Monday 2 June 2008

Watchful Scolari enjoying the moment

Four years on from their heartbreak on home soil, Portugal again go into a major tournament as serious contenders to lift the trophy. Luiz Felipe Scolari's men have earned global respect as one of the strongest international sides of recent times, but their lively Brazilian coach is unlikely to forgive any player who thinks reputation alone will suffice at UEFA EURO 2008™. Greek upset
It was supposed to be the final they could not lose. Spurred on by their own raucous supporters, the Portuguese believed the continental title was theirs for the taking when they faced unfancied Greece at the Estádio da Luz on 4 July 2004. Instead, football expectations were to be thwarted as perhaps never before, but after the shock had died down it was clear something very positive had happened. Following on from their listless 2002 FIFA World Cup campaign, the Selecção were a team to be feared again – and they went on to confirm that impression with a last-four finish at the World Cup two years later.
'Only the beginning'
"We're not the best in the world simply because we finished second in 2004 and fourth at the 2006 World Cup," Scolari, the man who masterminded both those campaigns, told "The secret, and at the same time the most difficult thing, is to maintain the highest standards in every single competition we enter. That path has already started but it's only the beginning. If we think too much about the past we will lose in the present."
One step at a time
Having steered Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002 – a year before stepping into his current role – Scolari would be more entitled than most to sit back and bask in past achievements. The charismatic 59-year-old remains as driven as ever, though, even if he refuses to be drawn into predicting how his charges will fare in Austria and Switzerland. "We will only go far in the competition if we take one step at a time," he said, before outlining his respect for Group A foes Turkey, Switzerland and, in particular, the Czech Republic. "They're physically brilliant but they also have loads of technique. They finished top of their qualifying group ahead of Germany and that says it all."
Qualification troubles
That caution would be laudable in any circumstances, but these are undeniably testing times for the Portuguese. Experienced stars such as Luís Figo and Pauleta have withdrawn from the international scene since Germany 2006 and the Portuguese made hard work of qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008™, eventually finishing second behind Poland in their section. "We had a lot of problems with injuries and form," explained their coach, reflecting on a campaign that went right down to the wire. "We also had to renew our team with a lot of younger players and that always comes at a price in terms of the big games."
'Huge talents'
As he looks forward to locking horns with Europe's finest, Scolari none the less feels he has settled on the right blend between youth and experience. "Portugal have huge talents who are still on the rise as well as established players, so we can be positive about the future." Perhaps the biggest reason to be optimistic is the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, still only 23 but one of the most thrilling players on the planet after an exceptional season with Manchester United FC. "In my opinion he is in the top five [of the world's best footballers]," added Scolari. "If he continues to grow as a player and as a man, I'm sure he'll stay there."
Here and now
There can be no better way for the pacy winger to mark himself out as the single greatest talent at large today than by powering his homeland to the European title. That mission begins against Turkey in Geneva on 7 June and both teams can expect to draw significant support from expatriate communities. Scolari appreciates the passion his team arouses but will not allow his players to be distracted during their stay. "I think we've managed to create a fantastic feeling towards the Selecção," he said. "But outside the stadium is a different story. We'll have to be 100 per cent calm and focused on our work. Of course, the Portuguese can and should party, but they have to understand that we'll be in Switzerland to work at the highest level." It is the only level the Brazilian has ever operated at.