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Euro 2016

Euro 2016’s champions Portugal cap a disappointing tournament

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It was almost fitting that Cristiano Ronaldo, the last vestige of Portugal’s great attacking tradition, only lasted twenty-five minutes before coming off – injured and in tears – at the Euro 2016 final on Sunday.

If Portugal were going to win their first major tournament championship at the Stade de France – which they somehow did, in extra time, thanks to a magical strike from substitute striker Eder – it was always going to be with hard work, defense, and little else.

A player of Ronaldo’s stature hardly fit in this Portugal outfit. Theirs was a team that started a pair of Southampton players in defense, and won the tournament with a goal from a Swansea City reject.

Manager Fernando Santos showed little ambition to attack, and as it turns out, he didn’t need to. Portugal’s uncompromisingly dour style was enough in a tournament that never sparked for more than a moment at a time.

The numbers will tell quite the story. Portugal won Euro 2016 despite failing to win six of the seven games they played in normal time.

Had the championship of the continent not expanded to 24 teams – a gift from the disgraced French legend and former head of UEFA Michel Platini – Portugal wouldn’t have made the tournament or advanced from the group stage.

But they just managed to hang around. Got past Croatia in extra time, Poland on penalties, a shorthanded Wales with two goals in three minutes, and then managed to frustrate France until Eder struck.

Of course, Portugal did get some tremendous performances. Their defense, led by an unusually composed Pepe, was tremendous. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio was solid all month long, and played the game of his life in the final.

Santos got his team to buy in. Older, enigmatic players like Ricardo Quaresma – and especially Nani – played a big part. The Portuguese fans, who understand the pain of losing a final as favorites on home soil, have waited a long time for this moment.

But if we’re being honest, their having taken the trophy – with just a single win in normal time in their seven games in France – is about as far from ideal as possible.

This was supposed to be France’s game. The culmination of the program’s revival after the disgrace of the 2010 World Cup, a crowning moment for Antoine Griezmann, and a joyous occasion for a country badly in need of a lift after the terrorist attacks of last winter.

France had the better team, and by some distance. What’s more, it’d been decades since Les Blues had either lost either to Portugal or in a competitive home international.

But it was the saga of Ronaldo’s injury that slowed Didier Deschamps’ team after a bright start. Center forwards Olivier Giroud and Andre-Pierre Gignac had a good chance apiece, but the best opportunity fell to Griezmann in the second half.

The little provocateur arrived at Euro 2016 suffering from fatigue both mental and physical after his missed penalty in the Champions League Final contributed heavily to Atletico Madrid’s defeat at the hands of a Real Madrid team led in part by Ronaldo and Pepe.

More importantly, Griezmann’s sister was in the Bataclan theater when that venue was attacked last November. There are few players to whom scoring the winning goal would have meant more.

But it didn’t happen for Griezmann or his team. Fatigue may have played a part. Dimitri Payet all but disappeared after the group stage, while Paul Pogba never accessed his best. As an outfit, outside of the inspirational Patrice Evra, the hosts looked labored.

It didn’t help that Deschamps was out-coached. More than his surprisingly early introduction of Eder – who’d never scored a competitive international goal in his career – Santos’ decision to bring on Joao Moutinho was a smart call. The two substitutes combined for the winner.

France looked the part at times, but this tournament didn’t have a great team. In truth, it was Italy that came closest to that mantle. In the end, though, they couldn’t quite overcome their lack of talent.

It was Ronaldo, who was hopping around the Portuguese technical area in extra time – and even, at one point, the French one – who got an unlikely happy ending. You can say plenty about the star, but this clearly meant a great deal to him.

So while these European champions might comprise one of Portugal’s worst teams of the last two decades, they will never be forgotten.

But though this team might be celebrated at home, it certainly won’t be celebrated around the world. In some ways, with a third-placed team grinding through a watered-down field, UEFA got the champion it deserved.

Denmark, drafted into Euro ’92 because of the Yugoslav wars, did it and was applauded. Much the same for the Greece team that beat Portugal on home soil in 2004.

But Portugal? The team of Eusebio, Luis Figo, Deco, Rui Costa, and Cristiano Ronaldo? You’d expect more. They’ve won this tournament, but a place next to the Danes and Greeks in European Championship history might not be just what this country had in mind for breaking its major tournament duck.

Portugal was, at best, difficult to watch. They weren’t exactly villains, but they played the most rudimentary football possible. Their greatest knack was sucking the life out of every knockout match they played.

We should want teams who try to play well and carry games – Germany, Spain, even this France side – to win tournaments. Upsets are great, of course, try as Portugal might to play the part of football minnow, it’s not like Wales or Iceland just won the championship.

This tournament had a handful of unforgettable moments, but at its peak, and too often in the buildup to that peak, it failed to deliver. Sunday was a great day for Portugal. For everyone else? Not so much.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. David

    July 12, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    For me, Euro 2016 was pretty awful overall. Out of all the games, only like 4-5 were good. The new format with added teams and third place teams making the knockout rounds ruined it. It’s pretty pathetic when the Euro winner makes it out of the group stage not having won a single match. During the group stage, most teams sat back and were happy playing for a point. With so many teams qualifying for the knockout rounds, there really was no incentive for teams to take risks and attack. The only memory I will take away from Euro 2016 is the incredible fans from Iceland and their Viking chant.

    • MikeReece

      July 12, 2016 at 10:02 pm

      The problem goes beyond the group stage, though. It continued into the knockout rounds because the excuse then became; “It’s too risky to play attacking football”. This should be seen by neutrals and those who love the sport as an unacceptable stance. But it is now the acceptable view permeating the sport.. It makes soccer anti-competitive and inherently cynical. It should be seen as unacceptable on its face.

  2. gargoyle

    July 12, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    I totally enjoyed Euro 2016 from start to finish and have no idea why people are slagging it.

  3. Tony

    July 12, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Shouldn’t the onus be on attacking teams to break down organized defenses? If defensive football always won, Atletico would win every single title. France didn’t have the quality to break down Portugal and lost, end of story.

    • MikeReece

      July 12, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      Defensive football does not “always have to win” for this orientation (cagey football) to be a problem. It simply has to succeed enough times to become an acceptable excuse for too many teams and coaches.

      As to where the onus lies, one has to realize that it is easier to defend than to attack. It is easier to destroy than to create. This is obvious from the fact that more and more teams are now choosing to defend. So the sport has to correspondingly reward teams that do attack. Moreover, the sport has to understand that neutrals are important for the growth of the game, and to rationalize the staggering sums of money now being bid for broadcasting rights of major leagues and tournaments. Neutrals do not want to watch teams park the bus and nick a goal (if one is lucky) eventually. It’s dead boring and that’s the simple truth.

  4. MikeReece

    July 12, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    Abe, remember we had a similar problem with the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup as well, when teams bunkered and played cagey, park-the bus tactics….exemplified particularly by the Dutch in that awful semifinal against Argentina. It is a problem we see in many big matches where conservative, cowardly tactics have become the “sensible” way to obtain a result.

    We even see it too often in regular league play when big matches tend to be bores because teams are too timid to be adventurous and settle for a Nil-Nil -which gives them a point- or a fluky 1 goal win. Jose Mourinho, for example, has mastered this brand of cynicism.

    The problem will continue unless teams are forced to be more adventurous and play with more abandon. This requires rule changes and too many soccer “purists” are resistant to this notion. So our sport continues this decay into the farcical. Nil-Nil matches should henceforth be awarded 0 points. It does not matter if one teams do a great job defending in such matches. They should not receive a point. Teams may defend exceptionally well and lose a match by a goal or so. Well, they do not get a point for “trying” do they?

    It is easier to defend than to attack. so teams and coaches settle for defensive play and take the rewards given. In elimination matches of tournaments, teams that attack and produce legitimate shots on target have to be put through to the next round over the competition. This is the only way to force teams to play football that the neutral cares to watch. If we are concerned about bringing new people into this sport, there have to be changes and the changes suggested above do not compromise the integrity of the game. They actually sustain it.

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