SPORTS

Pires doubly glad to avoid the Portuguese

SANTO TIRSO, Portugal – Robert Pires is relieved to be playing Greece tomorrow in the quarterfinals. The alternative would have been facing Portugal and dealing with his Portugal-born father, Antonio. «I’m very happy, there’ll be no crisis. It won’t tear the family apart. I’m not sure who the family would have supported if we had played Portugal,» said the French midfielder who spent family holidays in his youth in Ponte de Lima in northern Portugal. «It might get difficult if we meet each other in the final,» he added. By winning Group B, France drew Greece as the second-placed team in Group A. Pires acknowledged the defending champions were hoping to avoid the host Portuguese. «Greece doesn’t have the reputation Portugal has. This is better for us, but we have to be careful. It could also be a trap. They have nothing to lose and they are the surprise of the tournament. If they beat Portugal at home [Greece won 2-1], they must have something,» Pires said. «Not least technical skills and athletic qualities. It’s up to us not to be complacent and to be careful.» France, coached by Jacques Santini, has come under criticism in certain sections of the French media. Pires accepts the team needs to do much better. «It’s a bit annoying. We are grownups. You don’t need to tell us we haven’t been playing our best football yet. We know that. I don’t understand. We are qualified and nobody is happy,» Pires remarked. «What do you want, for us to win 5-0 or 6-0 every time? I’m afraid that’s no longer possible. People need to be more patient.» France struggled in its three group matches. Two injury-time goals from Zinedine Zidane were needed to beat England, 2-1. France escaped with a 2-2 draw against Croatia in a match the Croats might have won. The 3-1 win over Switzerland was also marked by sloppy play. «We have forged a mental strength to never give up. A bit like at Arsenal this season,» Pires said, referring to his club-level activity. Arsenal won last season’s Premier League title without losing in 38 league matches. Returned to his favored left-midfield role against the Swiss, Pires impressed and is likely to be retained there against the Greeks. «I found all the sensations I had with Arsenal all year, so, yes, I’m more comfortable there,» he said. «But whether it works or not you’ll have to ask the coach.» Placing Pires on the left gives Zidane more license to dictate play from the center of midfield and look for openings. «Zidane is a free spirit, he wanders around where he wants,» Pires said. «What we need is for Claude [Makelele], Pat [Patrick Vieira] and me to ensure the defensive duties. When you have a leader like that you must adapt.» Ahead of tomorrow’s quarterfinal clash, Santini, France’s coach, attacked the media for its criticism of his side. «There is a gap between what you [the press] think and how we play,» Santini said. «So what is the point in me justifying myself? I’m not on the same wavelength as you.» France’s coach, who joins Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur as coach after the European Championships, is not normally so outspoken. But he feels the criticism has gone too far. He remained tightlipped about France’s tactics against Greece. «I can’t give you more information,» he said. «Because you have preordained ideas in place, anyway.»