Portugal Furious After Defeat

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A game-winning goal by French star Zinedine Zidane in extra time of a Euro 2000 semifinal against Portugal sounds like a great story line.

But it was a mere penalty shot by Zidane that lifted France into the final, and the Portuguese were so incensed that they surrounded and threatened the referee. As a result, their leading scorer, Nuno Gomes, was shown the red card.

The French go on to play Sunday either the Netherlands or Italy, who met at Amsterdam on Thursday. The Portuguese, whose Euro 2000 games had been one long party of thrilling soccer, went home dejected, as if they'd been unfairly thrown out the door.

``It is very sad to end a game like this,'' said Portuguese coach Humberto Coelho, who announced that he was stepping down. ``It was too close to decide a penalty like that. I don't know if the referee was right or wrong.''

The penalty, awarded with seven minutes left in extra time, was a correct decision.

Portuguese defender Abel Xavier blocked an angled shot from Sylvain Wiltord with his left hand. The ball seemed to be headed for the post, with goalkeeper Vitor Baia out of position, and although it looked an accidental handball, the Portuguese definitely gained an advantage.

After a delay of four minutes because of the protests of the furious Portuguese players to both Austrian referee Guenter Benko and Belgian linesman Roland Vannylen, Zidane coolly powered the spot kick into the roof of the net to start the French celebrations.

``In the last minute, it was tough to concentrate,'' said Zidane, who scored twice in the 1998 World Cup final. ``It was the knockout punch.''

Although the Juventus playmaker kicked the game-winner, he wasn't the standout player on the field, and neither was his Portuguese counterpart, Luis Figo.

After Nuno Gomes put the Portuguese in front in the 19th minute, Coelho's team appeared on course for its fifth win in a row. But the French tied it early in the second half with Thierry Henry's third goal of the tournament.

The French can thank their flamboyant and occasionally heart-stopping goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, for getting them into another final when he pulled off a stunning save in the final minute of regulation time.

Xavier moved up to meet a Figo's free kick and powered a header firmly goalward, but Barthez fisted the ball over the bar with an acrobatic save.

The co-host Dutch, who thrashed Yugoslavia 6-1 in the quarterfinal, have to hope they won't be crushed by the pressure of expectation from a public clamoring for success.

Against the crafty Italians, whose style is to soak up the opposition's attacks and hit them on the break, the Dutch have a wealth of experience. Edgar Davids, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Frank de Boer hoped to thrive in the atmosphere of Amsterdam.

``Italy will be totally different to Yugoslavia. There won't be seven goals,'' said Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard, who knows Italian soccer well after several years playing at the highest level for AC Milan.

``The Italians are experts at defending and are getting better with every match. I think it will be a very tight, very tense match. Italian players know how to plan for the big events and they won't be put off by a stadium full of hostile fans. The whole culture of Italian soccer is geared toward performing for the big matches.''

The Italians have a 6-2-5 head-to-head edge over the Dutch. While both countries have won the European Championship once, Italy has won three World Cups and the Dutch none.

``Our strength is our patience,'' center back Alessandro Nesta said. ``We have a great history behind us, and all the teams hope they won't come up against Italy.''