Portugal left Euro 2012 with their heads held high having improved beyond recognition from the start of the qualifying campaign when they drew with Cyprus and lost to Norway.
Those dismal results seemed to be from a different lifetime as Portugal came within touching distance of a place in the final itself before losing 4-2 to Spain on penalties after a goalless two hours at the Donbass Arena on Wednesday.
Coach Paulo Bento recovered from an opening Group B loss to Germany to score wins over Denmark, the Netherlands and then the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
“I wouldn’t choose this way to go out, but if you have to lose, you can lose to a great team like Spain and walk away with your head held high.
“The players can now go on their well-deserved holidays and from September onwards we will start thinking about the World Cup in Brazil and I am sure we can compete there with any team.
“We have shown here we are capable of that. We have lost ... but we really showed we could play in this Euro.”
Bento’s words, though, could not hide the pain handed out by Spain as Portugal lost again at the semi-final stage following defeats by France in 1984 and 2000.
After finishing level with the world and European champions, the pivotal penalty was Bruno Alves’ shot that hit the crossbar and rebounded away with Spain leading the shoot-out 3-2. Cesc Fabregas then put Portugal to the sword by making it 4-2. His spot-kick, like that of Bruno Alves, also hit the woodwork, but his went in.
The debate immediately afterwards focused on why Cristiano Ronaldo did not take a penalty. Bento explained he was always going to take the fifth penalty, but apart from that minor controversy, Ronaldo left with his reputation further enhanced after some fine displays.
His two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over the Dutch in Portugal’s final group match in Kharkiv on June 17 was arguably the best by any individual in the tournament. He also hit the woodwork four times in his five games.
Along with Nani on the other flank, Portugal produced some of the competition’s most exciting soccer with the duo always looking to go forward in search of a goal.
Until injury deprived him of striker Helder Postiga for the semi-final, Bento picked the same starting line-up for four straight matches here showing real faith in his players.
Their 3-2 win over Denmark in Lviv in their second group game was one of the best matches in the tournament and although Portugal’s campaign is over, as Bento said at the end, “it is one our country can look back on with confidence and pride”.