Fifty matches have been played over thirty days. With a total of 107 goals, 195 yellow, and just three red cards, we are now one match away from a new European Champion.
The venue, Stade de France, situated in the northern Parisian suburb of Stade Denis, is where, 18 years ago, the current national team manager – and then the captain – Didier Deschamps lifted the World Cup after defeating Brazil. Nearly two decades ago, it was Zinedine Zidane who spearheaded Les Bleus. This year, his former captain will watch, and instruct from the sidelines, as his team takes on Portgual, who will start as underdogs, even though captain Cristiano Ronaldo has probably never played for a side not the favourite in a final.
Portugal’s route to the final has been dubbed as scrappy and pragmatic. They haven’t wowed audiences, and their uninspiring football has not done enough to warrant support from neutral fans. Portugal will not care what the pundits or critics have said about them. They are a minimum of 90 minutes away from being crowned the best footballing nation in Europe this year.
There's more at stake here than just winning. Portugal can lay claim to an unexpected European triumph, one that would massage the ego of their star player, especially with his nemesis losing a fourth national team final. And a French side consisting of late bloomers and mature young talent stand opposite them, with an entire nation’s battle cry ringing loud in their ears.
France’s home disadvantage
While home team advantage is a huge benefit, a dismal performance at home is not enough to carry the hosts through till the last game. Ask David Luiz and Brazil. Playing at home makes the good players better, and the excellent players phenomenal. France have had such heroes in the past.
In the 1984 European Championship, Michel Platini scored nine goals at home, leading the French to their first international title. In the second half of the 1990s, up till the turn of the millennium, every young French footballer had the likes of Zidane, Lillian Thuram, Thierry Henry, and Youri Djorkaeff as idols. They triumphed as European and World Champions in successive tournaments, laying the foundation for individual greatness.
This time around, till the semi final, France’s road to the final stages was largely passive. Deschamps experimented with different systems in this tournament, even to the extent of drastically shuffling his tactics in the course of a game. With Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, and N’Golo Kanté at his disposal, a decision to play with a walled, three-man midfield has been tested against a double-pivot. Mercurial forward Antoine Greizmann has shifted from a classic number 10 role to playing further forward, closer, and in tandem with target man Olivier Giroud.
Griezmann is the tournament’s tops scorer. He has scored six goals so far, three better than any other player, and has emerged as a totem for the French national squad. As a young player, Griezmann was booted out of France for being physically diminutive, and continued his early education in Spain’s Basque country with Real Sociedad. Alongside him, France’ s motley crew of tournament starters such as Kanté, Giroud, Dimitri Payet, and Laurent Koscielny all made the side on the back of their individual, and club football success – not through elite academy education, without the hype of being touted as the “next big thing.”
It is hard to ignore the cultural significance of France's winning a tournament on home soil. Last November, the horrific Bataclan attacks hurt Paris. However, the sport has continued to be played, and has found a safe space. The people of France will be out on the streets supporting their eleven compatriots on the pitch. There will be fireworks if their men can pull off a victory. And it will definitely help the country on their path to recovery.
Pantomine villains Portugal
It is almost impossible to write about Portugal without mentioning Cristiano Ronaldo – football’s public enemy number one. A man who will not fail to carry through a solo celebration after a team pile-up celebration. Because, well, the sport pages need their money shot, don’t they?
Then again, Portugal have played tediously and not tactically. They have left things late, and if Hungary had “nipped it in the bud” when they had Portugal down 3-2, we’d probably be looking at Ronaldo’s vacation photographs and not this:
Like France, Portugal too have had their fair share of away time from Europe’s elite. Despite a solitary pop star in their squad, players like Ricardo Quaresma and Luis Nani find themselves one win away from salvaging rather underwhelming individual careers. José Fonte, whose first senior cap was awarded at the age of 31, can go back to Southampton a European Cup winner at the age of 32.
Twelve years ago, Luis Figo captained his nation into the European Championship finals. The Portuguese lost, stunned by a Greek side in a tame one-nil defeat. Only two players – Ricardo Carvalho and Cristiano Ronaldo – remain from that squad. In some aspects, this tournament, and the final in particular, can also become strong launch pad for the young players in the squad.
The oh-very-young Renato Sanches moved to Bayern München this year with a very high price tag, while Borussia Dortmund have snapped up young left back Raphaël Guerreiro. In William Carvalho they have a player whose maturity at 24 has given this team much needed stability, while another young talent, Andre Gomes, has big clubs knocking at Valencia’s door enquiring how many million euros they’d have to spend for him.
In what could be a final international tournament for defensive stalwarts Bruno Alves, and most definitely Ricardo Carvalho, given France’s emotional weight, Portugal could go down as European villains, led by the undisputed sporting egotist Cristiano Ronaldo. In the process, they could ruin an entire nation’s Sunday night.
The final observations
Statistics and numbers will take a back seat in this final. France have been solid in defence in their last two games, and up front, Giroud’s lack of pace has been compensated for by Griezmann’s fine form. For France to win this, Deschamps has to find the right balance in the midfield. Pogba and Matuidi boss the space, but with William Carvalho back again for selection, the manager has a headache deciding wether Premier League winner Kanté would be needed to disrupt Portuguese momentum.
For Portgual, this match serves as a test of mental strength. Their squad does not lack individual talent, but rather than Cristiano Ronaldo and ten men, Fernando Santos would want his side to show up as one cohesive unit, tracking back, and moving forward together instead of attempting feeble pokes at the French goal.