What Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory means for the near-term future of soccer
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.