DONETSK, UKRAINE // Portugal left Euro 2012 after having created a new appreciation for their abilities. A side that drew with Cyprus and lost to Norway in their opening qualifying matches came within touching distance of a place in the final before losing 4-2 to Spain on penalties.
Paulo Bento, the coach who rejuvenated and reinvigorated Portugal after Carlos Queiroz's departure in September 2010, saw his side recover from an opening Group B loss to Germany to score wins over Denmark and Holland, and then the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals.
"We played fantastically through the qualifiers and we had a very good tournament here," he said.
"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 praise could not fully dull the pain of a third Euro semi-final defeat, following last-four losses to France in 1984 and 2000.
After neither side scored in 120 minutes, the pivotal penalty was Bruno Alves's shot that hit the crossbar and rebounded away with Spain leading the shoot-out 3-2.
Cesc Fabregas clinched victory for Spain by making it 4-2. His spot kick also hit the woodwork but ricocheted into the goal instead of away from it.
Discussion afterwards focused on why Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal's captain and joint top-scorer in the finals with three goals, did not take a penalty. Bento said he was going to take the fifth penalty.
Ronaldo left with his reputation further enhanced after some fine displays. He was relatively subdued against Spain, but he still went close with two free kicks and had a chance of sealing the match near the end but shot wide. 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 had the misfortune of hitting the woodwork four times in his five games.
With Nani on the other flank, Portugal produced some of the competition's most exciting football, with the duo always looking to go forward in search of a goal.
Bento said his team's performance "is one our country can look back on with confidence and pride".