Finally, Portugal can start to believe. In its team, and its Brazilian-born coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari. On a gladiatorial, night of raw emotion, in which neither of these old adversaries, both historically and in the sporting arena, wanted for nothing in courage and commitment, Scolari's men prevailed to secure a quarter-final place - probably against England on Thursday at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz. In doing so, they eliminated Spain, who were denied second place by Greece. It was some contest, some outcome, in every respect, for the hosts whose last defeat of their Iberian Peninsular rivals was on the same day, 23 years previously.
Here, at the home of Sporting Lisbon, Benfica striker Nuno Gomes would normally receive a less than rapturous reception. The local supporters may just forgive his affiliation with the club only a few miles across the city on this of all nights when he emerged as a half-time substitute for the disappointing Pauleta and delivered the fatal blow to Spain with his superlatively-struck 57th-minute winner.
The Portugal captain, Luis Figo, who departed in the 78th minute, having contributed to the winner, declared: "We have to be really proud. When you play at home, the pressure is really high. All the players were worried about it." In fact, they rose to the occasion magnificently, employing the exhortations of a vociferous crowd as a stimulant, when it could have become a depressant, so colossal were the stakes.
Ancient rivalries, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when Philip II of Spain took it upon himself to become Philip I of Portugal before that dynasty was overthrown, ensured a vivid clash of colour and cacophony of anthems in the city before the game, yet all were delivered in the best of humour. Now, here, in 2004, a different form of interloper is attempting to impress himself on the Portuguese psyche, the splendidly incorrect Portugal coach "Big Phil", as he is known, who was was less than sensitive in his pre-match observations. "This is war," he had told a Spanish radio station. "It's a case of kill or die."
Portugal is sceptical of Scolari, who is perceived as a pragmatist rather than an adventurer, but there was no doubting his intent here when he finally asked the Manchester United teenager Cristiano Ronaldo to demonstrate his wonderful footwork from the start. By the end, the Brazilian was celebrating a team performance but one embroidered by many colourful performances, of which the possibly Chelsea-bound Deco's was amongst the most impressive.
Scolari didn't have the monopoly of youthful exuberance. His counterpart Inaki Saez included Atletico Madrid's explosive 20-year-old striker Fernando Torres, with Real Madrid's Fernando Morientes relegated to the bench.
Ronaldo immediately graced the Portugal right flank, including so many step-overs in his repertoire he could be a contender for Come Dancing. Left-back Raul Bravo struggled to contain him initially, but as the first half developed the Real Madid man began to get his measure. In the opposite half, Torres had few chances to demonstrate his own elan and potency around goal, but headed over from a Bravo cross just before the interval. In response, Ronaldo just failed to get his head to a Figo cross as the interval beckoned.
Despite the rich quality of the contest, there were sufficient dubious challenges to keep referee Anders Frisk fully occupied. Pauleta was cautioned for handball and will miss the quarter-final. Whether Portugal need him is debatable. He was substituted after the break and within 12 minutes of the restart his replacement, Nuno Gomes, won the game with a masterly flash of individual skill, combining with Figo, then unleashing a venomous drive from outside the area.
Spain rallied with a vengeance. Xabi Alonso played in Torres who looked certain to score but the post saved Portugal. Francisco Costinha cleared from Raul, with goalkeeper Ricardo stranded, while Juanito Gutierrez's header struck the bar.
It was a compelling spectacle, the more so since, to their credit, Portugal also searched diligently for the goal that would confirm victory. A ferocious Figo free-kick was superbly turned away by Iker Casillas, and then the goalkeeper performed heroics again to deny Costinha from a cross at the far post. In the closing minutes, Costinha headed over when he should have scored, then Nuno Gomes set up Maniche but his shot was cleared off the line by Raul Bravo.
At the final whistle, Scolari, who had been frightening the life out of the fourth official with his vehement protestations that time was up, indulged in a jig of delight. Spain wandered away into oblivion, utterly crushed. One assumes that England were watching. The sheer belief Portugal exuded, let alone some outstanding football, will not have made comfortable viewing.
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