

While Spain are rightly considered the great underachievers of European football, Portugal are not far behind their neighbours as erstwhile failures at the highest level.

Despite the achievements of their club sides in Europe down the years, 2002 will be just the third appearance in the World Cup finals for the national side.

But the feeling is that the current set of players is good enough to at least match their best finish in a finals.

Open Quote
We did well at the European Championships two years ago and have matured further since
Close Quote
Luis Figo
In 1966, led by the great Eusebio, Portugal reached the semi-finals after seeing off Brazil, only to lose to eventual winners England.

The country suffered a similar fate at Euro 2000, losing in the last four to the eventual winners France, who also knocked them out of the 1984 championships at the same stage.

Euro 2000 saw the arrival of the crop of youngsters who helped to win back-to-back World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991 on the international stage.

Their success 10 years earlier had earned them the tag of the "golden generation".

And the crown jewel of the side is Luis Figo, current World Player of the Year and once the world's most expensive footballer.

"The nucleus of this squad has been playing together for more than 10 years," Figo said.

"Myself, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Jorge Costa were all in the team that won the 1991 World Youth Cup. Now we are all 29 or 30 and at our peak.

"Even if we do not win the World Cup, there is a belief among the squad that we can go a long way.

Surprise name

"We did well at the European Championships two years ago and have matured further."

While they may be peaking in time for Japan, there is also a feeling that these players are running out of opportunities.

Nine of the 23-man squad named by Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira on Monday are already in their 30s.

On top of that Figo, Pedro Pauleta, Abel Xavier and Rui Jorge will also be over 30 when the European Championships are held in Portugal in 2004.

The three players under 25 in the squad (Jorge Andrade, 24, Nuno Frechaut, 24, and Marco Caneira, 23) have just 15 caps between them.

The uncapped Daniel Kenedy, was the one surprise name in the Oliveira's squad that was named on Monday, but even he is 28 years old, suggesting there is no bumper crop of players waiting to take over from Figo and co.

Portugal's Rui Costa
Costa was part of the winning team in 1991

Despite his ageing squad, Oliveira, who was in charge when Portugal made the quarter-finals of Euro 96, is likely to go on depending heavily on the nucleus of the current side.

"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.

Figo, 29, has been struggling with an ankle injury since February and the whole of Portugal will be hoping he comes through the final of the Champions League without further damage.

His injury-time equaliser against Holland helped them to qualify for the finals as winners of a strong group containing Holland and the Republic of Ireland.

They will be heavily backed to make it through to the knock-out stages this summer, having been grouped with South Korea, Poland and the USA.

And Brazil legend Pele believes they will reach the last four.

On three occasions Portugal have reached the semi-finals of a major tournament and each time they have failed.

This is their golden chance to put that record right.

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GROUP D
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SOUTH KOREA 3 +3 7
USA 3 -1 4
PORTUGAL 3 +2 3
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