Portugal have cause for pride
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.
Go to the Portugal team page
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.
Suddenly Portugal were only 90 minutes away from emulating the legendary class of '66 and realising their dream of reaching the FIFA World Cup Final. Against an inspired French side , however, they did not have it all their own way and Zinedine Zidane's first-half penalty was enough to take Les Bleus to Berlin. Portugal were left to scrap for third place but a determined and enterprising display from Germany proved too much for Scolari's men as the hosts prevailed 3-1 in front of a partisan crowd in Stuttgart.
What went wrong
When a single, solitary penalty-kick separates a team from the FIFA World Cup Final, it is difficult to highlight any major areas for concern. Portugal's players were a shining example of industry and determination, even when fatigue took its toll.
What went right
Just as at EURO 2004, Scolari put together a team very much in his own image. The Brazilian showed every confidence in his players from the very start, set about his work with energy and desire, and ended up capturing the imagination of the country. He established a new mark for consecutive wins as a coach in the finals, and saw his charges carry off the prize of the tournament's Most Entertaining Team , as voted for by FIFAworldcup.com readers.
A new dawn
The 2006 FIFA World Cup marks the end of a glittering era in Portuguese football. The country's most-capped player of all time, Luis Figo (127 appearances) and its record goalscorer, Pauleta (47 goals), have said farewell to the international stage. In their place will come a new generation of players, all determined to make their mark at the very highest level.
Regardless of whether Scolari stays or goes, the future is bright for Portugal. The experience of players such as Ricardo, Ricardo Carvalho, Costinha, Deco and even Cristiano Ronaldo will ease the transition from one generation to another, and new stars will undoubtedly emerge. Names such as Joao Moutinho, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, among others, will be looking to make an impact in the not-too-distant future, and they will carry the hopes of a nation at 2010 finals in South Africa. Only time will tell whether they can live up to the standards set so memorably by Figo and company over the last month.