As the Real Madrid star picks up European Player of the Year, Phil Town explains why they're still not happy in Portugal

“An act of justice!” declared the new Port­uguese sports minister, José Lello. He might have been describing his appointment in place of Armando Vara, forced out following a scan­dal involving pub­lic funds. But he was, of course, talking about Luis Figo winning the Golden Ball, the European Player of the Year award organised by France Football.

A week before it had been a different story. When Figo was overlooked in favour of Zine­dine Zidane at FIFA’s World Player of the Year jamboree you could hardly breathe for the stench of sour grapes. “It’s true that Zidane won well, but I wanted more and I don’t feel inferior to him... or superior,” said Figo. Referring to Zidane’s role in making France Euro­pean champions, he added: “Euro 2000, a month-long competition, car­ried more weight than a year’s work.” But he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, insisting: “I’m not criticising anybody, I’m just stating a fact.”

Just about everyone thought it was all very unfair. “If Zid­ane won just because of the Euro title, then his recent red cards should also have been taken into account,” complained FC Porto’s hard man Jorge Costa, of all people. The foot­ball federation president Gilberto Ma­daíl questioned the voting system, suggesting the Figo would have won if voting had been al­lowed through the internet, rather than simply by the world’s national team coaches. Portugal’s own coach António Ol­iveira, ever the diplomat, was in no two minds: “Zidane won because Figo isn’t French!”

Others strained to put a brave face on it. “We have to rejoice in the fact that Figo was con­sidered one of the best,” said Carlos Queir­oz, South Africa’s coach and Figo’s old mentor at Sporting and in the highly successful nat­ional youth teams. Sports daily A Bola’s Vítor Serpa followed a similar line in his editorial: “‘The Best’ becomes a meaningless concept when you’re talking about an elite group whose genius approaches that of the gods.”

The front page of the same edition ap­pear­ed to contradict this sensible phil­­osophy, how­ever, blaring To Us You’re The Best. Inside they tried desperately to make Figo best at some­thing, finally settling on the idea that on the night he had smiled more and shown bet­ter fair play than the other candidates.

The refreshingly cynical Miguel Sousa Tav­ares, a columnist for the same paper, was one of the very few who saw some legitimacy in the decision: “Why wouldn’t the majority of the voters think that Zidane, and not Figo, was the player of the year, especially if we consider that in the most important showcase of world football this year, Euro 2000, and particularly in the decisive France v Portugal match, Zi­dane was indeed clearly better than Figo.”

The general feeling, though, was one of bit­terness and frustration, seasoned with a liberal dollop of paranoia (Portugal beaten again by “the system”) and an ill-concealed inferiority complex, a mirror image, in fact, of the re­action to the outcome of the semi-final against France, largely perceived here as a travesty. Figo was reflecting and to some extent fuelling these emotions when he said: “This nom­in­ation is very important for our small country. It was good to be here, but I wanted so much to win this for Portugal.”

A week later, the press were able to crow “revenge!” when the France Foot­ball awards reversed FIFA’s order of bestness. But it was strange that when Figo collected the Ballon d’Or, the Portuguese were almost an afterthought on his list of dedications, preceded by his wife, daughter, Real Madrid players, Bar­ce­lona players and the national squad.

Strange too that a man apparently so proud of his country should think it appropriate to make his acceptance speech in... Spanish.

From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month

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