NOW OR NEVER: After numerous failures Portugal have their best chance to win a big one
NEARLY men, bridesmaids, failures -- take your pick. Despite a wealth of talent down the decades from Eusebio and Luis Figo to current pin-up Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal have repeatedly missed out on top honours since a first World Cup showing ended with a 1966 semi-final loss to England.
Young talent has blossomed and withered ever since and never quite reached the summit. The Euro 2004 final was a case in point when, having finally reached a trophy match, the Seleccao ran into a Greek brick wall.
A pulsating 1984 semi-final loss to a Michel Platini-inspired France and a Euro 96 quarter-final loss to tomorrow's same stage opponents Czech Republic had come and gone in between times.
The 1996 disappointment wrought by Karel Poborsky's superb lob was palpable as the Portuguese were pinning great faith on the 'Geracao de Ouro" (Golden Generation), an ultra-talented group who had lifted the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in 1989 and again in 1991.
Further semi-final losses to the French in 2000 and at the 2006 World Cup only underscored the "nearly but not quite" story of Portuguese football.
Yet Paulo Bento's side are now coming out of their shell -- and most importantly, so is Ronaldo.
Much criticised in the media for not scoring in the opening 1-0 defeat to Germany or the exciting 3-2 win over Denmark, Ronaldo delivered his Real Madrid form with two clinical strikes to see off the deflated Dutch.
Suddenly, optimism reigns back home.
"Ronaldo answers his critics," trumpeted A Bola -- although his teammates elected not to answer theirs after refusing to speak to the press afterwards.
"It's senseless to keep banging on about whether players perform as well with their country as for their clubs. We have reached the quarter-finals for the way we played collectively," stormed Bento.
"Leave the players in peace," he snapped.
There are, of course, others who would bid for the "accolade" of football's nearly men.
Were it not for an exception-proves-the-rule success at Euro 88, where they possessed a squad of truly exceptional talent, the Netherlands would have to be rated the biggest bridesmaids of them all.
To judge from several of the Oranje's previous campaigns, including this one, there is little love lost between the squad on or off the pitch.
The Dutch have a reputation for feuding and Rafael Van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both complained about being left out of the starting line-up, while Arjen Robben reacted petulantly to being withdrawn against Germany.
"Things happened in the squad but we'll keep that between us," Robben said pointedly.
The Dutch have made an art form of flattering to deceive -- witness their 1974, 1978 and 2010 World Cup final losses -- and Euro 2012 was no exception.
Other under-achievers who reverted to type here were Sweden and Russia, both going home prematurely.
The Swedes reached a home World Cup final in 1958 but could not see off a Pele-inspired Brazil, then reached the Euro 92 semis but have still to win anything.
They laid bare England's defensive weakness but their own were far more abundant as they leaked goals in the air to both Roy Hodgson's men and Ukraine and did not live up to their strong historic qualifying record.
If the Portuguese still await a first trophy and the Dutch and Swedes have flopped again, spare a thought for the Russians.
Majestic to begin with against the Czechs, who would ultimately advance instead, they then sank to the irrepressible Greeks, whose 2004 title win has the world's under-achievers still scratching their heads.
Having started off with a 4-1 group stage loss to eventual winners Spain -- the reverse of the beating they handed out to the Czechs -- the Russians reached the Euro 2008 semis, where they were beaten again by Spain.
Along the way they beat Sweden and Greece in the group stages and the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.
But the fact remains that for all their team's individual talent, Russian fans have had nothing to cheer since the old Soviet Union won the inaugural European Championship in 1960 -- a year before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
So, it falls again to Portugal to shed the bridesmaid image.
They surely have a chance just as long as they can avoid those Greeks. AFP