By Yarone Arbel
|Tony Parker walks off the court after the devastating semi-final loss to Greece at EuroBasket 2005. |
EuroBasket 2011 is entering its final stretch with Spain, France, F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Russia battling for a place on the podium.
The four teams that made it this far were actually sending clear signals from the start, and in a way it's the most predictable EuroBasket, considering the results during the games as each of the four finalists came from a different First Round group, which all four won.
The split continues also with the Second Round as the top two ranked teams from each side are the ones which made the semi-finals.
Now it's crunch time and each side is carrying its own load of history.
The underdogs from F.Y.R. of Macedonia are here obviously for the first time ever, but the other three are a bit more experienced.
Russia and Spain are the only teams that have won titles, yet each won just once.
The more interesting story among the four is that of France.
No other team in Europe has participated in more EuroBaskets than Les Bleus.
In 37 European Championships they have missed only two, and hold the record for more appearances, yet in none of those they lifted the cup.
Moreover, and more worryingly ahead of Friday's game, they have never won a semi-final.
There's only one silver medal for France, it's dating back to 1949, yet in that EuroBasket as in some others back in the day there was no semi-final round.
France reached the game that leads to the finals no less than seven times and failed to win time after time.
Three of these encounters took place back in time - 1937, 1946 and 1961 - the first two against arch-rival Italy and the latter against emerging Yugoslavia in Belgrade, yet recent French history isn't that more encouraging.
In 1991 they lost by 21 points to the great Yugoslavia of Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Sasa Danilovic and co.
In 1999 they faced Spain in a fight for a shot at the title, but lost by seven points as Alberto Herreros knocked down 29 points.
2003 in Sweden was the next time, and it was closer than ever before till that point.
Against Sarunas Jasikevicius, on an almost triple-double night, and Ramunas Siskauskas it was France who had the chance to win the game with the last possession down by two points, but a memorable turnover by Tony Parker allowed Lithuania to celebrate a 74-70 win.
The last visit was two years later, in 2005, and once again it was a big almost for France, bigger than ever actually.
France were already up by seven points with 47 seconds to go, but saw Greece pull what later became a classic Greek comeback capped by a huge three-pointer right before the buzzer by Dimitris Diamantidis, that stunned France 67-66.
Seven semi-finals in total.
Four of them in the last 20 years.
That is four semi-final losses in the last 10 EuroBaskets.
If there's any good news in this, it's for Russia, as three of the last four teams that passed at the expense of France went on the win the gold medal.
Yet France seem to move closer and closer to reaching their goal.
From a 21-point loss to just seven, to a missed chance to win the game, to dropping a good lead inside the last minute with a buzzer beater.
Losing any closer than in 2005 is not possible.
Does it mean 2011 is the time of France to finally break a drought longer than any other team in Europe and make it to the top game of the continent?