St.Denis, France: Cristiano Ronaldo was crying, his chest heaving, his knee throbbing, his heart aching like never before. Ronaldo, prone on the turf, sat up slowly and did what he surely never imagined having to do in a game like this: he wrapped his captain’s armband around a teammate as his eyes clouded over. Then he lay back, shimmied onto a stretcher and was carried to the locker room.
That moment, just 24 minutes into the final of the European Championships at the Stade de France, felt critical. One of the biggest stars in the sport going off after less than half an hour? It was the sort of twist that can— that should—define an entire match. And it did.
Portugal, faced with the loss of its leader and its motor and its man who is always in lights, did not wither or wilt or wobble.
Instead, the Portuguese dug in, carried the match into extra time and—with Ronaldo hobbling up and down the sideline —stunned France with a goal in the 109th minute, beating the hosts 1-0 to claim Portugal’s first major soccer trophy.
“We said we would win it for him,” Pepe, the Portuguese defender, said of Ronaldo. Pepe grinned. “And we just managed to win it for him.”
They did, though it was far from pretty. Portugal’s run at this tournament was strange: it tied all three of its preliminary-round games, finishing in third place in its group (behind Hungary and Iceland), but in this first Euros of 24 teams, it qualified for the round of 16 anyway.
Then, after a late goal by Iceland in its final group game shunted Portugal to the opposite side of the draw away from juggernauts such as Italy, Spain, England, France and Germany, it edged past Croatia in extra time, beat Poland in a nervy penalty shootout and knocked off Wales in the semifinals—its only win in regulation of the tournament—before pulling off the shocker on Sunday.
Critics will say that Portugal was far from entertaining. The team led for only 73 minutes of the 720 it played at this event, but the results were undeniable. Even without Ronaldo, Portugal never faltered.
“It defies description; it could be a Hollywood movie,” Portugal’s José Fonte said afterward. “We’ve written our names down in history.”
At the final whistle, while Portugal’s players piled on one another in celebration, the French players sank to the turf.
For a country still recovering from the terrorist attacks last November and enduring nationwide flooding as well as constant worker strikes, the Euros were seen as a chance to celebrate something grand together. To smile.
In the end, there was, perhaps, a surface satisfaction: the tournament was run smoothly, security was largely effective and there were no major incidents, but the lingering feeling for the French will be the disappointment of falling just short.
France had plenty of chances on Sunday, too, including one at the end of regulation when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post. Yet there was no precision, no bite, as France showed in its semifinal victory over Germany. Antoine Griezmann, who was France’s star and scored a tournament-high six goals over the last month, struggled to make an impact and missed an open header from six yards out with his best chance of the game.
“Football can be very cruel,” France’s captain, Hugo Lloris, said. “The overriding emotion is a lot of sadness.”
Adding to that was most likely the notion that this was an opportunity missed because of the void left by Ronaldo, who was barely on the field at all. Just eight minutes into the match, France’s Dimitri Payet poked the ball away from him with one foot while Payet’s trailing leg crashed into the side of Ronaldo’s left knee.
Ronaldo crumpled immediately. No foul was called, and few players from Portugal protested, but the damage was clear. Ronaldo received treatment and tried to return to the field but went down again a few minutes later.
Then, after another discussion with the trainers (and with his leg wrapped), he tried to play once more before, ultimately, sinking to the ground a final time.
Twelve years ago, Ronaldo cried on the field after Portugal was shocked by Greece, 1-0, in the final of its own home Euros in Lisbon. Ever since, he had spoken of trying to deliver to Portugal that long-craved glory, and having finally reached the precipice again, he broke down once it was clear that he would not be able to see it through.
“It was unfortunate,” Ronaldo said. “But I always believed that these players, together with the coach’s strategy, would be strong enough.”
They were. Fernando Santos, the Portugal coach, took over the team in 2014, and after losing his first match in charge to France, in this stadium in an exhibition, Santos told the players that their goal should be to return here for this final.
That statement stuck. And even once Ronaldo exited, Santos made all the right decisions, shifting Portugal’s formation to stifle France’s attack and, later, bringing on Éder—a forward who is often criticized for inconsistent play—who delivered the title-winning goal.
With France pushing forward to try and score in extra time, there was an opening for Portugal, and Éder slid to his right just outside the penalty area. With a sliver of space, he unleashed a wicked shot from about 25 yards out that whizzed past Lloris’s hand and rippled the net in front of the Portuguese fans.
“We knew we could surprise them at any moment,” Éder said. “So that’s what we did.”
The final 10 minutes were frantic. Ronaldo, who returned to the bench in sneakers and a bulky knee brace just before extra time, waved his arms and shouted at his teammates as the seconds ticked away. Once the celebrations began, Nani, the vice-captain, ran up to him and returned the captain’s armband as Ronaldo welled up again.
The French trudged up to receive their silver medals. The Portuguese fans never stopped singing. Ronaldo joined his teammates on the dais and, gingerly, stepped to the front to raise the trophy as fireworks and streamers and sparklers lit up the night.
Then the Portuguese players returned to the field and gathered for a team photo. Ronaldo shuffled to the center and sprawled out in front. Hours earlier, he had lain nearby, tears running down his cheeks. This time, as the flashbulbs flickered and the trophy gleamed, he lay back again with his face aglow. ©2016/The New York Times