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LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's Eusebio on Thursday blasted the golden goal penalty that caused his country's semifinal exit from Euro 2000.

Eusebio, who thrilled crowds at the 1966 World Cup finals, backed Portuguese defender Abel Xavier, saying he had not deliberately handled the ball in the closing minutes of extra time in Wednesday night's clash against France.

"What happened yesterday was inadmissible and unforgivable. Portugal were eliminated by a linesman who was scared of France, scared of the World Champions," Eusebio wrote in sports daily O Jogo.

Austrian referee Guenter Benko awarded the penalty after linesman Igor Sramka of Slovakia flagged Xavier for handling the ball close to the goal-line inside the penalty area.

Zinedine Zidane then shot the ball home from the spot to give France a 2-1 victory.

Eusebio argued that small countries suffered from institutional bias and said Benko earlier failed to spot Nicolas Anelka offside as he passed the ball to Thierry Henry for the French equaliser.

"We were hindered in '66 and have been penalised again for being a country with a small voice at world level," he said.

Older Portuguese soccer fans maintain their World Cup 1966 side was tired from being forced to make unnecessary journeys before losing the semifinal to England, who went on to win the tournament.

But Eusebio heaped praise on a masterful French side and said Portugal could be proud of their unbeaten run to the semifinals.

All of Portugal's dailies ran huge front-page pictures of tearful, angry and bewildered players or fans.

But many urged readers to recall some brilliant games in the tournament, including a 3-2 victory over England after coming back from 2-0 down.

"Don't cry Portugal," said sports daily A Bola, the country's top-selling paper. "A referee's decision...cannot besmirch a run of successful displays that made Portugal a happier country."
 
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