Not the Final Four Most Had Forecast

Long before they ran out of gas at Euro 2004, some of the world's greatest soccer players climbed aboard motor scooters to drive home a promotional campaign for Adidas sportswear.

The "Road to Lisbon" is the theme of the television commercial, which features England's David Beckham, France's Zinedine Zidane, Italy's Alessandro del Piero, Germany's Oliver Kahn and Spain's Raul among a fleet of highly priced bikers maneuvering its way through the Portuguese countryside, bound for Lisbon, site of next Sunday's European Championships final.

A funny thing happened on the road to Lisbon ...

Beckham and Zidane pulled off at the quarterfinals.

Beckham was last seen proving he could indeed hit a worse penalty kick than wife Victoria, the former Spice Girl.

Zidane was escorted out of the tournament a day later by a big, fast Greek defense.

Kahn, Raul and Del Piero didn't even get that far. All were ousted in the first round, a triple crown of underachievement that was quickly greeted by national-team coaching changes in Germany, Spain and Italy.

A follow-up commercial with scooters stranded in ditches and overgrown fields, their tires still spinning, sadly isn't on the docket.

Instead, Adidas and Euro 2004 will be haunted by these images of best-laid plans gone horribly awry -- and one terribly prescient advertising slogan:

"Impossible Is Nothing."

Greece, ranked 33rd in the world before this tournament began, is in the semifinals, having beaten host Portugal, 2-1, in group play and 2000 champion France, 1-0, in the quarterfinals.

The Netherlands, previously 0-4 all-time in penalty shootouts, joined Greece in the semifinals by winning a penalty shootout.

Before Euro 2004, this had never happened. In fact, the Netherlands didn't seem to know another way out of a tournament than to botch from the penalty spot.

Saturday in Faro-Loule, the Netherlands was at it again, locked in a shootout after playing 120 scoreless minutes against Sweden.

Neutral fans watching around the globe somberly shook their heads and consoled one another: Orange you glad you don't root for Holland?

It was only a matter of time until the Netherlands missed.

Sure enough, it came on the fourth kick, with Philip Cocu, who came up short against Brazil in '98, hitting the left post, keeping the also-jittery Swedes alive at 3-3.

Just before, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fredrick Ljungberg had misfired for Sweden.

Ibrahimovic put his high over the crossbar.

Ljungberg hit the crossbar.

Yet, for the Netherlands, only one of these misfires qualified as good news.

Ljungberg's shot caromed down off the crossbar and struck the back of the Netherlands' sprawling goalkeeper, Edwin Van Der Sar, the ball taking a bounce off his spine and rolling over the goal line.

Such is Dutch luck at these things. Sweden hits high, hits the bar and still manages to convert.

At 4-4, the teams moved to sudden death. Also known throughout Dutch pubs and cafes as "closing time."

But then, the sixth Swedish kicker, defender Olof Mellberg, had his attempt blocked by Van Der Sar.

The Dutch were one conversion away from a shootout victory.

Arjen Robben, only 20, stepped to the spot. This time, youth and inexperience favored the Dutch. Oblivious to all old horrors, Robben drilled his effort past Swedish keeper Andreas Isaksson, and the Netherlands, at last, had won the lottery.

England, of course, was another story.

Another team notoriously terrorized by the penalty spot, the English lost their Thursday quarterfinal shootout with Portugal, 6-5 -- exiting the tournament the same way they departed the 1990 and 1998 World Cups and Euro '96.

The English have seen this happen so often, they're now recycling scripts. First acted out against Argentina in '98, England repeated the plot last week against Portugal:

* Defender Sol Campbell has the potential winning goal disallowed in controversial fashion.

* England misses twice in the shootout.

* Beckham winds up the goat.

Two quarterfinals went to penalty kicks. A third produced a 1-0 verdict.

Sunday, the Czech Republic established itself as the newest, latest championship favorite with a 3-0 thrashing of Denmark, forward Milan Baros scoring twice to become the tournament's leading scorer with five goals in four matches.

The final four:

Wednesday in Lisbon, Portugal and the Netherlands meet in a matchup of Euro 2000 semifinal losers.

Thursday in Porto, Greece's hyperactive defenders face a difficult test in a Czech squad that has scored 10 goals in four matches.

Greece has played three of the pre-tournament favorites -- Portugal, Spain and France -- and has limited them to two goals in 270 minutes of relentless group defending. The Athens Olympic Organizing Committee should be so organized.

Then again, maybe that explains all the construction delays in Athens.

Instead of building roofs and assembling stadium staircases, the Greeks have obviously been preoccupied practicing their man-marking and clearing headers.

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