FC Porto to Portugal’s rescue

That strange 2004 Champions League, though apparently unattached to what came before and after it, certainly became relevant after the first game of Euro 2004 in the city of Porto a couple of weeks later. Portugal had elected for the old standbys like Fernando Couto and Rui Costa rather than the new stars on show for FC Porto, and had unbelievably lost to utter outsiders Greece, putting any further ambitions for the tournament in peril. Coach Scolari, who had won the World Cup with Brazil two years ago but in his managerial career would have his ups and downs, turfed three of the old hands at halftime, would have turned over the entire team if possible, and virtually did so for Portugal’s second game. The young players would now come into focus, a gift to Portugal in this of all years to deliver.

Cristiano Ronaldo had just had his first season with Manchester United. He was a flashy winger who would evolve into one of Europe’s most prolific ever goal scorers, nominally always a winger. He had tricks, pace, finishing as natural as it gets (including being a surprisingly magnificent and prolific scorer with his head) and once he was the finished article any team he would play for would immediately morph into one whose sole attacking focus was to feed him. His personal vanity and sometime selfishness often rubbed observers the wrong way, in a “kids these days” kind of way, but his incredible stats in later years were undeniable. He was only 18 at Euro 2004, but once in the team he took it upon himself to give Portugal more oomph. He and Porto’s Maniche, neither of whom started the first game, would more than anyone else lift Portugal in Euro 2004, both scoring in their semi-final victory.

 

Your name won’t win it for you

Italy, Spain and Germany, all of whom would dominate the second half of the decade, were each eliminated in the group stage. Just like at the 2002 World Cup, its predecessor tournament, the smaller countries had their day. The three stories to emerge from Euro 2004 were Portugal, Czech Republic and Greece, who had only ever qualified for two previous tournaments and had been humiliated at both of them.

The Czech Republic’s best ever incarnation appeared at this tournament. They scored ten goals in their first four matches, including a brilliant win from 0-2 down against Holland. The team was beautifully balanced from defence to attack, with old hands and youth. Pavel Nedved was the controlling, classy midfielder, but he was supplemented by goal scoring mid Tomas Rosicky, giant forward Jan Koller and his small, skilful partner Milan Baros who scored five spectacular goals here. Further back the reliable up-and-comer Petr Cech was in goal, who would soon become a Chelsea mainstay for a decade. For four matches they were unstoppable, and in the absence of any other convincing teams they should have claimed the European crown by right. But Nedved went down injured against Greece in the semi-final and the rest of them were stifled. It was a testament to the cruelty of international knockout football.

 

We can only produce our best by living on the edge

Portugal found themselves in a supreme emotional win-or-die against their most historic cultural rival Spain. This most crucial game was entrusted to the new guard: Ronaldo, Maniche, Costinha, Deco and Figo made up a midfield they would stick with all tournament. They showed a toughness not seen in previous Portugal teams and imposed themselves in a fraught 1-0 win, tight and with few chances but ultimately successful, and the reaction was euphoric. Portugal had survived the group by the skin of their asses – but their heads were immediately pushed back into the water by Michael Owen’s third-minute goal for England against them in the quarter-final.

Watching Portugal walk out for this game (on replay, with hindsight), I had the impression that it was a historic occurrence, at least from the Portugal end. It turned out to be the most vivid knockout match of this or any tournament of the entire decade. As the second-half minutes ticked by and Portugal’s elimination became imminent, Scolari replaced a disgusted Figo, for whom this may have been his final Portugal match. But his replacement winger Simao Sabrosa put the ball straight onto fellow substitute Helder Postiga’s head with seven minutes to go, and, just as in the group, imminent disaster had been averted.

Portugal legend Rui Costa was inserted. He really should have been Portugal’s number 10 instead of Deco, who was certainly flavour of the year but could be hustled out of games much more easily, never showing for Portugal the control of matches that he did with Porto. Rui Costa scored a flashing strike in extra time to seemingly win the match, but England came back from the dead with five minutes left – Chelsea duo Terry and Lampard combined to squeeze out a goal.

Beckham put his first penalty over the top, but so did Rui Costa on Portugal’s third kick, and Portugal’s new guard of Ronaldo and Maniche avoided elimination with their conversions. Young Helder Postiga strode up with the nation’s entire tournament on his shoulders with Portugal’s sixth kick and scored the weirdest little chip that only rose a metre, was placed near the middle of the goal and could barely be bothered crossing the line. The reaction in the middle said it all regarding Portugal’s various personalities: artiste Deco applauded the kick with a joyed astonishment on his face, but the no-nonsense Costinha later berated Helder Postiga for his irresponsibility. Goalkeeper Ricardo suddenly got rid of his keeper gloves and then saved England’s next penalty bare-handed (very adeptly, tipping a good strike around the post). Then the most astonishing tableau: him now holding his hand up to tell the approaching Nuno Valente: It’s OK, I’ve got this. He then drilled an unstoppable strike into the low left corner and the stadium rocked with ecstatic relief. Ricardo had to cover his eyes, lying on the ground with the most joyous smile: we got there, and it was because of me.

Five of Portugal’s six goals had been scored by substitutes (Ronaldo, Rui Costa x 2, Nuno Gomes and Helder Postiga), perhaps in hindsight indicating that all was not quite right. Even so, the Portuguese tide appeared to be a wave at this point, and they swept past Holland 2-1, Maniche scoring the most exquisite curling goal to seal his place as perhaps the overall player of the 2004 season. The core players were now one win away from a previously extremely unlikely Porto-Portugal double. The rest of the story can be described by Portugal fan Simon Curtis:

“Perhaps the most visually arresting image of the lot came in the afternoon of the final, as the Portugal team bus left Sporting’s academy training complex in Alcochete and made towards the Vasco da Gama bridge to cross the Tejo back to Lisbon and was joined by thousands and thousands of motorbikes from all over the country all trailing flags of varying sizes. It was a cavalcade of such size and colour that, barring a complete aberration bedecked in the blue and white of Greece, there could now only be one outcome to the tournament…”

 

The miracle

Greece had shown up to the tournament raring to show the world that, if nothing else, they weren’t to be laughed at. In the tournament’s opening match against Portugal, Greece jumped out with a sixth-minute goal and seldom looked back. They beat Portugal 2-1 then survived difficult matches against Spain and Russia, qualifying by the absolute minimum and prompting a classic comment from one Greek player: “We knocked on the door of hell; fortunately no one answered.”

It would certainly end against France, for whom the separate-but-equal Henry and Zidane as usual were not particularly gelling but each had single-handedly won one group match, Zidane iconically scoring two goals in injury time to beat England. But Greece were ready, having drawn up their defensive plan to mark Henry and Trezeguet out of the game. Captain Theo Zagorakis, a hard-working midfielder who would be named player of the tournament, humiliated Lizarazu to set up the winning goal, a header scored from his right wing cross by forward Angelos Charisteas. It was the second of his three for the tournament, all of them vital in such a frugal team. For the second time, France had given up their title without a fight.

Greece’s other main players were all defensive, of course. Centre back Traianos Dellas kept the multifarious Czech attack out in semi-final and then scored the winner at the end of it; right back Seitaridis alternated man-marking while occasionally bursting forward on the few occasions Greece ever broke out.

Greece identically beat the two standout teams in the semi-final and final, Czech Republic and Portugal, with headers from right-wing corner kicks. No champion would ever again spend so much time defending on the back foot, but then Greece – a team of journeymen who were barely even getting a run with their clubs – had to do something drastic to achieve a result so special, of course. They scored seven goals in six matches, and were crowned in an emptying Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, having opened and closed the tournament with identical victories over Portugal in front of a disbelieving and devastated home crowd, who left the ground en masse before the presentation. Portugal were castigated for not taking charge from the beginning of the final, but it wasn’t their day – the tactics, the opponents, the goalkeeper’s positioning, the late shots that rolled past the post. Everything just gradually went wrong.

 

What becomes of the broken hearted?

It was a confusing time for Portugal in the years to come. They soon beat Russia 7-1 in World Cup qualifying, but Maniche and Costinha would go off to play in the football wilderness that was Russia and Porto would be broken up quickly. Those two, whose careers were in limbo, would receive an unexpected summons to help out with the both uninspired and yet successful 2006 World Cup campaign. It was an epilogue for them, but unfortunately losing to Greece was the end for Rui Costa. Figo, who had admittedly starred in the semi-final against Holland, would (like Zidane for France) retire from Portugal and then un-retire for World Cup 2006, and as Portugal’s figurehead he was indulged. Fortunately there was also the indomitable Cristiano Ronaldo ready to take up the slack. But of course those two hours in 2004 could never be undone.

 

Marty Gleason

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