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Portugal Hopes for a Smooth Euro 2004

Terrorism threat is a big concern for the host country. France, the defending champion, is favored in 16-team field.

June 11, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

High up and unseen in the blue Portuguese summer sky, AWACS surveillance aircraft on loan from NATO will protect England's David Beckham.

Much lower, but similarly hidden, police snipers on Lisbon rooftops will provide cover for France's Zinedine Zidane.

Along Portugal's Algarve and Atlantic coasts, warships will patrol to make sure that no harm comes to Spain's Raul.

And on the Portuguese-Spanish border, guards will stop and search vehicles, giving Italy's Francesco Totti a better chance to survive the next three weeks unscathed.

Security, it appears, is as much a concern at Euro 2004 as soccer.

The European Championship, a quadrennial tournament that ranks behind only the Olympic Games and the World Cup in international sporting significance, begins Saturday.

For the next three weeks, the focus of the soccer world will be on the nine Portuguese cities where the 16-nation, 31-game tournament is being played. The hope is that it will be only the matches that make the headlines.

The threat of a terrorist attack -- much more real and closer to home since train bombings killed 191 in Madrid in March -- has cast a pall on what was, as recently as 1996, one of the sport's showpiece events. Still, the fans will come, more than a million of them, and tens of thousands will be foreign. If suitably impressed, many will return as tourists, bringing much-needed revenue to the Portuguese economy.

Portugal has spent $4.8 billion on the tournament, upgrading road and rail links and medical and other facilities. A total of $869 million has gone into building seven stadiums and renovating three others.

"It's been a big investment for a small country," Jose Luis Arnaut, the country's minister in charge of sport, told Associated Press, "one of the greatest financial outlays ever in Portugal."

The money, he said, is well spent. "Euro 2004 goes beyond soccer. It's an event that gives us the chance to show that Portugal is a modern country."

The hope is that fretting about costs and fears about hooliganism and terrorism will fade, once the matches begin and attention focuses on the players.

Italy's Coach Giovanni Trapattoni maintains that a single player can make all the difference.

"Each team has one player it really counts on, and Totti is that player for us," Trapattoni said. "There is not a Totti on any other team. Just like France depends on Zidane's legs, we depend on Totti."

Four years ago, Belgium and the Netherlands jointly staged Euro 2000, which France won in dramatic fashion, defeating Italy, 2-1, in overtime in the final at Rotterdam.

Italy had been leading, 1-0, with half a minute or so remaining when it all fell apart.

Understandably, the Italians, who won as the host nation in 1968, are desperate to avenge that loss.

But the European Championship is a difficult tournament to win.

The quality of the field is deep, and although France is the defending champion and favorite, the title could just as easily go to Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, England or even to host Portugal when the final is played in Lisbon on July 4.

And if Trapattoni is correct, the seven serious contenders that stand in Italy's way all have a standout player who could take the trophy elsewhere.

In France's case, it is Zidane, no matter that he endured a poor season at Real Madrid and no matter how much success his French teammate, Thierry Henry, enjoyed at Arsenal.

France's Coach Jacques Santini is counting heavily on Zidane.

"In a tournament of such intensity, where you need to be strong technically, tactically and physically, you need all your big weapons," he said. "Not a single team can win Euro 2004 without its leaders."

Germany has self-styled leaders aplenty, not least of them outspoken goalkeeper Oliver Kahn.

Germany lost the 2002 World Cup final to Brazil, and since then Coach Rudi Voeller's erratic team has been shocked several times, most notably by Romania in a 5-1 loss in April and most recently by Hungary, which beat Germany, 2-0, on Sunday.

Kahn might believe he is indispensable, but midfielder Michael Ballack is the player Voeller would miss most if he were unavailable.

"Just him being on the pitch is important," Voeller said. "He is not only a great football player but also a true leader. Michael can respond to pressure and has demonstrated many times that he is a match winner."

Germany won Euro 1996 in England, beating the Czech Republic, 2-1, in overtime in the final. The Czechs -- then as part of Czechoslovakia -- won Euro 1976.

This time, in veteran midfielder Pavel Nedved, they have a player who can take them to the championship again. Despite all the honors he was won, Nedved is motivated.

"I would throw all the awards into a bag and exchange them for the European Championship title," he told Reuters in Prague.

So, most likely, would Spain's Raul, whose coach, Inaki Saez, says of him, "He is the reference point."

The Netherlands' point man is Manchester United goal scorer extraordinaire Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

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