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Jul 6, 2006

The bronze generation too easily tarnished

He could be forgiven for thinking that the criminals and the corrupt are getting a better reception right now, but Cristiano Ronaldo serves as a barometer for opinion on Portugal at the moment.

There are plenty who use 'winker' as a euphemism, hold him solely responsible for Wayne Rooney's red card and profess themselves outraged at his attempts to procure a penalty.

Then there is another school of thought - to which this observer subscribes - of those who regard him as one of the finest wingers in the World Cup and admire his nerveless penalty-taking.

And Ronaldo, widely vilified, has become a microcosm of Portugal.

There is a campaign to make the Portuguese pariahs, a cause that was strengthened by Helder Postiga's theatrics during his appearance in the semi-final loss to France. And there is scant recognition of their achievement in reaching the last four of the World Cup, 40 years after Eusebio and co were denied a final appearance by Bobby Charlton.

Portugal's major crime, of course, is nothing more serious than eliminating England. It is simpler to vilify Ronaldo, and add his name to a list of the reviled that, rightly or wrongly, already includes Urs Meier and Diego Simeone, than accept Rooney's dismissal as a correct decision and pinpoint England's failure at their own feet.

Instead, there is an element of hypocrisy in the crusade of the likes of Alan Shearer, himself booked for diving during Euro 2000, against the Portuguese. Many others are jumping on the moral high ground, no matter how shaky its foundations are; frankly, their holier-than-thou attitude stinks.

Morality and football have been blurred too often. Amid the ungracious reaction, the phrase 'poor side' has been frequently used to describe Luiz Felipe Scolari's selection; transparently, this is not true. Portugal may not be among the finest four national teams around yet, in beating Mexico and Holland and overcoming England, they earned their status as semi-finalists.

It is proof that Scolari has instilled a belief that transcended most individual weaknesses. Whereas in Euro 2004, when they were runners-up, Portugal had the twin advantages of a tournament staged on their own soil and the momentum generated by Jose Mourinho's Porto, they enjoyed no such benefits two years on.

Indeed, Scolari's central midfield axis of Costinha and Maniche, galvanised in Gelsenkirchen in 2004 by their Champions League victory, had become a waste of roubles in brief, unhappy spells in Russia.

Costinha sat out the second half of the season at Dinamo Moscow, trying to get his contract annulled; Maniche completed the transformation from marauding midfielder to mediocre nomad. Restored to the Portugal team, each has contrived turn back time. In particular, Maniche's resurgence as a goalscoring midfielder has been heartening.

It has been still more important because Scolari's pivotal midfielder has missed half the tournament to date; so far Deco has been injured, omitted due to a yellow card he had collected and suspended in between his three appearances. Should he face Germany in Saturday's third-place match, it will be the first time he has retained his place all tournament. Manager and playmaker are the two remaining Brazilians in the World Cup, another indication of their success.

And when Deco orchestrated the defeat of Holland - even if referee Valentin Ivanov prevented him from staying on the pitch to complete it - there were those in his homeland who must have regretted that, when Brazil coach, Scolari ignored the midfielder. Portugal can be grateful that he has not compounded that error in his current position.

That Deco, and the trio of interchangeable excellence on the flanks, Ronaldo, Simao Sabrosa and Luis Figo, do not figure more prominently in the assists chart is a consequence of their major limitation.

Pauleta may have 47 international goals, but too few have come against significant opposition recently. After his early tap-in against Angola, his World Cup has been a masterclass in anonymity. But striking alternatives - whether Postiga or Nuno Gomes - appear still more dispiriting to Scolari. Hence the sight of Ronaldo at centre-forward.

With a cutting edge to supplement the invention of Ronaldo on the flanks and Deco in the centre, Luis Figo's international career could have reached its conclusion in Berlin on Sunday. Instead he bows out, for the second time, in Stuttgart.

That he has sweated profusely for the Portuguese cause is apt; claims of greatness can lead many into laziness, but Figo's effort has always been unstinting. He is the last survivor of the collection of teenage talents who first announced themselves by winning the World Youth Championships in the year Berlin was reunited.

Now Vitor Baia, Fernando Couto, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto have made way, replaced by Ricardo, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Ronaldo; only Figo remains.

On the international stage, they may not quite be the golden generation, but a silver-and-bronze generation who have outperformed more fancied countries for the third time in six years; indeed no other European nation has reached the semi-finals of three major tournaments in that period.

So perhaps it is time to finally give Portugal some credit.

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