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League of extraordinary men

Football stadiums in this part of the world are called arenas, giving the place an air of a venue for a joust.

india Updated: Jul 05, 2006 02:15 IST

Football stadiums in this part of the world are called arenas, giving the place an air of a venue for a joust. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Allianz Arena — simply called the Arena because of FIFA's sponsorship restrictions —  should host a contest between two of the sport's biggest modern-day gladiators. Only one will survive. Less than six months separate Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo in terms of age, the hairless wizard being the older of the two. His 1991 debut gives Figo a three-year headstart in international football but the seniority seems neutralised by the fact that Zidane's been around since 1994 and has won everything the sport has to offer.

For over a decade, the two have been weaving magic for club and country but the world has not had enough. On Wednesday, one of them will raise his hands and clap to the audience with the finality of a man who walks into the night.

It is one of football's major surprises that Figo hasn't won an international trophy since graduating to the senior national team. The World Player of the Year in 2001, a galactico with Real Madrid after dazzling for Barcelona and who now runs his legs off for Inter Milan, Figo's best opportunity to claim his right was stopped by a bunch of dour Greeks.

Everybody remembers his disgust at being taken off against England in the Euro 2004 quarter-final. Luiz Felipe Scolari put him back in against Netherlands in the semi-finals and Figo chose his hometown to make a statement on that substitution. Not even Dutch courage would have helped withstand such torment as Figo imposed himself in Lisbon, showing the full compliment of his considerable skills.

But up against a brand of football that was Greek to him, Figo could only watch the Henry Delaunay Trophy being snatched away. Sometimes, however, life gives you a second chance. Even if it means playing France, who ended Portugal's dreams in a violent semi-final of the European Championships six years ago.   Portugal's golden generation is either going with this tournament or gone with Vitor Baia, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa but like the greatest player from their country, Eusebio, they know all about "the unimaginable crushing feeling" of coming within touching distance of glory. Forty years on, Eusebio is still with the team and convinced that "at last the bridge is going to be crossed."

By his lofty standards, Figo hasn't really been assertive, even though he has played all but 24 minutes of the action Portugal have seen here. True, there has been the long crossfield ball that found Ronaldo against the Netherlands leading to the match's only goal, sudden turns that have flummoxed opponents, free-kicks that have gone close - but nothing that satisfactorily separates the great from the good. Figo can't scurry on the flanks piloting the ball with mesmeric ease like he did but against France, it could be another story.

Unlike Figo, Zidane, the man France said should be president in 1998 even though he didn't have voting rights has done everything else. Suitably aided by the young Frank Ribery, who has grown in stature since the equaliser against Spain, and Florent Malouda and the not-so-young Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Lillian Thuram, Zidane has galvanised France. "He is our conductor," Fabien Barthez said.

They have shown the world how to stop Brazil and up against the Brazilians of Europe, France are confident of an encore. "Portugal haven't beaten us in the last seven matches and Munich will continue the trend," a French journalist said between games of table football at a party in Dortmund on Monday. "A generation that refuses to give back its jerseys - the museum waits," is what his paper wrote back home after Saturday's quarter-final. Suddenly, the French are sweeping their team off its feet, prompting coach Raymond Domenech to tell his players to switch off their mobiles and not watch television. "The semi-final is the hardest of them all. You can see the summit but you are still not there," Domenech said.

Portugal often play like France with Pauleta, their highest goalscorer, doing a Henry upfront. Known to fire accurate long-rangers, Maniche and Costinha, who along with Deco should be back for the semi-final, play in front of the back four like Vieira and Claude Makelele do. Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo form their creative fulcrum in the way Zidane, Malouda and Ribery do for the Le Bleus. Petit is out with suspension for Portugal and six French players, one more than their opponents, are on yellow. But in this battle between experienced campaigners, there will be no holding back tomorrow. There's too much at stake.