Goals from centre-backs Diana Gomes and Carole Costa (penalty) gave Portugal women a 2-1 victory over Cameroon in New Zealand and qualification to the World Cup for the first time in the history of the female Seleção.
Gomes put Franciso Neto’s team ahead midway through the first half but a dominant Portugal were unable to convert multiple chances to increase their lead and were made to pay when Ajara Nchout equalised for Cameroon with a fine shot on the turn in the 89th minute.
But a stoppage time penalty, coolly converted by Carole Costa, gave the Seleção victory and triggered wild celebrations at the final whistle with tears aplenty as the emotional players realised their dream of playing on the highest stage.
Women’s football in Portugal has made big strides in recent years, and the Seleção (ranked 22nd in the world) went into the playoff as favourites against Cameroon (ranked 58th).
The Seleção started like a team in a hurry. Jéssica Silva’s cross in the 2nd minute had to be pushed over the bar by Cameroon goalkeeper Catherine Biya, and from the ensuing corner Kika Nazareth thudded a header against the post.
Livewire Jéssica Silva
Star player Jéssica was causing the Africans all sorts of problems with her pace and trickery, as the game was played almost entirely in the half of the pitch Portugal were attacking.
In the 22nd minute Kika lined up a free-kick 25 yards out, struck a terrific shot that beat Biya but rebounded off the post, with Diana Gomes reacting quickly to divert the rebound into the net from close range.
Cameroon at last began to show some attacking intent, Ajara Nchout trying her luck from distance but Patrícia Morais saved comfortably.
But as half time approached Portugal took a grip of proceedings again, the classy Diana Silva setting up Jéssica Silva on a plate but the winger could not finish from close range. Diana Silva then sent a header inches past the post, and Carole Costa went close.
Half time, Portugal 1-0 to the good and seemingly in control.
Portugal chances come and go
Diana Silva was involved again at the start of the second half, her acrobatic effort just clearing the bar.
In the 52nd minute Portugal hit the woodwork for the third time, Andreia Norton’s long-range effort smashing back into play off the crossbar.
The chances kept coming for Portugal, Kika blazing a presentable opportunity too high, and the young Benfica forward had another chance soon afterwards, Biya saving and Diana Silva unable to convert the rebound.
With just one goal in it, Cameroon were still in the game. The Africans began to commit more bodies forward and on 84 minutes a rapid counter-attack released substitute Michaela Abam who ran behind the Portugal defence and finished confidently, but the Seleção were saved by a VAR check and an offside decision.
Cameroon were now applying heavy pressure, Portugal finding it difficult to keep the ball far from their net, and in the 89th minute Nchout received a square pass just inside the box, swivelled and hit a firm low shot past Morais to level the score.
With extra time looming and Cameroon looking stronger than they had throughout the 90 minutes, Francisco Neto and his coaching staff may have feared the Seleção had blown their big World Cup chance.
But a swift counter-attack saw the ball worked to Andreia Jacinto, whose goal-bound effort was cut out by the sliding Estelle Johnson with her elbow. Penalty to Portugal!
Carole Costa stepped up, took several deep breaths, and slotted the ball low into the corner.
The Seleção saw out the remaining five minutes of stoppage time without alarm and the whole Portuguese delegation exploded in joy upon the referee blowing the final whistle.
Tough task awaits
The World Cup will be held in Australia and New Zealand from 20 July to 20 August. Portugal are in Group E alongside the current world champions United States of America, and Netherlands and Vietnam.
It is obviously a tough ask to make progress in a group that contains the two finalists from the previous World Cup.
However, the Seleção also played Netherlands in last year’s European Championship, losing narrowly 3-2, and given the improved competitiveness of the team year on year, it is sure Portugal women will look to do more than merely make up the numbers at the tournament.
Francisco Neto, Portugal coach:
“It was a very tough objective, but we did it! It’s a feeling of immense joy, that must be shared with all the Portuguese people, the staff of all the clubs who helped these players, and the Portuguese Football Federation. I’m very emotional right now.”
By Tom Kundert