Saturday 09 July 2016, 17:25

Portugal out to bury memories of Greek tragedy

Portugal could not have hoped for a better setting as they went into the final of UEFA EURO 2004: a fervent, capacity crowd at Lisbon’s Estadio Da Luz and a truly electric atmosphere. When the home players strode out on to the pitch, they did so secure in the knowledge that they were the favourites, while their expectant fans were confident they would be partying come the final whistle.

Yet, what unfolded that evening in the Portuguese capital was nothing short of a Greek tragedy for the hosts, as a so-called “golden generation” headed by Luis Figo and Rui Costa went down to a shock defeat to unfancied Greece, one of the biggest upsets in football’s recent history.

The game has a habit of providing opportunities to set the record straight, however, and 12 years on from that dramatic denouement, the Portuguese will have theirs in Paris on Sunday, in largely identical circumstances to those portrayed above. The only difference on this occasion is that they are the ones who will be hoping to spoil the party, by acting out a tragedy at the expense of EURO 2016 hosts France.

The last survivors  Only two members of the Portugal squad remain from that fateful night in Lisbon. One is Ricardo Carvalho, the defensive cornerstone of the Class of 2004, who has lent his considerable experience to the current Equipa das Quinas. The other is Cristiano Ronaldo, who was a callow teenager at the time. Now 31, he has become his country’s all-time leading goalscorer and has three FIFA Ballons d’Or to his name.

Ronaldo has not forgotten that evening, when he wore the No17 jersey: “It was very tough, but I hope to turn those tears into a smile. It’s been 12 years and now we’re going to play another final. I feel very, very proud. I’ve always dreamed of winning a title with Portugal, and I hope it’s our turn this time.”

As far as Carvalho is concerned, that Lisbon final should serve as motivation, not as a source of vengeance. “We didn’t want to speak about it before because we hadn’t reached the final, but now we can,” he said. “We have to learn from the mistakes we made then. I think we were overly confident because we’d knocked out teams like Spain and the Netherlands, and we were up against Greece.”

The 38-year-old centre-half, who could start on Sunday if Pepe fails to recover from his injury problems, was reluctant to draw comparisons between the two games: “They’re different situations and different teams. Perhaps the only thing that’s more or less the same is that we’re facing the host nation.”

A second chance Though they did not feature on the losing side in Lisbon 12 years ago, the rest of the Portugal squad are every bit as fired up for Sunday’s final, as Ricardo Quaresma told “We’ve reached the final, which was one of our goals, and now we’re going for our second objective. We know that anything can happen, but we’re convinced we can win.”

The 32-year-old wide man has traced a circuitous career path. Back in 2004 he was perhaps the most talented and promising player in Portugal, though injury prevented him from playing at the home EUROs. After experiencing many ups and downs in the years that followed, he enjoyed a superb season with Besiktas to earn a place at France 2016, where he has revelled in the role of impact substitute, coming on to score a late extra-time winner in the Round-of-16 tie against Croatia.

For Quaresma, as much as anyone, Sunday’s game offers a shot at redemption. “I’m living a dream,” he said. “But it’s a dream I’ve always believed in, even when others have given up on me. I’m so happy right now, for me and for the team.”

“We���ve always believed in ourselves, even when we drew all our games in the first round,” concurred team-mate Joao Mario, who was only 11 at the time of the “other final”. “The group phase was a wake-up call for us, and we learned from it, which is why we’re here now,” added the midfielder, summarising their campaign in France. “Maybe we’ve had a bit of luck, but we’re ready to take the last step now. We’re just thinking about being the champions.”

That vision is one shared by all the Portugal players, both those on duty that evening in Lisbon and those who watched it all on TV. Should they take one more step forward, then memories of it will be erased forever.