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Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Figo's cup hopes
Luis Figo turns away from Carsten Ramelow in the Champions League final
Figo helped Real Madrid win the Champions League

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One of the best players in the world is also one of the biggest doubts ahead of the 2002 World Cup.

Having led Portugal to the last four of Euro 2000, Luis Figo faces arguably his greatest challenge over the coming weeks - a fitness fight.

Opportunities for Portugal to shine on the world stage have been rare - they last qualified for the World Cup 16 years ago - and Figo is determined not to miss his chance.

But over the past month he has come close to being ruled out with an ankle injury that has yet to heal.

And the 29-year-old admits that, but for the World Cup, an operation and subsequent recuperation would be his number one priority this summer.

Figo has played through the pain and reaped the rewards with victory in the Champions League final for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen.

The next challenge is the World Cup, although he is not convinced that Portugal will match Real's cup-winning football.

"Each day, I feel better, in spite of the pain I felt - and still feel," Figo told BBC Brazil.

"In normal conditions, I should be operated on and kept out for three months, recovering.

"But thank God we chose not to go with the surgery and now I'm recovering well."

Open Quote
We'll go one step at a time and see what happens
Close Quote
Luis Figo

Portugal's playmaker hopes he can recover full fitness prior to the start of the finals in Korea and Japan.

Antonio Oliveira's team have been in impressive form and many observers believe they are potential champions.

But Figo says there is still a lot of work to do before they can be regarded as anything other than dark horses.

"We'll go one step at a time. We'll try to pass through the first round, then we'll see what happens," he said,

The creative force of the team thinks Argentina, France, Brazil, Italy and even Germany have more chance of taking the title because of their previous experience in the finals.

"They are teams that have already won a World Cup, so they know what it's like."

Luis Figo in action for Portugal
Figo has 81 international caps

First things first. Figo is focusing on his fitness and then the first round, where Portugal will meet South Korea, Poland and the USA.

"I don't have much information about South Korea, but in Guus Hiddink they have a European coach with a lot of experience," he said.

"Playing at home is also an advantage."

He believes the US's increasing experience will make them difficult to beat, and was impressed by Poland when he watched them recently.

Portugal lost to Poland at their last World Cup in 1986 but should not suffer the same fate in the Far East.

Figo knows that the real challenge should come in the knock-out stages. So long as he wins his fitness battle first.

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GROUP D
  P GD PTS
SOUTH KOREA 3 +3 7
USA 3 -1 4
PORTUGAL 3 +2 3
POLAND 3 -4 3

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