Donning a different role

Former Portuguese ace Pauleta on Ronaldo, PSG and his new life...

Eusebio, Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Cristiano Ronaldo.... Portugal’s assembly line when it comes to shaping precocious footballers is rather good.

The footballers coming out of that part of the Iberian peninsula were so gifted at one part of time that they won back-to-back FIFA World Youth Championships in 1989 and 1991 (before it was rechristened as the Under-20 World Cup). 

While the Portugal team of 1989 kept the hopes in check, that 1991 team gave the nation a sense of mass hysteria. And not without reason. Two of the members who struck in the penalty shootout to defeat Brazil in the final were Luis Figo, a future Ballon D’Or winner with Real Madrid and Rui Costa, a future Champions League winner with AC Milan.  But the Portuguese team failed to win the holy grail of football, the World Cup.  And that still rankles Pedro Pauleta, a key member of the Portuguese team which reached the semifinal of the 2006 World Cup. 

“Yes, it was a golden generation,” he says during a visit to Bangalore to oversee the launch of a Paris St Germain academy, a club he represented for five seasons before becoming an ambassador for them.

“We won two Under-20 World Championships, reached two World Cup semifinals (2006 and 2010) and we also reached the final of the Euros in 2004.  I feel that this generation should have won a title but that is football for you. This is not the first country that deserved to win but didn’t.

Pauleta himself represented the A seleccao with supreme distinction and was the highest scorer of the national team with 47 strikes before Cristiano Ronaldo usurped him earlier this year. What does he make of Ronaldo? Who, according to him, is the greatest player to have come out of Portugal?

“It’s a bit tough to pick the best,” he concedes after much deliberation. “There have been a number of great players who have come out of Portual,” he says conversing through the help of a French translator. “But perhaps the three who have marked the history of football are Eusebio, Figo and Ronaldo. They have won all the Ballon D’Or and they have been the best players in the world.

“While I wouldn’t put one over the other because they are all from different times, what Ronaldo has been doing the last few years at Real Madrid is very impressive.”Given that there is lots of interest over what PSG are doing, the conversation veers towards the current Ligue 1 champions.

“In my mind, PSG were a great club, have always been a great club. They were a great club even when I used to play for them (2003-2008),” he points out. “Obviously they have gone to a different level now because of the number of high profile signings thanks to our president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and obviously if you ask me whether I would like to play with them, my answer would be yes.
”Speaking of projects, there are lots of investors entering the game now either with the idea of making a quick buck or trying to raise their status. Pauleta seems to have an opinion on the issue.  “Of course football has changed. But for me, football is what I saw today (in Bangalore). That is kids playing and having fun whatever the conditions and that is the most important thing for me.

“Yes, the investors have changed the landscape of the game but I believe that those clubs want the best for themselves so they believe that the best way to achieve success is to spend money.”

Pauleta, who featured in the infamous World up pre-quarterfinal against the Netherlands in 2006 which was later dubbed the ‘Battle of Nuremberg’ because of the nature of the match (16 reds, four yellows), is no stranger to teams that built their side with money.In one of the great modern stories in La Liga, Pauleta was part of the Deportivo La Coruna side that so thrillingly beat the accepted triumvirate of Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona to the title in 1999-00. With the likes of Djalminha, Roy Makaay, Mauro Silva and Flavio Conceicao, the club, which was nicknamed ‘Super Depor’ by the Spanish media, took the crown. 

And he still barely believes that they won the title, 14 years on. “I knew they were building something when I joined them (1998). We had a good team but I never thought we would be able to win the title as both Barcelona and Real Madrid were dominant and they always used to win. I knew we would be a competitive force both in Europe and at home but to actually go out and win the title.

That was brilliant.”  The 41-year-old has a unique distinction of being the first Portuguese player to have made his debut for the national team without playing for a top division club in his homeland. In fact, he has never played in the top division there in his career. But it doesn’t bother him much. 

“In the beginning I did regret it a bit. Like any other Portuguese player I would have liked to play for a great club like Benfica. But I’m very happy with my career and the opportunities I have got.” 

What does he make of his role at PSG, who seem to have followed the European model of bringing back former players in ambassadorial roles. “It’s the club of my heart,” he says. “I’m very happy to be a part of this global project of making Paris bigger.”  That is some project!

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