This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Roger Lemerre’s France squad were somehow contriving to look even more impressive than Aimé Jacquet’s all-conquering crop of two years before, when the French won the 1998 World Cup in style on their own patch. Their ranks racked with sublime technical talent – messrs Zidane, Vieira, Petit, Pires, Henry, Anelka to name but a few – there was no denying it would take an almighty effort from any foe to deny France successive international triumphs.
Les Blues had, though, succumbed to defeat in their final group stage game against the Netherlands, before beating Spain; their undoing by the co-hosts proving that Lemerre’s men weren’t quite infallible.
Portugal, meanwhile, had set about staking a claim of their own for billing as tournament favourites, clawing back a 2-0 deficit in their opening bow against England and turning it on its head for a stunning 3-2 victory, which in turn made many sit up and take notice of the Iberians.
The hard-fought win against Romania, resounding victory over Germany that followed, and subsequent knockout triumph over Turkey kept their perfect record intact and made them genuine contenders for the crown. The evening’s match-up was sumptuous.
The 48,000 spectators crammed into Brussels’ King Baudouin Stadium roared in both delight and surprise when Nuno Gomes broke the deadlock, 19 minutes into an increasingly absorbing duel. Pirouetting to meet a loose bouncing ball in mid-air, the troublesome Portuguese poacher hit it first time, slamming it past an unmoving Fabien Barthez who rued his position a few yards off of his goalline.
The unlikely leaders made France wait for their equaliser, and work for it too, but eventually it came in the 51st minute, against Portugal coach Humberto Coelho’s want and will. Nicolas Anelka chased a smart Lilian Thuram pass, snapping at the ball with his first touch in order to stop it abruptly and allow José Luís Vidigal to continue a step or two beyond him.
Inside the area, enjoying the freedom of the space his first touch had cleverly manufactured, Anelka had time to look up and find Thierry Henry, who received the ball, swivelled on it and did the rest, firing past Vítor Baía’s low dive.
France may have deservedly reestablished parity, and firmly held the game’s initiative, but there’d be no further breakthrough during normal time; Portugal holding firm against a French onslaught. The Seleção might even have stolen the place in the showpiece finale for themselves, as it took an exceptional reflex save from Barthez to prevent Abel Xavier seeing his compatriots through to the last stage with a thunderous header.
But to extra-time the game went and, as it looked increasingly as though it would be the duty of penalties to part the two semi-final hopefuls, France struck.
With little more than three minutes of play remaining, France pounced. Sylvain Wiltord found David Trezeguet bearing down on goal, though he only found the outstretched arms of Vítor Baía, diving at his feet to deny him an effort on goal. The ball squirmed free and sat kindly for Wiltord to strike, albeit from an unlikely angle, yet his shot only rippled against the side-netting.
The immediate reactions of Wiltord and Trezeguet weren’t of disappointment or frustration, however – they were of betrayal and protestation. Arms raised high, voices raised higher, the duo begged for a penalty, believing Xavier to have blocked Wiltord’s effort with his hand. The referee consulted with his linesman. The officials agreed.
And so, it fell to Zinedine Zidane; France’s all-action architect handed the opportunity to send his nation through to the final of Euro 2000 with a golden goal from 12 yards. For his extraordinary exploits in France two years before, the temporarily united “black, blanc, beur” crowds had joyously sung Zidane’s name from his tops of their lungs, thrust forward his name for the country’s presidency, and even projected his likeness on the Arc de Triomphe.
And, on that balmy night against Portugal, as the hopes of his nation fell upon his broad shoulders once more, he would again refuse to let his adoring people go home disappointed, thumping the ball high into the top left corner of the goal to grant France another deserved date with destiny.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp