EURO 2000


The best ever Euro Finals semi-final match-ups on the cards

ROTTERDAM: Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. Orange against Azzurri.

After 28 matches and 79 goals, armchair fans can look forward to the promise of two of the most thrilling semi-finals ever at a European championship Finals.

World champions France against Portugal's "Golden Generation'' and co-hosts Holland, playing at home in Amsterdam with their fans primed for a party to end all parties, against Italy are matches made in football heaven.

Nobody--excepting those disappointed fans whose teams have long fallen by the wayside--could really have asked for more from a tournament that has for once rewarded the most adventurous and exciting sides.

More goals? The Dutch scored a record six in their quarter-final demolition of Yugoslavia.

More thrills? Not after Spain, in a comeback classic, powered from 3-2 down to beat Yugoslavia 4-3 with two injury time goals and then lost 2-1 to France in Sunday's quarter-final after missing a last minute penalty.

The last four all have that extra something that quickens the pulse and draws gasps of admiration.

They draw on an evocative past, one of epic clashes on the world stage, and hint at a spectacular future.

World champions France--who beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final--now face Portugal, popularly known as the Brazilians of Europe, in Brussels on Wednesday.

That will be a re-run of one of the most thrilling championship matches of the past 20 years when Michael Platini's France came from behind to beat Portugal 3-2 in the 1984 semi-final in Marseilles.

Platini scored the winner a minute before the end of extra time and France went on to take the title.

This time, Zidane has taken on Platini's mantle as the French try to become the first reigning world champions to go on and win the European title as well.

The balding Juventus midfielder was inspirational against Spain, scoring the first goal with a superb first half free kick and then orchestrating the play masterfully.

"He really is exceptional,'' said striker and friend Christophe Dugarry, who played with "Zizou'' when he was at Bordeaux. "Sometimes you want to stop playing just to watch him.''

Portugal's Luis Figo has a similar mesmerising effect on defenders bewildered by his outrageous talents.

The Barcelona midfielder's fluid passing, as well as a wonder goal against England in their opening 3-2 victory, have been crucial in taking the Portuguese to their first major tournament semifinal since Euro '84.

The prospect of seeing Zidane and Figo battle for midfield mastery is a mouth-watering one indeed.

"He is a great player... but it would not be Zidane vs Figo,'' insisted Figo "It would be 11 against 11.''

Italy, three times world champions, have the power to silence street parties and cast a pall across an entire country for whom orange is the only colour.

That will happen if Dino Zoff's rejuvenated "Azzurri,'' who arrived at Euro 2000 with plenty of doubts about their abilities, continue to surpass expectations and beat the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Arena on Thursday.

The Italians--along with Portugal and Holland--have yet to lose.

They have also yet to impress as much as the others and have ridden their luck along the way.

While the Dutch have their supporters in raptures with their superb form, they can also take further comfort from the statistics of past encounters.

Despite having beaten Italy just twice in 13 meetings since 1920, those two wins were in the three games that really mattered.

The last and most important competitive clash was in the 1978 World Cup second round. when the brilliant Dutch side of Johan Cruyff weaved their magic and won 2-1 in Buenos Aires on their way to the final.

Italy coach Dino Zoff, who went on to win the World Cup in 1982, was in goal that day and had to bow his head to the creators of total football.

The Dutch, with a free-flowing side reviving memories of those 1978 glory years as well as the 1988 European championship winners of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, may again be too much of a handful for Zoff.

The party in Holland depends on it.--Reuters