Couto's tears tell the story

Waiting for Figo? Well, yes, the world's most expensive footballer was to be the main attraction yesterday afternoon when the…

Waiting for Figo? Well, yes, the world's most expensive footballer was to be the main attraction yesterday afternoon when the Portuguese squad arrived but by the time they flew in from Lisbon, two-and-a-half hours behind schedule, his appearance went almost unnoticed by the waiting press.

For once a member of Figo's supporting cast, as the Real Madrid star's international colleagues tend to be regarded, pilfered the limelight, attracting the photographers' lenses, reporters' tape recorders and the interest of every attending television camera, while Figo dealt with the demands of a solitary autograph hunter.

Before yesterday Fernando Couto, the 31-year-old Lazio defender, was accustomed to a life in Figo's shadows, hardened to the experience of being nigh on run over by the media stampede that greets his teammate's every appearance - but then he was suspended from all football with immediate effect by FIFA after testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone last month.

And, so, Fernando Couto was the main attraction at Dublin Airport yesterday afternoon.


At noon word filtered through about Couto's ban, around the same time news of "technical problems" with the Portuguese delegation's flight was received. One and one made three. Maybe they got word of the ban just as they were about to take off and Couto was asked to leave the plane?

Maybe. But probably not. Portuguese FA President Gilberto Madail said: "We are putting together an exposition to FIFA. We would have accepted this if it had been done earlier, even though we are positively sure that he has taken nothing. He's very upset. It is one thing to hear this decision 10 days ago and another to be told today. It is an injustice."

Elsewhere FIFA was adamant they had informed the Portuguese FA of the ban on Wednesday - a fact strenuously denied by the Portuguese who said when FIFA's verdict came through their offices were closed and they were blissfully unaware of Couto's "unavailability" for tomorrow's game at Lansdowne when they departed Lisbon.

Whatever the truth, when Couto walked through that arrivals gate he bore the expression of a man who had only just learned his football career was effectively over. He kept his head down and marched silently towards the team bus. But it was all too much. Tears trickled down from under his dark sunglasses. The interrogation ceased, almost out of a kindly respect - this was a dismal, wretched sight. Words weren't required, the picture told the story.

Couto boarded the bus and sat alone at the back, just behind Figo. Figo smiled at the photographers assembled below him but they didn't even notice the world's most expensive footballer, they only had lenses for Couto. Figo? An extra in yet another dismal "drugs-in-sport" story. Couto? A self-inflicted wound, maybe, but his tears said "why, oh why, oh why?"

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times