This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
London. Marseille. Brussels. Portugal had been in the last four of a major tournament before. Bobby Charlton, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane had dumped them out each time, with a semi-final victory still eluding them by the time they reached that stage of Euro 2004.
On this occasion, however, Portugal had the creature comforts of a home tournament for the first time. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad boasted a blend of youth and experience, but so did Dick Advocaat’s Dutch as they looked to summon the spirit of 1988 to reach their second European Championship final.
Luís Figo was the global star in Portugal’s ranks and team captain, but many pairs of eyes around the world were fixed on the teenager playing alongside him. Cristiano Ronaldo had already been singled out as the heir to Figo’s throne in Portuguese football and, as he would grow accustomed to, the focus was very much on his dazzling feet.
The pair combined well in the early stages of the match, with Ronaldo inches from connecting with a fizzling Figo cross. It wasn’t long until the Manchester United prospect did test Edwin van der Sar, but the Fulham man held on to his opponent’s low shot. Whenever the 19-year-old got on the ball, you could almost hear the home crowd shifting that little bit further forwards in their seats.
In the 26th minute, they were jumping off them completely at Sporting’s new Estadio Jose Alvalade. A year before, Ronaldo had featured in the stadium’s inaugural game in green and white stripes in a display that would see him make the switch to their opponents that day almost immediately afterwards. The pressure was very much on his young shoulders now and, as Deco started his run-up at a corner, he wriggled free from his marker to meet the cross and crash the ball into the back of the net.
A roar erupted around all four stands, apart from the orange pockets within them, the Portuguese capital and the rest of the country, but that joy was so almost short-lived. Marc Overmars perhaps should’ve done better with a volley from an Edgar Davids cross up the other end a couple of minutes later. Ricardo would’ve been glad to see the shot fly over his crossbar.
The bespectacled Davids was causing plenty of problems for Miguel at right-back and Clarence Seedorf was the next to waste one of his crosses. Ruud van Nistelrooy did have the ball in the back of the net before the break, only for the offside flag to truncate his celebrations.
While the Dutch were becoming a danger, Portugal had chances of their own to double their lead ahead of half time, with Van der Sar saving from Pauleta’s close-range effort and Figo seeing his left-footed shot smack the upright. The golden chance, though, came at the start of the second half as Ricardo’s long kick bounced all the way to Pauleta who, with just Van der Sar to beat, couldn’t find a way past the sprawling figure in goal.
The shot-stopper, already cutting a frustrated figure at the lack of protection from his backline, fumed a few minutes later when the Dutch defence was caught out by a quick corner from the novice in the opposing team. Ronaldo played the ball to Maniche on the edge of the box, who looked up and whipped a curling shot into the far corner, kissing the post on its way in.
Portugal’s thinking was so quick that it didn’t just catch the Netherlands off guard, but the host broadcaster too, whose shots only jumped to the live action as the ball hit the back of the net. The spiked decibel levels around the ground were the first clue to those watching from home as to what had happened and, for that reason, that sensational strike is often forgotten.
For a few fleeting moments of singing and flag-waving, the Portuguese supporters truly believed their side would play in the final across town that Sunday. But the tension seeped back in. On the stretch, Jorge Andrade deflected Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s cross over Ricardo and into the back of the net.
The remaining half an hour ahead now seemed like an eternity for those of a Portuguese persuasion, rather than a party. This would not be the controlled cruise the likes of Deco, Maniche, Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha and Pedro Mendes had experienced in Porto’s Champions League final triumph over Monaco in Gelsenkirchen two months before.
Suddenly, out of either fear or pragmatism – or a mixture of both – Scolari’s side began to retreat, limited to cautious counter attacks in the final stages. Ronaldo was the first attacking outlet to be sacrificed in favour of the more sensible Petit.
Jaap Stam and Phillip Cocu began pumping balls forward to Van Nistelrooy, with Rafael van der Vaart, Arjen Robben and Roy Makaay among the other attacking threats in Advocaat’s arsenal. A mixture of staggered substitutions and time-wasting injury treatments saw Portugal through until stoppage time, when Oranje were awarded a free-kick right on the edge of the area.
Robben’s replacement, Pierre van Hooijdonk, was entrusted with taking it, but the sturdy Portuguese wall stood firm to preserve their advantage. Deco had the chance to extend that lead further in the last few seconds but his saved attempt was wiped from the memory of those celebrating when the final whistle blew.
A final at last for Portugal, who could now sit back and watch Greece and Czech Republic battle for the opportunity to play them at the Estádio da Luz later that week. Once the former had prevailed the following night, the talk of a trophy was rife across the host nation.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08