“Whatever you may think of Ronaldo”, began almost every hastily written reactionary sentence at the midway point in the first half of the Euro 2016 final, “he doesn’t deserve this”.
Cristiano Ronaldo had crumpled to the floor for the second time in five minutes, after battling on in a futile attempt to recover from what seemed to be a serious knee ligament injury. Dimitri Payet had barged into him, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically, and the Portuguese forward’s knee opened up awkwardly. As Ronaldo crashed to the turf like a giant tree felled in a storm, all of Portugal, nay, the world, held its breath.
Ronaldo is many things, but first and foremost the man from Madeira is a winner. A champion athlete whom future generations will regard as the gold standard when it comes to competing and sheer willpower. Thus, to see him weep disconsolately and see his sculpted specimen shudder with the fatal realisation that his night was over, was a jolt to the senses. The grand finale’s finest character had exited unceremoniously, carried off from centre-stage.
Ronaldo’s injury galvanises Portugal
The Euro 2016 final had begun with reasonable urgency, with France keen to assert their dominance over a Portugal team that looked slightly out of their depth. The Portuguese had qualified from third place without winning a game in the knockout stages against Gabor Kiraly’s Hungary, David Alaba’s Austria and Birkir ‘Thor’ Bjarnason’s Iceland. They had barely scraped through against Croatia and Poland in extra time, and had found some measure of attacking form against Wales in the semi-final. But surely, this was one step too far. Surely, it was destined that France’s golden generation would lift the trophy at home.
And then, in the 24th minute, Ronaldo fell.
Ricardo Quaresma came on for his captain. Nani pushed up as the lone striker and the midfield flattened out to a more conservative five-man shield, with William Carvalho at its base.
Strangely, the injury seemed to galvanise Portugal more than it did France, who looked flat and incapable of taking advantage of Portugal’s apparent predicament. The first half saw a few half chances for either side, with the Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio making some decent saves from an Antoine Griezmann header and a couple of Moussa Sissoko shots. However, there was little by way of urgency or creativity from the French.
The golden generation fails at final hurdle
Paul Pogba, the £100-million-rated man, was a vestigial footballer in this final, invisible to the point of being useless and painfully ordinary when called into action. Portugal’s midfield tactics smothered him of any space, and the young Frenchman is yet to show that he can take international games by the scruff of their neck and choke them into submission. He and the awkwardly limbed Blaise Matuidi chose the wrong night to have their worst games for France in a while.
Sissoko was one player willing to take the game to Portugal, but after a rambunctious first half, the right-winger reverted to type and failed to find any end product to his desperate efforts. Olivier Giroud was cut off from any midfield service whatsoever at one point and had to wait till just before coming off to get his first shot on target, which was well saved again by Rui Patricio. His replacement, Andre-Pierre Gignac, went agonisingly close in added time at the end of the game, as his scuffed shot hit the inside of the post, and that was that for the French.
Portugal had remained steady, playing to their strengths and calmly clearing danger as and when the ball approached their final third. Poor crossing from either wing from the French made their jobs relatively easier, but Pepe and Jose Fonte were rocks in defence, repelling any attack from the muted Griezmann and Payet.
An unlikely hero
It was in extra time that Eder, the man who had been hastily sold by Swansea to cut their losses the same season they bought him, reminded us all that 2016 is possibly the strangest year in footballing memory.
As Griezmann shied away from a 50-50 challenge, the ball broke to the gangly striker, who had come on in the second half, with a single message from Ronaldo – that he would score and write himself into the history books.
He shrugged off an exhausted Laurent Koscielny, saw that Samuel Umtiti was unwilling to close him down, and blasted the ball from 30 yards towards goal. A stunning low effort past a despairing Lloris nestled into the bottom corner, and a nation erupted.
Portugal – European champions
This was a deflated, attritional final. The trials and tribulation of a long-winded tournament and a taxing season seemed to have hit France hard at just the wrong moment. The weight of expectation was ultimately too much for the Blues, and they looked defeated the moment they went down. To their credit, Portugal looked sharp and focused all throughout.
As Mark Clattenberg blew the final whistle and Portugal celebrated their first ever major trophy, Fernando Santos, the Portuguese coach, was lifted high in the air by his team. His tactics had been questioned, his team mocked before this final. He had to face injury problems and responded with calm, assured man-management. He believed in his team and worked hard to make them a redoubtable defensive unit. “We were as simple as doves and wise as serpents,” he said post-match, when the dust had settled.
Whatever you may think of Pepe, he deserves all the plaudits for his defensive masterclass. Whatever you may think of Nani, he’s shown that he can be a leader of men. Whatever you may think of Eder, his name will forever be etched in Portuguese history. Whatever you may think of Santos, his astute thinking left more celebrated managers in the shade.
Whatever you may think of the Portugal national football team, they are deserving European Champions.