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Portugal can go all the way, says Pauleta

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Photograph by Akil SimmonsFor the fun of it: Pauleta, the former Portugal striker, enjoys a kickabout with a local youngster during a football workshop at Bermuda College on Saturday morning. Pauleta, who made 88 appearances for his country, scoring 47 goals, was visiting the island after an invitation from the Portuguese Cultural Association and Vasco da Gama Club(Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Pauleta believes Portugal are greater than the sum of their parts and can succeed where his “golden generation” of superstars failed by winning the World Cup.

The former Portugal striker had the pleasure of playing in front of a fluid, attacking midfield cog including Figo, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa, for much of his international career, which spanned from 1997 to 2006.

Despite treating the world to some sparkling football, particularly at Euro 2000 where they reached the semi-finals, it is a period largely remembered by Portugal fans as promising so much but delivering relatively little.

Pauleta, who visited the island at the weekend to help raise funds for the Portuguese School of Bermuda, admits the talented class of the late 1990s and early Noughties should have achieved more.

And while, Ronaldo aside, he does not feel Portugal have the flair and artistry of his era, he does, however, believe they possess the vital ingredient his collective group were lacking — knowing how to win.

“I strongly believe that my generation was one of the best teams Portugal has ever had,” Pauleta told The Royal Gazette, speaking through an interpreter. “During that time we reached the final of European Championships [in 2004, losing 1-0 to Greece] and reached the World Cup semi-finals [in 2006, losing 1-0 to France]. We were very consistent but unfortunately we didn’t win [a major competition].”

Portugal have become overachievers in recent years, squeaking their way through the knockout stages at Euro 2016 as one of the third best-placed teams, before overcoming Poland, Wales and France to win their first major tournament.

Pauleta, who has been reasonably encouraged by Portugal’s World Cup start, is cautiously optimistic they can replicate their Euro 2016 success in Russia.

“Not always does the best team win and no one expected us to win in 2016,” said Pauleta, who hosted a children’s football workshop at Bermuda College on Saturday. “So what reason is there not to believe that if Portugal get outside the group stage that they can’t do the same thing they did in 2016. The most important thing in the first game was not to lose because Spain are obviously a very strong team. It was important to get the three points in the second game [against Morocco].”

In Ronaldo, their driving force, Portugal possess arguably the most destructive weapon in world football; a player who scored a staggering 42 goals in 40 appearances for Real Madrid last season. At 33, he is showing no signs of slowing down, scoring four goals in Russia already — including a hat-trick against Spain — and while their detractors may accuse Portugal of being a “one-man team”, Pauleta believes they have become adept at playing to their talisman’s strengths.

“Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Spain was a defining moment,” said the 45-year-old, who attended a fundraising dinner at Vasco da Gama Club on Saturday. “Both him and Messi deserve to be considered alongside those greats [Maradona and Pelé] in my opinion, regardless of whether they win the World Cup. Not too many players get the chance to win a World Cup.”

Providing they do not lose to Iran in their final group B game today, Portugal will advance to the knockout round and Pauleta believes his countrymen will only get better.

“There are aspects that can be improved but the initial phase is about getting out of the group and after that it’s a whole different mentality,” he said.

“Once you get out of the group phase anything is possible and Portugal are a very experienced team. While there are teams with stronger squads, Portugal are very difficult to beat in the knockout phase.”

A son of the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic with strong ties to Bermuda, Pauleta said he was “overwhelmed” by the warm welcome he received on the island.

“I knew there were going to be Portuguese people to receive me, but I was overwhelmed especially by the reception at the airport when I arrived,” said the former Paris Saint-Germain player. “There were about 35 kids, students from the Portuguese school, who were just cheering my name. I had a lot of friends when I was younger who left the Azores to the United States, Canada and Bermuda for opportunities. I did know there was a link between the Azores and Bermuda.”

Pauleta, a noted philanthropist, is committed to the education and development of young people, primarily through the Pauleta Foundation. He was knighted in 2015 as a Commander in the Order of Merit and as an Officer in the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator.

“I established my football school in 2004 and in 2007 I started the Pauleta Foundation to help those who are less fortunate,” he added. “It’s our aim to not only develop footballers but also to educate them so they understand there are people in need. We have travelled to the nine islands of the Azores; we’ve been to Lisbon, Porto and the US. I’m thankful I’m able to use what I got out of football in a positive way and as a positive influence to help others.”