No, it was not their manager Fernando Santos, who spun around like a kitten in the Portuguese technical area in the 112th minute, but Cristiano Ronaldo, back and bandaged, when Rui Patricio collected a French cross from the left. With his touchline finger-pointing, he wanted to pass on primordial assignments to his colleagues, drawing tactics into the Parisian night sky. Ronaldo prowled, a synchronised understudy to Santos, who paced from left to right and back with his captain as his personal assistant, almost attached by an umbilical cord.
Then, not in the slightest due to his galactic aura, Ronaldo became Fernando Santos. Ronaldo the manager was completely unlike the pragmatic image of Santos, a somewhat staunch, often besieged, coach, but a persona behaving with the madness of a rabid dog, barely containing himself, his patella bulging, threatening to break free, eviscerating the bandage. Ronaldo waved and waved, an old gristmill in perpetual motion.
But his histrionics were a momentum swinger. A few metres to Ronaldo’s right, French coach Didier Deschamps stood alone in his technical area, a sombre solitude among 75,868 partisan fans and millions of television viewers, screaming Les Bleus forward. His face was a grimace of despair, a cringe in his small lips.
In general, a major final tends to have a strict scenario. Teams are risk averse, exposure is a complete taboo, and, so, in the last two decades finals have been toilsome and exhausting, and not so much representative of the beautiful game as an incubator of the ugly counterpart.
In a way, purely pragmatically, that suits television. Impulsion and surprise are totally banned, bar the one audacious pitch invader or streaker, a signal for the cameras to swoon away briskly, and, if need be, zoom in on the empyreal and the moon’s crusty surface.
France vs Portugal was different. Ronaldo succeeded in gleaming over the final, in a thespian manner. In the early afternoon, when the Stade de France was still a shining bowl of deserted seats, the stadium announcers were rehearsing. On the big screen, Ronaldo had scored. “Three-nil for Portugal,” belted the Portuguese announcer, because earlier France’s Antoine Griezmann had already scored two fictional goals.
Could Cristiano Ronaldo later on Sunday shape a magical 3-0 dream world, the culmination of a four-week dull and dreary procession of cautious slow-motion football? Portugal’s utopia did not involve anything occult or cabalistic, but gold medals – minted in an obscure UEFA-bunker somewhere beneath a Swiss alp – bungling around their necks.
CR7, the hero
Indeed, Ronaldo had heroism in mind, in the plenitude of the word: ninety minutes of courage, bravery, fortitude and unselfishness, ennobled by the altruistic goal of winning Euro 2016 and a major tournament for the Selecao, a coronation of his unwavering self-belief and determination. Tragically instead, disaster struck in a final that ultimately never recovered from Dimitri Payet’s astoundingly abrasive, outright deplorable and even cynical challenge on Ronaldo in the eighth minute.
France had imposed a eight-minute swagger, akin to the opening exchanges of the semi-final against Germany, on their opponents, but Payet’s foul demeanour incrementally eroded their game. By the 18th minute, Portugal’s No 7 was lachrymose, the magnitude and finality of his injury siphoning through. Ronaldo regrouped. He is, after all, a terminator who keeps going and going, even when the momentum is heavily, if not completely, skewed against him. He asserts that he is the universe’s best, though entangled in a perennial tussle with Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
Thus, Ronaldo got up and limped to the touchline to strap his thigh and knee, a last-minute antidote to an all-crushing Portu-collapse. Ronaldo hobbled and hobbled, limped and limped, and then threw the captain’s armband in dismay at the floor, capitulating to the nagging pain and his defunct knee. A moth buzzed around his face, as if consoling him. In tears, Ronaldo was stretchered off, a lonely figure, notwithstanding 8,000 vociferous Portuguese fans in the stands, millions of aficionados back home and a few soothing words from Didier Deschamps.
The winner the tournament deserved
Inadvertently, the theatre surrounding their talisman spurred a Portuguese renaissance. Portugal’s defensive block coalesced even more, a granite shape marshalled by the imperious Pepe. France scampered, frightened and tried to terrify a CR7-less Portugal. Moussa Sissoko was a light bulb in a blue-collar team. Griezmann, France’s boyish darling, nearly headed his way to immortality. But, in extra time, Eder crowned Portugal European champions with a blistering shot from yards out.
With Portugal, Euro 2016 got the winner the tournament deserved – an uninspiring and vapid team that finished third in the group stages behind Iceland and Hungary, and then eliminated Croatia, Poland and Wales en route to the Saint-Denis climax, with an overall record of single win inside the 90 minutes – a Ronaldo-driven enterprise, but without much gusto. At the end, Ronaldo, the “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” athlete, however, rightly won the gold medal.
In today’s corporate, money-obsessed football, Ronaldo’s tears and intimate relationship with the Portugal shirt were a refreshing expression of authenticity. At 2.20 am on Monday morning, the Portuguese players sang and danced as they exited the stadium, this time as European champions, leaving a shell-shocked and gloomy country in their wake.