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The demons that haunt Portugal

June 26, 2012


The French hurdle
Portogese legends Eusebio and Luis Figo were both thwarted by France in search of international glory.- Photo by AP

It was the moment when time seemed to stand still just long enough for Michel Platini to score one of the most memorable goals of his brilliant career and break Portugal's heart.

It happened 28 years ago this week, when Portugal, who play Spain in Wednesday's Euro 2012 semi-final at the Donbass Arena, were involved in their first European Championship semi-final, and the first of what are now three last four defeats to France.

There was 119 minutes on the clock and penalties looming at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille; France and Portugal were level at 2-2 in the semi-finals of Euro 84 and Platini was about to deliver a magical moment.

Platini, now the UEFA president but then at the peak of his powers as one of the world's greatest players, collected a pass on the six-yard box, from Jean Tigana which the elegant midfielder had hit slightly behind him.

Most players might have swung a shot at the ball, but this was Platini.

He took one touch to control it - and all the players and the 55,000 fans in the stadium froze in anticipation - knowing what was coming next.

For with that next touch Platini smashed the ball high into the roof of Manuel Bento's net and France were through to the final where they beat Spain.

Portugal ended as beaten semi-finalists and the legacy of that defeat lives on today.

Portugal coach Fernando Cabrita, speaking minutes after the game, said: “I am so tired and feel so emotional. I haven't seen a game like this for years.

“At the end of the day, football won. I congratulate France for never having abandoned its attacking football and to get to the Paris final with justice.”

It was perhaps the start of Portugal's footballing “fado”, the mournful Portuguese music that embraces a certain delight in sorrow.

Euro'84 was only the second major tournament Portugal had reached after the 1966 World Cup when they also lost in the semi-finals to the host nation, going down 2-1 to England with Eusebio finishing as the tournament's highest scorer with nine goals.

Although they qualified for the 1986 World Cup, the next time they reached the later stages of a major tournament was at Euro'96 when they were beaten by Karel Poborsky's brilliant chip for the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, but by then, they had created plenty of interest internationally.

Their “golden generation” of youngsters like Luis Figo, Paulo Sousa, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and goalkeeper Vitor Baia among others, had won the 1989 and 1991 Under-20 World Cups.

And many of those title-winning players were at their peak at Euro 2000 when Portugal again fell at the penultimate hurdle, and again lost to France just before the end of extra time.

As in 1984, Portugal led after Nuno Gomes scored with their first shot of the game in Brussels, and they held the lead until Thierry Henry equalised for France early in the second half.

The match went to extra time, and again with penalties looming, the drama began when Abel Xavier was adjudged to have handled a Sylvain Wiltord shot.

The Portuguese players, including current coach Paulo Bento, went completely crazy as France were awarded a penalty and the match ground to a halt for several chaotic minutes before order was restored and Nuno Gomes was red-carded.

Bento ended up with a six-month ban for shouting at the referee and trying to take the red card from the official's hand as he showed it to Nuno Gomes.

Another French master, Zinedine Zidane, kept his cool among the mayhem, and scored the ensuing penalty as France won 2-1.

Four years later Portugal were Euro hosts and after losing to Greece in the opening match had made it into the semi-finals, which this time ended in victory and a 2-1 win over the Netherlands with goals from current skipper Cristiano Ronaldo and Maniche.

Greece, who beat the fancied Czech Republic in the other semi, now lay in wait in the final in Lisbon for a match which would, it was widely expected, see the golden generation finally fulfil their destiny with a major honour.

But it turned out to be the blackest day ever for the long-suffering Portuguese as Greece, the 100-1 outsiders before the competition started, beat Portugal for the second time with Angelos Charisteas's second half winner.

Portugal bounced back at the World Cup finals in Germany two years later, but again the golden generation came up short with France and more heartbreak lying in wait in yet another semi-final defeat.

This time it was a first half Zidane penalty that condemmed them to a 1-0 loss in Munich.

“We came close in Euro 2004 and then in 2006 we gave another great performance,” Ronaldo said before this competition kicked off.

“This could be our year, I believe it. We are confident, when we go into a competition is to win it. We are not favourites, we know of the difficulties but I believe.”

Now old rivals Spain, the world and European champions, lie in wait -- but at least Portugal can take heart it is not France.