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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