As everyone in football knows, two games do not make or break a team and so it has proved with Luiz Felipe Scolari's Portugal.
After a glorious FIFA World Cup™ campaign, a semi-final defeat by France and a 3-0 reverse against hosts Germany left the Portuguese in fourth place and still waiting for that elusive first Final appearance. A sad homecoming would follow, you might think, but not a bit of it, as the rapturous reception afforded Scolari's returning heroes made only too clear.
Pride and patriotic fervour were the order of the day in Lisbon as the players made their way to the National Stadium to the acclaim of thousands of supporters who lined the streets of the country’s capital. Inside, each of the Portugal players came forward to receive his own personal ovation and the gratitude of the nation.
For the coach, however, the crowd reserved a special request. “Stay, stay,” they chanted, urging the Brazilian to extend his contract. Their pleas may not be in vain since, according to speculation in the media, Felipão could be ready to sign on for two more years at the helm of his adopted country.
For his part, Scolari told his adoring public that the national team could produce an even better showing in four years’ time. But it was the present, not the future, that the crowd wanted to enjoy. “Champions, champions, we are the champions,” they sang. And to an extent, they were, in terms of their endeavour, their determination, and their sheer will to win.
Nobody could have predicted just how far Portugal would go as they set about negotiating Group D in early June. In their opening fixture, a game of huge historical significance against their former colony Angola, it took a goal from Pauleta to seal the points and hand the Palancas Negras their only defeat of the tournament. Scolari’s men then guaranteed qualification for the knockout stages with a comfortable 2-0 win against Iran, and a 100 per cent record was sealed with a 2-1 victory over a dangerous Mexico side.
But fate had conspired to hand Portugal a potentially tough passage through to the semi-finals. Next they faced the Netherlands in the Round of 16. A fiery encounter was settled by a wonder goal from midfield star Maniche, as two players from each side were dismissed. Another familiar old foe in the shape of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England lay in wait in the quarter-finals, just two years on from their meeting at the same stage of UEFA EURO 2004.
Once again, there was little to separate the sides, and the penalty shoot-out lottery beckoned. As in Lisbon two years earlier, charismatic goalkeeper Ricardo again emerged the Portuguese hero, saving three English spot-kicks as he put his country through to their first FIFA World Cup semi-final for 40 years.
Portugal are now FIFA World Ranking number 8
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