first person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 12:00am

Portuguese restaurateur Antonio Neves Coelho, 66, saw his team make the worst possible start to the Euro 2004 soccer championships they are hosting by losing 2-1 to outsiders Greece. When they play Spain on Saturday for a place in the quarter-finals, he believes Chinese soccer fans in Hong Kong and Macau will be backing Portugal.

I can't believe this is happening all over again. When Portugal played in the 2002 World Cup, I was managing the Pousada restaurant in Hong Kong. Everybody used to come to the restaurant to watch football because there was a big screen downstairs. I put a nice Portugal scarf up on the wall to show my support.

I was so fed up. When they lost to the United States and went out in the first round - my God, it was terrible. Everybody coming into the restaurant joked with me and said 'What is your team playing at?' All I could say in reply was 'I'm sorry. What can I do?'

Before that tournament, the Portugal team came to Macau for their final preparations and I think they enjoyed themselves too much there. They stayed out all night and they didn't sleep. When they arrived in South Korea they were too relaxed to win.

Now, two years later, Portugal is hosting Euro 2004 and I have my own restaurant in Macau. I thought the first game against Greece would be easy. Then the game against Russia (played in the early hours of this morning) would be not too difficult - and the third game on Saturday, Portugal against Spain, would be a very good match but we would have to be careful.

When we lost the opening game to Greece, everybody in Macau was very sad. We played well in the last 20 minutes but it was not enough. Mr [Luiz Felipe] Scolari, the manager, was too prudent, too proud. I think he made a big mistake. After the first goal from Greece he should have brought on [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Deco. They are both young players in very good form. We can't just rely on the old players. Portugal's 'golden generation' of players is not what it used to be. But we still need [Luis] Figo. Many people say Figo is already too old but he is a man who can turn around a game in three minutes.

After the defeat against Greece, I spoke to my son in Portugal. He said: 'Father, this is terrible. These guys they are only interested in money.' And it's true.

I am a long way from home but I am happy to be in Asia and not Portugal during this tournament. I have been in Hong Kong and Macau since 1997, but I first came to Asia in 1972 when I served in Macau with the Portuguese army.

It was a very small city in that time - it was too quiet. It was the time of Mao Zedong and you felt a lot of that influence in Macau.

You could go into Chinese libraries at that time and you could find all kind of books about politics and Mao Zedong that you couldn't find in Portugal - books that were forbidden in Portugal. Up until 1975, we were living under a dictatorship in Portugal. Macau was more free than Portugal.

It wasn't like a colony. It was a place where the Portuguese people came through, stayed and left a little bit of their culture and had a nice communication with Asian people, not only the Chinese people. It was a nice experience.

It was such a nice experience that 24 years later somebody invited me to come back to Macau to run a restaurant. I came back and, my God, it was different. The construction going on everywhere, the people, everything had changed.

Relations between Chinese and Portuguese people have become more friendly since the handover in 1999.

The Portuguese people who are here now are really here to work. The Chinese community is closer to us and we can communicate more easily.

We are like brothers. And that is why the Chinese soccer fans will be cheering with us if we

beat Spain on Saturday.