Portugal wonders if wayward sons will succeed at last

For those of us who have empathised with the humiliation, the uncertainty, and, finally, the exuberance of the hosts, observing them in their three group games, Luiz Felipe Scolari's men were more than an obstacle between England and the semi-finals. They were like old friends whom we would miss if they departed.

For those of us who have empathised with their initial humiliation, sympathised with their ensuing uncertainty, and, finally, applauded the exuberance of the hosts, Luiz Felipe Scolari's men were more than an obstacle between England and the semi-finals last night. They had become like old friends and we would regard their premature departure from the fray with considerable regret.

We wished them well, those of us who had observed them in all three group games, but expected the worst; opposed by an England who were progressing in this contest possessing the wonderment of a precocious child, learning swiftly and anxious for success in this adult world.

With Portugal, you have been constantly reminded of an elderly, increasingly disenchanted mother, realising that her son will never grow up. They had never reached a major tournament final. Why should they this time?

Young and old of this nation wore their ribbons with pride yesterday. Not in expectation. More in a quasi-religious faith that it would be the charm which would invoke a miracle.

In the end, it required mortal qualities to see them through: a man named Helder Postiga, regarded with derision so frequently at White Hart Lane; Rui Costa, a veteran of the golden generation passed over in the starting line-up for a younger man; Ricardo Carvalho, arguably Europe's best central defender; and the nerve of the goalkeeper Ricardo Oliveira, who waved away his remaining outfield comrades at the shoot-out and insisted on becoming Portugal's seventh ­ and ultimately match-winning ­ penalty-taker.

It was perhaps significant that Luis Figo had long departed by then. It was that kind of night. A through-the-looking-glass sort of occasion, when nothing quite happened as you anticipated. What will Portugal's followers make of this now?

One of the city's four-wheeled philosophers, a Benfica supporter, told me, en route to the stadium: "The defeat of Spain was not just because of talent. It was only because we had heart. It will not be enough against England. They have an excellent coach."

It is true that, contrary to the belief among many English judges, there is heartfelt respect for Sven Goran Eriksson, that navigator of European football, who passed through this port twice in the Nineties at the helm of the club which graces this stadium. They regard the man who led Benfica to a European Cup final in 1991 as a master of his craft, gifted with superb organisational powers. Their fans also envy the Swede's possession of a maestro named Wayne Rooney, who had appeared to offer more at this rarified level than their own teenager, Roo-naldo.

The "Big Sergeant", as some refer to the domineering figure of Scolari, maintained his faith in Manchester United's winger in his starting line-up. That offered the salivating opportunity for us to compare the pair. That prospect was short-lived, with the Everton forward's premature departure. But at least Ronaldo justified his share of the billing, taunting England's full-backs with sumptuous close control.

If only his more senior team-mates had demonstrated an equal capability in their own specialist arts. Once again, they exhibited the old failings: vulnerability in defence and a profligate nature going forward.

Figo can flatter to delude even his own aficionados these days. England offered the Real Madrid man two invitations from just outside the area to balance affairs, but he spurned them with wild attempts.

That epitomised Figo's tournament; he is a fading light as he prepares for the extinguishing of his international career. Which doesn't mean that he relishes the ignominy of being substituted with his team still within reach of a semi-final place. He demonstrated his feelings by strutting straight down the tunnel with barely a glance at the bench. Not that it troubled the Brazilian coach. He had just introduced a man we had all forgotten, Postiga, who claimed the equaliser.

Extra time, and Portugal pulverised Eriksson's men. Scolari was like a demented man. Something had to give. England's rearguard, or the coach's heart. It did ­ from the lethal foot of the substitute Rui Costa, who had been kept out of the starting line-up again by Deco Souza.

Frank Lampard provided a fatigued England with an oxygen mask. But penalties have rarely been for English consumption, though it took a member of that crazy breed, Ricardo, to start a night of delirium.

Portugal can start to believe. With England eliminated, some of us can do so with them.

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