The EURO 2000™ semi-final in Brussels and France, the world champions, and Portugal, the undisputed stars of the tournament, are locked together at 1-1.
As the match enters stoppage time Abel Xavier's shock of bleached hair rises determinedly to head the ball towards goal - only for Fabien Barthez to tip the ball over the bar to safety. The chance had gone and extra time beckoned but how different things might have been for Portugal if that effort had gone in for the victory they so craved.
Instead, all the talk after EURO 2000™ was less about the scintillating football the Portuguese had displayed in brushing aside the likes of England and Germany and more about the scenes at the end of that semi-final when - incensed at the controversial hand-ball decision against Abel Xavier that allowed France to win the match on a golden-goal penalty - the team suffered a collective loss of heads, angrily venting their fury on the referee and his assistants both before and long after Zinedine Zidane had stroked France into the final.
The Portuguese coach, Humerto Coehlo resigned in the aftermath of the match and lengthy bans were subsequently imposed upon Abel Xavier, Nuno Gomes and Paulo Bento for their part in the affray and all in all it was a disappointing end to a tournament that promised so much for the Portuguese. They will certainly be hoping for a more satisfactory conclusion to the EURO 2000™ tournament for which they have, as hosts, already qualified.
The future on the pitch certainly looks bright for the Portuguese, now coached by António Oliveira. Gradually shedding their image as one of the major underachievers in world football and shaking off their reputation for suffering from a lack of firepower up front they qualified unbeaten for the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals. In Luis Figo - FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2001 - and an impressive supporting cast of the likes of Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes, Pedro Pauleta and Sérgio Conceição they have the personnel to take on - and beat - the best in the world.
It might seem churlish, therefore, to point out that they failed to win their qualifying group for EURO 2000™, losing at home to Romania, the eventual Group Seven winners, and - staggeringly - having to rely on a 92nd-minute equaliser from Figo to salvage a point and spare some seriously red faces in Azerbaijan. Those hiccups apart they managed to secure a place in the finals as the best-placed group runners-up. For the record their other results were victories over Hungary (3-1 away and 3-0 at home), Slovakia (3-1 away, 1-0 home), Liechtenstein (5-0 away, 8-0 at home), plus a 7-0 win at home against Azerbaijan and a 1-1 draw in Romania.
However, once the finals of EURO 2000™ got under way Portugal were quick to display the true quality of their play. Or rather they were once they had gone 2-0 down - against the run of play - in their opening match against England. From then on, though, they were irresistible, fighting back in majestic style to beat England 3-2 (with goals from Figo, João Pinto and Nuno Gomes), then Francisco Costinha snatched a last-minute win over Romania before a hat-trick from Conceição in a crushing 3-0 defeat of Germany saw them become only the third side in European Championship history to achieve a 100 per cent record in the group stages. Turkey in the quarter-finals were brushed aside in a much more convincing style than the 2-0 scoreline suggests and then it was France in the semis when the wheels well and truly fell off.
Oliveira continued Coehlo's good work into the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup and although - after adopting a more cautious approach - they only won Group Two on goal difference from the Republic of Ireland they did go through the competition undefeated. The highlight was probably a 2-0 defeat of the Netherlands in Rotterdam and a 2-2 draw in the return, when despite being outplayed for 80 minutes and trailing the Dutch 2-0, they rescued a point with goals from Nuno Capucho and an injury-time penalty from Figo. The two games against the Republic of Ireland, who also finished undefeated, could have been costly as they drew both matches 1-1 despite initially threatening to overrun the Irish in both games.
The only other slight alarm came in Cyprus when the Portuguese trailed 1-0 at half-time before running out 3-1 winners. Other results in the group were two wins against Estonia (3-1 away and 5-0) and Andorra (3-0 at home, 7-1 away) and a 6-0 victory over Cyprus in Lisbon.
Fourth in world
Portugal, ranked fourth in the world behind only France, Argentina and Brazil, are now concentrating on the build-up to the 2002 World Cup in which they have been drawn in the same group as the United States, the Korean Republic and Poland. A warm-up match against Angola in November - loosely described as a friendly - was abandoned when Angola, already trailing 5-1 and with all their substitutes used, were reduced to six men after four were sent off and another taken out of the game by injury.
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