Figo vows to win fitness race

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 12:00am

World Player of the Year Luis Figo arrived in Macau yesterday hoping and praying he will be 100 per cent fit for the World Cup, saying he would do 'everything possible' to help his team achieve glory.

The 29-year-old Real Madrid midfielder's fitness - or lack of it - was the talking point of the day as the Portuguese national team arrived to start their final preparations for the World Cup finals. Their visit will culminate in a historic match next Saturday against fellow World Cup entrants China at the Macau Sports Stadium in Taipa.

Taken off in the 61st minute and replaced by Steve McManaman in Wednesday's European Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen, which Real won 2-1, Figo's recurring ankle injury has become a national concern, with everyone wondering whether the superstar will be fully fit for the World Cup finals in less than two weeks' time.

Even Figo isn't sure. During a press conference following the team's training session yesterday, the former Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona player said: 'The sooner I hit form the better. I don't know what to make of this injury.'

Figo first sprained his right ankle against FC Porto on February 19 and aggravated the injury during Real Madrid's defeat by Deportivo La Coruna in the King's Cup final.

'I sincerely want to perform to the best of my ability at the World Cup without problem or pain. Whatever I can do to help my team, I will do my best to do it. I hope to recover as fast as possible. But I don't know whether it will be tomorrow or the day after. I just hope to be 100 per cent as soon as possible.'

Figo admitted his injury was a 'national problem' but he was still hopeful Portugal would shine in the World Cup, where they have been grouped against South Korea, Poland and the United States in the first phase.

'Our spirit is the best possible. I hope we'll do our best in the World Cup. I hope we will give Portugal a big joy and present ourselves the best way possible. I hope Portugal stay in the competition as long as possible and gain a place on the podium. We won't let the Portuguese people down. We will play our best.'

Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira had said that travelling to the World Cup without Figo was unthinkable, adding that he was mindful the midfield star had not fully recovered from a recurring ankle injury that kept him out of the Madrid side for six weeks earlier this year.

Oliveira said Figo was a national symbol and that he had been concerned with his star player's fitness so close to the World Cup finals. But the coach said he believed Figo would have dealt with his problem like a true professional and that he was a 'very disciplined' player, overcoming tough times 'through his strength of character, ambition and desire to play for the national team'.

Portuguese journalist Cesa Oliveira, who has travelled with the team, said Figo's injury was mostly behind him, but added: 'He's still not 100 per cent recovered. Now, it's a question of getting his rhythm back. Right now, he looks only 80 per cent, but give him time, I think he will get better and better and will be much fitter by the time the World Cup kicks off.

'The team know what they are doing and they have given him a specific training programme. He has played about 60 games this season and so he needs time to recover from all those matches. Everybody hopes he will be 100 per cent fit.'

Portugal press officer Jose Carlos Freitas added that Figo's fitness was indeed of national interest, saying: 'We're most concerned whether he will be fit for the World Cup finals. Whether or not he will be completely fit is the big question.'

Figo said acclimatising to the Macau weather was also high on his agenda as his teammates moved into their 'new home' for the next 12 days. 'We only just arrived this afternoon and we are a bit jet-lagged. We will try to adjust to the conditions here as soon as possible. There is a lot of humidity in the air. We have to adapt not only body, but mind as well.'

Figo, who moved to Real Madrid for a then world-record GBP40 million from arch rivals Barcelona, said South Korea would present a problem to Portugal in their preliminary group.

'There are no weak teams in the World Cup. They are all there because of their qualities. It looks as if Argentina's group is the most difficult but even our group is tough with Korea playing at home and Poland having some very good qualities and fast forwards,' said Figo.

'South Korea are typical of the Asian teams. It's very hard to talk about them because not many of them play in Spain or the European leagues so we haven't seen much of them. I think South Korea are a good team. In time, we will know a lot about Korea.'

Portugal goalkeeper Vitor Baia said he hoped to regain his number one spot after struggling with a knee injury. The Porto keeper, number two behind Boavista's Ricardo Pereira, said: 'I trust my qualities and I will fight for a place in the squad. I hope to be number one again. Obviously it will be up to the coach to choose his best goalkeeper. I will use all my experience to get a place.

He added: 'I believe the first round [of the competition] will be the hardest for Portugal. It will be the most important and decisive round for us. After the elimination rounds, luck will play a part. I hope we will be strong in our opening matches.'

Portugal arrived amid much fanfare as they touched down at Macau International Airport in steady rain on a specially chartered flight from Lisbon - the first time since the 1999 handover that Air Portugal had touched down on the tarmac.

The Portuguese squad were given the sort of welcome usually reserved for heads of state. A band played and schoolchildren waved national flags as the 23-strong squad walked down the escalator to be whisked to a waiting coach that took them to their hotel, the Westin Resort on Coloane. A number of fans waited for the team to arrive at their hotel, giving security officials a headache as autograph seekers jostled to get their favourite players to sign.