Nick Potts
Cult Heroes

The retro Euro teams we loved: Portugal, 2000

God, Figo was great.

Why we loved them

THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP in 1996 had come a little bit too soon for a superb Portuguese side and they suffered elimination at the hands of Karel Poborsky and his Czech Republic team in the quarter-finals.

But they returned four years later and dazzled, going completely against their inconsistent stereotype by coming within an inch of making it to the decider.

With Rui Costa and Luis Figo supplying the attacking flair, Nuno Gomes the goals and the likes of Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa leading a strong and uncompromising defence, this was Portugal in its pomp, despite them reaching the 2004 final.

Soccer - World Youth Cup - Final - Portugal v Brazil Peter Robinson Peter Robinson

Five of the regular starting XI at Euro 2000 were part of the glittering team that had won the U-20 World Championship in 1991.

This was the maturing of Portugal’s golden generation.

The story

Portugal had hinted at great things before.

Many Republic of Ireland fans will remember the thumping Jack Charlton’s weary and ageing side got on a torrential night in Lisbon in November 1995, when Rui Costa opened the scoring with a glorious long-range strike.

But they came up short at the finals, with a 3-0 group-stage victory over Croatia the highlight.

Worse was to follow when they were faced with a competitive qualification group for France ’98. They lost just once in 10 games but failed to find a killer edge against too many sides. Their four draws cost them dearly and they finished third behind Germany and Ukraine.

Soccer - Euro 2000 Qualifier - Group Seven - Portugal v Hungary Steve White Steve White

Qualification for Euro 2000 was better. There was a race for top-spot with Romania and even though Portugal lost out again, they were the best runners-up and went through automatically.

But there was an almighty caveat.

They were drawn in Group A alongside Germany, England and the side that had pipped them to first place in qualifying – Romania.

And they began under somewhat of a cloud.

In their opener against Kevin Keegan’s Three Lions, they were 2-0 down after 18 minutes as David Beckham laid on goals from Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman.

But after a superb strike from Luis Figo, Costa whipped in a cross from the right for Joao Pinto to equalise while he, again, turned supplier in the second-half – setting up Nuno Gomes for the winner.

An incredible comeback and a firm statement of intent.

Inevitably, given their patchy reputation, it was never going to be as free-flowing in the next game against Romania and it was Costinha who proved the unlikely hero – netting a winner in the 94th minute.

Next, they ran riot against a dismal Germany with Sergio Conceicao racking up a hat-trick to leave them with maximum points from their three group assignments and facing a quarter-final tie with Turkey.

Thanks to the early sending-off of Alpay, Portugal dominated and Figo, in particular, was exceptional. He ran the Turks ragged and set up Nuno Gomes for both his goals.

Soccer - Euro 2000 - Quarter Final - Turkey v Portugal Tony Marshall Tony Marshall

There was an element of good fortune about the victory, however. Couto should’ve been sent-off after conceding a second-half penalty and though Vitor Baia saved from Arif, the goalkeeper was hardly the most commanding throughout the game.

Still, Portugal were through to the last four and took the lead against France after 19 minutes when Nuno Gomes sent a terrific, instinctive left-foot strike inside Fabian Barthez’ near post.

But Thierry Henry equalised early in the second-half and with the exception of a couple of counter-attacks, Portugal were hanging on for the remainder of the period.

In extra-time, it was more of the same but it seemed like the Portuguese would force a shoot-out. Then, with just three minutes left, Baia smothered as David Trezeguet tried to round him. The loose ball was met by Sylvain Wiltord who looked to hook the shot to the net from a tight angle. Xavier inexplicably stuck out his hand to block and France were awarded a penalty.

Zinedine Zidane tucked it to the far corner and Portugal were out.

Two years later, they failed to make it out of their group at the 2002 World Cup while there was more disappointment in 2004 as they lost in the Euro final to Greece.

They did manage a third-placed finish at the 2006 World Cup.

Stand-out player

Soccer - Euro 2000 - Group A - Portugal v England Mike Egerton Mike Egerton

At the time, Luis Figo was at his peak. Following the Euros, he switched from Barcelona to Real Madrid for a world record fee as Florentino Perez began to assemble his collection of Galacticos.

In 2000, he won the Ballon d’Or, ahead of Zidane and the following year he was crowned Fifa’s World Player of the Year.

With Rui Costa providing the subtlety in the middle, Figo was a powerful, pacy and strong runner. He was deceptively quick but could also engineer space with his footwork – needing just a fraction of a second to whip in a superb delivery.

As evidenced in the game against England, Figo could also be relied upon for moments of sheer individual magic.

During Euro 2000, he also had a decent target man to work with in the hungry Nuno Gomes – who Figo teed up for two goals in the quarter-final win over Turkey.

Stand-out moment

Timing is everything.

2-0 behind against England with 18 minutes gone, Portugal were treading water and needed an instant shot in the arm.

Thankfully, they had a player who they could rely on.

Sure, England fall asleep and think nothing of attacking the player with the ball, but Figo is in his own half when he takes possession.

There’s only one red shirt higher up the pitch and Figo knows pretty quickly that he’s going to have to go it alone.

He’d later refer to it as his favourite goal and it’s easy to see why. He waited an age to hit it – clearly settling into an area from where he was comfortable taking a shot on – and it takes a big deflection off of Tony Adams but it remains the special moment from the Portuguese side at the tournament.

The team

Staring XI (v England, 12/6/2000)

Vitor Baia (c), Jorge Costa, Vidigal, Fernando Couto, Luis Figo, Joao Pinto, Rui Costa, Dimas, Abel Xavier, Paulo Bento, Nuno Gomes

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