Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal makes history
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For the French, calling the outcome of the Euro 2016 final “unexpected” would be a gross understatement. Didier Deschamps’ side certainly thought the odds were in their favour. Their Euro campaign thus far had been a successful one by most standards, with just one draw against Switzerland, and consistently impressive performances by most of their team. The home turf advantage was at an all-time high at State De France, where they’d won their last 18 major tournament matches, not to mention their 1998 World Cup victory. Portugal hadn’t overcome the French since March, 1975. Since winning the 2000 Euro, the French side had experienced disappointment and tragedy in the world stage: this final was to be their long overdue redemption. In short, the trophy was expected to end up with Les Bleus.
Which is why, in the 109th minute, when Eder swooped past French defender Koscielny through the middle and slotted a low, long-range cracker past Hugo Lloris, most of the crowd packed into State De France fell eerily silent. The Portuguese fans, on the other hand, erupted in excitement, Ronaldo’s early injury all but forgotten. This was especially shocking since France dominated most of regulation time, with 17 attempts on goal (more than double Portugal’s 6). Most of the shots on target met Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio, with one even bouncing off the woodwork. Portugal’s strong defensive unit and Patricio’s goalkeeping prowess kept them in the game, and Eders delivered when it mattered the most.
One main character in Portugal’s underdog story is Ronaldo, who has had a dream season by any standard. After winning the UEFA Champions League with his club Real Madrid in May (he was also the highest scorer of the tournament), he found himself lifting the Euro trophy after Portugal played some of its best football. With 3 goals, he was the second highest scorer in the Euro too. That being said, his performances in both the finals, this one and the Champions League matchup against Athletico Madrid, were decidedly unimpressive.
In the Champions League final, he wasn’t exactly having the best of his days, although he did clinch the winning penalty in the shootout. Against the French, he was off the field for 95 minutes of play, having been knocked by midfielder Dimitri Payet in the eight minute. After trying his best to continue playing more than once, Ronaldo was escorted out of the field on a stretcher. The audience rose in unison, clapping as Portugal’s main hope cried and cried on his way out. After the game ended, a bandaged Ronaldo enthusiastically limped back onto the field, beaming. No one can deny that he’s worked long and hard for this.
Once Ronaldo knew he wasn’t going to be playing the match, he activated his managerial chops, giving what Portuguese player Cedric Soares called an “unbelievable” speech in half time. Fired up, he told his players that he was sure they’d win, trying to calm a side that was certainly in shock after they lost their star player. Interestingly, before Eder was subbed onto the field in the 79th minute, Ronaldo told him that he would score the winning goal for the team. After the match, Eder, speaking to Portuguese newspaper O Jogo, said that Ronaldo gave him, “this strength, this energy and it was vital.” Although many will say Ronaldo has done what Messi could not, even Ronaldo wouldn’t have dreamt that he’d win the championship like this.
The true architect of Portugal’s tournament winning performance was their coach Fernando Santos, whose otherwise stoic and stern demeanour finally crumbled when Portugal won. You could see him fighting off tears, his face beaming as his players lifted him up in celebration. Portugal didn’t have the most flair in this tournament, but their games reflected Santos’ brilliant understanding of what his team could and couldn’t do. While most of the games they’d played weren’t goal-laden frenzies, the Portuguese defence, spearheaded by Pepe (probably the biggest performer on the Portuguese side, he also won the Champions League with Real Madrid), maintained the balance in a team with a weaker attack. Santos sorted the deficient attack by playing Nani and Ronaldo together on the forward line. By the end of the tournament, his entire side (save for the two reserve keepers) had some play time. The team’s performance in the final was a true testament to Santos’ work, because it showed the world that, as Ronaldo had himself said, “Portugal is not all about me.”