Dark memories of that brutal night in Lisbon 12 years ago have haunted Portuguese soccer ever since. The dying embers of their golden generation sparked one last charge in 2006, but since then Ronaldo’s Portugal hasn’t been able to find the guile and the drive outside of their run four years ago. In these Euros, it certainly looked like that story would have a new chapter written in it during the group stage. But as Iceland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even Italy proved, organization and a tactical identity can beat back talented teams with a lack of direction, and maybe it is fitting that this tournament ends with the ultimate example of that.
Fernando Santos had a strong legacy to build when he took over to manage Greece after the 2010 World Cup. He would know what it was like to watch a tactically superior side frustrate and hold a more talented yet disorganized side at home in a major tournament final when his country of birth lost to the nation he now managed. Portugal have had Luis Figo, Deco, Nuno Gomes and Ronaldo since that loss, but with the appointment of managers like Paulo Bento and now Santos, they learned that despite their talent they’d be best served to defend and be organized better than anyone they would face. Surprisingly, that organization looked well off the mark in the group stage, particularly against Hungary, when Ronaldo saved his team’s tournament. But that turned out to be the fly in their organizational ointment, because since then, only a moment of magic from Robert Lewandowski broke them down.
While France lick their wounds from what has been their toughest footballing day since the World Cup Final in Berlin 10 years ago, it wasn’t that long ago when criticism was hurled at Didier Deschamps for the lack of drive, zeal and inspiration his side showed against teams fairly similar to Portugal. They needed late winners against Romania and Albania, and were down against Ireland for almost 50 minutes. Only against Iceland did they look like a team with Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Dmitri Payet et al in it, and they needed fortune to smile upon them to beat back a German team that dominated them in Marseille.
England, Belgium and France all came into this tournament with boatloads of talent, but little tactical direction or organization to back that talent up. As such, they were all eliminated by teams vastly less talented but far better organized and drilled playing what would be considered negative soccer, but soccer that frustrates is plenty effective against those that can’t craft the guile and don’t have the individual moments of brilliance. Portugal took upon their opportunity with a draw that favored them and seized upon it, even if they didn’t play that well to do so.
Knockout tournaments almost never see the “best” team emerge as the winners in the end. Individual games feature individual moments, trends and tactics, and while it is highly unlikely that these defensive tactics can win knockout games consistently, on any given day teams can be frustrated and look toothless while succumbing to one moment of magic at the other end. In this tournament, where the “minnows” have swam successfully with the big fish, the trend has been for those teams to frustrate bigger and supposedly “better” opposition. And what ever happened to celebrating the underdog and defensive organization?
When Iceland shocked the world and beat England, this brand of soccer was praised almost as much as England was criticized. Italy’s so-called “worst team in generations” was able to win in a group with Belgium and Zlatan’s Sweden, and also ended Spain’s golden reign atop international football. Wales made it to the semifinal playing similar soccer to Portugal with their one talismanic star leading a group of less talented but certainly not less motivated charges behind him. France had their stars, but Antoine Griezmann’s rich vein of form ran dry for the Final and Paul Pogba couldn’t drive his team forward from his position which in the end was too deep.
With every international tournament, trends emerge that give the world a glimpse into the near-term future of the sport. World Cup 2010 brought tiki-taka onto the forefront, World Cup 2014 was the tournament of the counter-attack, and these Euros have showed that talent isn’t the ultimate indicator of success, with Portugal being the latest and greatest example. Leicester City and Iceland’s stories were built some on the failures around them, but they wouldn’t have climbed to the heights they did without their managers and tactics to spur them on. Portugal have taken that story and added another level on top.
Whether the tournament was “bad” or the right team won is beside the point. For weeks the world marveled at Northern Ireland, then Iceland and Wales. Portugal isn’t the same sort of underdog, but they didn’t do anything all that different from those sides which won over the world’s heart.
Talent alone cannot win titles. Even if it sounds basic, organization and tactical identities matter. Euro 2016 reminded the world what those can do.
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