Euro 2016: Portugal's Midnight in Paris
14-0! That right there was the stat that mattered. And of course, 1-0.
It was a job done in the most unglamorous of ways, a hard task considering you have the ever glamorous Cristiano Ronaldo in your side. And some very talented players well capable of lighting up a game on their own. A task also so dramatic in its conclusion that it resembled a carefully crafted movie.
Iceland's assistant coach had said going into their game against Portugal in the group phase that Cristiano (will call him that as 'Ronaldo' still evokes memories of the Brazilian great) and Pepe deserved careers in Hollywood for their acting skills. Well, they didn't need to go that far for they got their perfect ending right here in France.
A very filmy ending
Like a seasoned plot, it had a solid premise, great middle and rapturous ending. We saw the struggles (group stage games) the coming of age (the knockout phase), the tragedy (Cristiano's injury) and in the end the overcoming of odds leading to euphoria. Even the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson, who he claims to be a father figure, was there to witness and congratulate Crisitano in this outstanding moment of achievement. All the makings of a typical sports movie.
There’s been talk of underdogs at this tournament and the whole year, following Leicester City’s exploits in winning the English Premier League, and we had Wales, Republic of Ireland and Iceland feted for all that they brought to the tournament. Yet, in essence, Portugal were every bit the underdog in three of their four knockout round matches (the number of folks that banked on a Wales win was unbelievable). And their underdog achievements have quite not received even a fraction of merit from around the globe.
Unfancied yes, but what was more intriguing about this Portuguese team was its composition. You had Ronaldo, your star big-money actor leading the line, grabbing all the photographers’ attention and column inches. A collection of youngsters who were part of a quietly successful bunch from the last European U-21 championships – Joao Mario, Raphael Guerrero and William Carvalho.
A veteran defensive line, those guys who always have the back of the youngsters and the star man. And exiles, like Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, once chained with the hopes of being the next big thing, only for them to have to not quite lived up to that, gone away into the wilderness, yet now back to add a dynamic element to the team. And a talented rookie, Renato Sanches, bursting onto the scene, possibly giving a glimpse into the future.
Together they formed a band of brothers, a team that found its chemistry along the way and one that always backed itself with its mental resoluteness. And as it happens in the movies, as the game reached its final stages, the star man emerged from the tunnel of doom to offer words of encouragement and support to his comrades. Words that led to that final push, the effort that led to a long shot from the longest of long shots, Eder. Make no mistake, it was a splendid effort from Eder, worthy of clinching any major title, making him an unlikely hero in a team that was filled with them.
The man who engineered it all
Santos incidentally had his first game at the very stadium that now marks the scene of his greatest triumph - the Stade de France. Having just taken over as the new coach of the Portuguese national team, his first task was to prep his charges for a friendly against France. They lost that game 1-2. Post-match, however, Santos exhorted to the media to not be surprised if his side were to return to the Stade de France as one of the teams in the final of Euro 2016. Prophecy? Absolute belief in his ability and those of his charges? Call it what you want, but his word came true.
For the second time this year in a major final refereed by Englishman Mark Clattenburg, Pepe and Cristiano stood victorious over Antoine Griezmann and his side. The Player of the Tournament as announced by UEFA, and Golden Boot winner, led the hosts into the final with goals in each of the three previous rounds, making him the player to watch out for. Yet, he and his teammates could not breach a stern Portuguese defence marshalled by the excellent Pepe, cleared to play by the medical team after having been forced to miss the semi-final against Wales. And the chances that did come, they couldn't put them away, Griezmann himself guilty of one. In the semi-final against Germany, France were super clinical in punishing every German mistake, yet on the day of the final, they were just a bit off.
Portugal haven't been the most attractive team at this tournament, Santos himself even branding his team the "ugly ducklings" of this tourney and has been saying all along that his boys would adopt a pragmatic approach. However, take for instance a celebrated coach like Pep Guardiola saying that his team were going to play beautiful football and win the whole thing while they’re at it, everyone would jump at the chance to commend and praise him and the team. Yet, here’s another man who said exactly the same thing and the reaction is much to the contrary. That’s modern football double standards for you.
Cristiano’s departure liberated the others
Cristiano is a very divisive footballer. That’s partially because talk rarely centers on his footballing ability. But what do we know of footballers and their real personality; in today’s time of rehearsed, coached media performances, it is very hard to judge somebody’s true character. Yes, Cristiano is self-obsessed, but a huge deal of it is because he wants to win and is supremely self-confident in his abilities. Probably why he keeps thudding those free-kicks into the wall. His premature end to the game didn’t diminish his desire to be fully involved as assistant manager in the touchlines in extra time later on.
Yet as the brightest beacon in Portuguese football in the last decade and one of two biggest names in the sport itself, the aura of Cristiano loomed large over this final and perhaps his greatest moment, inadvertently at that, lay in the moment that he left the field. Once he was gone, there was no longer a pressing need to pass to him, the coach and other players would not berate anyone for not choosing to pick him out, you wouldn’t be accused of costing your country glory because you didn’t provide for your biggest star. As large as personalities loom, the void left by Cristiano was big enough for the rest of the team to move into and settle themselves from their earlier stifled state.
Credit to them too, for rather than be ensnared in the moment and allowing it to linger, they took it on the chin and even stepped up their efforts, galvanizing together to produce a solid bulwark to thwart all of the French attempts.
Whether it was the ghost of Greece from 2004 or some other shamanic occurrence, most importantly perhaps Portugal believed that they were going to win this. I couldn’t help notice that during every substitution the outgoing player would gesture to the one coming in, both index fingers raised pointing to the skies. Paul Pogba seemed to believe in that too as after the game, he seemed to tell someone in the crowd the exact same thing, looking above and nodding with his finger to suggest that perhaps the gods of the game weren’t in their favour on the night.
There’s definitely luck involved in every sporting success, be it for the favourite or for the underdog. Bastian Schweinsteiger handed the French some hefty luck in the semis. Beyond luck though, tight major finals like these are won in the mini moments. Could Laurent Koscielny have guarded Eder better? Could Samuel Umtiti have not given him so much space? Eder got his shot absolutely perfect – a little to the right and Hugo Lloris saves, a little to the left, it goes out. Could Griezmann have done better with his free header earlier in the second half off Kingsley Coman’s cross? Yes. Fine margins that ultimately defined this game.
One thing that Portugal weren’t short of at any stage in this tournament was resiliency and an unwavering ability to rebound from setbacks. The quality that perhaps was the theme of this movie from start to finish; they just refused to buckle.
And in doing so, managed to stun an entire nation that fully expected their team to be holding the big cup in their hands come the end of the night. It marked a poignant and beautiful moment for these footballers from Portugal, a wholly deserved moment let it be added. Let’s not take away anything from the achievements of this bunch who celebrated a beautiful midnight in Paris. Woody Allen would be proud of that!