Nuno Gomes: When Portugal’s talented side nearly won the Euros

Euro 2000 was packed with established stars. Famous names like Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert and Raul playing some of their best football. They all shone during a thrilling tournament of high-quality matches and surprise twists, which created some new heroes too. Nuno Gomes, a 23-year-old striker who was little-known outside of Portugal, suddenly burst on to the scene.

“I’d already played for five or six years, first at Boavista and then at Benfica, but that was my first tournament for the senior national team,” the forward remembers.

“It was one of the best moments in my career, not only in sporting terms because I was in very good shape, but also in recognition for myself as a player to look at in Europe. After that, I felt like, ‘Ok, it’s not just people in Portugal who know me now’.”

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Timing is everything in football. It can make or break careers. Heading into Euro 2000, Gomes had won 12 caps, mostly as a substitute and was yet to score for his country. He was the youngest player in an experienced Portugal squad, sat behind Joao Pinto, Pauleta and Ricardo Sa Pinto in the pecking order. At best, he was hoping to make an impact off the bench. Instead, he became a defining figure in an unforgettable summer.

“I was very anxious about the tournament. Compared to the other players, I didn’t have that much experience. I was a happy kid among the stars,” says Gomes. “I was thrilled to be among the national team and I was looking forward to playing. I wasn’t expecting to be in the first XI because I knew I was young and I had to wait my turn. But, in the week before the first game, one of the players got injured and the other forward – Pauleta – had a one-game suspension.”

Those couple of lucky breaks made all the difference. Two days before Portugal’s opening game against England, the team’s manager, Humberto Coelho, told Gomes he was starting. He seized an unforeseen opportunity in a tough group, which also featured Germany and Romania.

Portugal had plenty of ability but little tournament nous, so weren’t expected to progress.

“When we saw the draw, we knew that our group was one of the difficult ones to get through,” Gomes recalls. “We knew Romania maybe weren’t the strongest team of the four, so we thought Portugal, England and Germany would fight for two places. We knew every game would be like a final.”

So it proved in a pulsating opener. There’s little margin for error at the Euros and Portugal were panicking when they went 2-0 down to England after just 18 minutes – Paul Scholes and Steve McManaman doing the damage. Despite the initial shellshock, Gomes and his teammates managed to maintain their composure.

“In that moment, some of us were thinking, ‘Ok, this could be a terrible start for us. We have to calm down, otherwise they will smash us. They will beat us four- or five-nil’. But if you compare our style of play in the first 20 minutes with what came after that, we didn’t change that much,” he says.

“We continued to play the same way because we knew we were playing well and we knew we were playing against a good team. We always believed that one goal could change the game. That’s what happened.”

Four minutes later, Figo struck back. The winger, who would complete his controversial switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid later that summer, collected the ball in the centre circle and carried it forward unchallenged. From 30 yards out, he sent a thunderbolt screaming into the top corner past a motionless David Seaman. The momentum shifted in Portugal’s favour and Joao Pinto grabbed an equaliser before half-time.

A previously open game became cagey after the break. Chances dried up, but Gomes made his one count. Rui Costa picked him out with a pass, he took one touch to move away from Tony Adams and then fired into the roof of the net with his second. There was no better time to break his international duck.

“In the second half, both teams knew that if they went too attacking, maybe they would suffer. Our behaviour changed a bit, and I think England’s did too. The second half was more tactical than the first, but I had one chance to score and I took it. I scored the third goal, the winning goal,” says Gomes.

“It was one of the most exciting games I played for the national team. If I look back at all the games I played in Euros and World Cups, I don’t know if I will find another one as emotional. In terms of everything – a lot of good players on the pitch, a lot of stars, a competitive game, uncertain in the final result, and coming back from 2-0 down.”

Gomes felt like his side had proved a point too. “Some of the English press said it should be an easy game because English defenders are very aggressive and Portuguese players don’t like an aggressive style of play. Winning also gave us the trust in ourselves that we needed to play better. After that, I think we had a very good Euros.”

Portugal secured their progress with a hard-fought win over Romania in their second group game, substitute Costinha striking deep in injury time. A draw and a defeat had left Germany on the cusp of an early exit. As the two countries met three days later, Portugal could afford to rest almost their entire first team, which now included Gomes.

Sergio Conceicao scored a hat-trick to humiliate Germany, who finished bottom of the group, as Portugal went through with a perfect record. Gomes was then restored to the starting line-up for their quarter-final against Turkey.

“That was a sign from the coach because I wasn’t supposed to play the first game and then I started,” the Benfica legend recalls. “After that, the coach didn’t change things. It was a sign from him that, ‘Ok, you did well, and you deserve to play in the first XI.’ I think that recognition gave me confidence and motivation.”

Coelho’s show of faith was handsomely repaid on an eventful evening at the Amsterdam Arena. After half an hour, Alpay was sent off for hitting out at Fernando Couto following a tangle in the box. Portugal took advantage, Gomes stooping to head in Figo’s cross. Couto’s misjudged tackle gave Turkey a lifeline, but Vitor Baia kept out Arif Erdem’s penalty.

Portugal needed to compose themselves and regain control. “Turkey were a fighting team. They were aggressive and they had good players. The first half was balanced – some chances for both sides – then came the red card and the missed penalty. Going into half-time winning 1-0 gave us time to think about the second half. To be quieter and calmer,” says Gomes.

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He doubled their lead soon after the restart. The goal, tapped in unmarked at the far post, owed everything to the surging run and well-timed pass of Figo, who was in exceptional form. Although Gomes wasn’t accustomed to playing up front on his own, he thrived on the service he received from such a talented supply line.

“For a striker, having Figo, Joao Pinto, Rui Costa and Sergio Conceicao behind you means that you’ll have some chances during the game,” he laughs. “We knew that, with Figo, everything could change in a second. He could do amazing things with the ball. He could create an opportunity from nothing. I think he was in the best moment of his career – and so was Rui Costa.

“I had to adapt a little bit to play in that team. I played a lot of times in my career as a number nine, but usually I loved to play with another striker beside me. In that team, I was alone in that position. I wasn’t a normal striker, a number nine who stays in the area, who stays up front waiting for the ball. I wanted to participate in the game.”

Gomes admits he was prone to coming deep to get involved, but the midfielders would encourage him to stay high up the pitch, stretching the opposition defence and providing a focal point for Portugal’s attack. It wasn’t his natural game, but it served him and the team well as they moved on to the semi-finals.

World champions France were up next in a tournament that had already heralded a decisive shift in expectations. “We knew we were making history for our country, because it was only the second time that Portugal had reached the semi-finals. Now we are constantly in the final phases of Euros and World Cups. Before Euro 2000, we weren’t.”

With the mesmeric Zidane dictating play, France were eager to reassert their dominance. Much of the squad was unchanged from their success two years previously, although the Arsenal pair of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry had developed from fringe players into fully fledged superstars.

Roger Lemerre’s side were the clear favourites, but Portugal took the lead. Conceicao found his progress blocked as he tried to surge forward, eventually managing to poke the ball through to Gomes. As it sat up on the edge of the box, he let fly with his left foot, catching Fabien Barthez by surprise. The goalkeeper could only watch on helplessly as the net rippled behind him.

“We were ready. Of course, we knew that France had an amazing team, but we wanted to beat them. We started well and I scored the first goal around 20 minutes in,” explains Gomes. “We got lucky because we didn’t concede any goals in the first half. We were winning, so after I scored, we adapted a little bit because we knew that they would push even more.”

Portugal invited France on to them, looking to break quickly when they could, but the pressure continued to build. Early in the second half, it was made to tell. Lilian Thuram played the ball in behind to Nicolas Anelka, who checked back and found his strike partner on the move. Henry was facing away from goal when he received the pass but managed to pivot and lash his shot into the bottom corner, beyond Baia’s reach.

It was the first goal Portugal had conceded since those traumatic early stages of the opening game against England. Underpinning all their attacking threat had been a sturdy backline marshalled by the veteran centre-back partnership of Jorge Costa and Fernando Couto.

While France pushed on in search of a winner, Portugal still had their moments. From a Figo free kick, Abel Xavier’s thumping header forced Barthez into an instinctive stop. As the final whistle blew with the scores still level, extra time beckoned. Tension mounted in both camps.

“We knew in that tournament they had the golden goal. So, we were like, ‘Ok, we cannot risk anything, because if you concede a goal it’s done. You lose.’ I think, for both sides, the extra time was very difficult to manage because on one hand you want to score to finish the game, but on the other hand, you cannot risk anything.”

Much of the next 30 minutes passed in this curious stalemate, both sides wary of overcommitting. Laurent Blanc headed over and Joao Pinto dragged a shot wide, but penalties seemed inevitable until some late drama decided the result.

After Baia had smuggled the ball away from David Trezeguet, it broke loose to Sylvain Wiltord, whose shot from an angle rippled the side netting. Despite French appeals, the referee initially gave a corner, until the linesman on the near side alerted him to a disguised intervention from Xavier’s hand.

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France had a penalty in the 117th minute. Zidane stepped up and dispatched the ball into the top corner to shatter Portugal’s hopes of reaching a first major final. Their players, many of whom hadn’t seen the incident clearly, were furious. Gomes was among those leading vociferous protests.

“It didn’t look like a penalty to me at that moment. I didn’t believe he’d touched it with his hand. I felt that somebody was taking away my dream in an unfair situation. We didn’t have televisions next to the bench, or next to the field, to show us what really happened. We didn’t have VAR. It was difficult for us,” he says.

“I only saw the real image after two or three hours, when I arrived at the hotel and I realised that it was handball. But, at that moment, on the field, I felt like the referee was doing it on purpose, or that he was mistaken. We were trying to convince him that he was wrong. Of course, that generates a little bit of confusion.

“I was trying to pray a little bit for Zidane to miss the penalty. But where he put the ball, he gave us no chance. That was the end because of the golden goal. We stayed on the field to see the penalty kick but, deep down, we knew that it was a goal because it was Zidane.”

Gomes was sent off for abusing the referee, bringing his breakthrough tournament to a bitterly disappointing end. After all that, Portugal had achieved over the last three weeks, he didn’t know quite how to feel about missing out on the final step of a remarkable journey.

“We were very sad because of how things turned out. All along we were dreaming of getting to the final, and we were so close, but in a second everything changed,” Gomes laments.

“We knew that France were a big team with big names. If you look at the statistics, they had more possession, for sure. They maybe had more shots on target, but we had our chances.

“We felt we at least deserved to try the lottery of penalty kicks. But football is like that, so we accept it. We were sad, but we knew that that was a good performance for us in the Euros and the Portuguese fans were happy back in our country, so we were proud of what we did.”

By scoring four goals at Euro 2000 and playing a starring role in Portugal’s surprise run to the semi-finals, Gomes spectacularly announced his arrival on the global stage. There was interest from several big clubs that summer, culminating in a €17million move to Fiorentina, where he won the Coppa Italia at the end of his first season, scoring against Parma in the final.

His international career blossomed too, with appearances at two World Cups and another two European Championships, including the next on home soil, where Portugal went one round further, only to lose out to Greece. Gomes won 79 caps and scored 29 goals for his country, but it could all have been rather different without that formative tournament.

Nuno Gomes: When Portugal’s talented side nearly won the Euros
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