Portugal’s spirited Euro 2016 win is atonement for Cristiano Ronaldo and co

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Cristiano Ronaldo was a weeping mess at the end of Sunday’s Euro 2016 final, but this time around they were tears of overwhelming joy. The man who has won every title club football has to offer, radiated a childlike happiness rarely seen before. He had his hands on his face, unable to contain his emotions as he walked aside in amazement on the sidelines. All around him, Portugal teammates and coaching stuff members celebrated in frenzy, and he took a moment alone to let it all sink in. Ronaldo had finally realized a lifelong dream.

On Sunday night in Paris, Portugal’s resilience paid off as they narrowly defeated France 1-0 to lift their first major international trophy. Pragmatic Portugal with their impervious defence emerged surprising winners on a night that was high on drama, but will not be remembered for the football it produced. And they won it the hard way – without the presence of their talismanic captain.

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Portugal’s players pose with the trophy as they celebrate after beating France during the Euro 2016 final football match at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on July 10, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES

Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 came to a cruel end in the 23rd minute as he was carried off the field, with tears streaming down his face. Despite suffering two knocks – the second to his knee by a crunch tackle by Dimitri Payet – he kept trying to continue to play before buckling down in despair. After he was stretchered off, Portugal’s chances seemed to dip and everyone assumed it would only be a matter of time before France scored.

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But it was not to be. Portugal had been tight at the back before Ronaldo’s substitution, and did not let his absence weaken their defence. They shackled down every cross, stifled every attack and neutralised every attempt that France made. Instead of collapsing after losing their most prolific player, the Portuguese team emerged even stronger with an unspoken awareness. Coach Fernando Santos had a gameplan before the match started, and the players executed it perfectly. ‘O Engenheiro‘, as the manager is known, was the architect of a perfect strategy suited to the players in his squad. The Seleçcão were more than happy to sit back and absorb the pressure, putting up a great display of reactive football.

With a team comprising of players from the opposite ends of the age spectrum, Santos was brave enough to trust youngsters from the U-21 side. What they lacked in star power, they made up for in team work and perseverance. Pepe – usually a comic figure due to his theatrics and rash tackles – put up the performance of the tournament to be the rock in Portugal’s defence. He won the Man of the Match for his defensive masterclass, with 12 clearances and three blocks. Along with him, Southampton teammates Jose Fonte, who made his debut at a major tournament at the age of 32, and Cedric Soares worked tirelessly to give away as little as possible. 22-year-old left-back Raphaël Guerreiro provided width and pace on the flank. He came agonizingly close to scoring in the extra-time, hitting the crossbar with his free-kick. Rui Patricio had another fabulous night, keeping a cleansheet with seven crucial saves.

In front of defence, William Carvalho returned to the team to play an anchor’s role and provided stability to the back four. Renato Sanches – the youngest player ever to feature in the European Championship final – was a bundle of energy in the midfield. João Mário and Adrien Silva denied France space and time on the ball, and the Sporting midfielder put in some fine crosses into the French box to keep the Les Blues’ defence on their toes. Luis Nani, who took over as captain after Ronaldo’s substitution, ran himself into the ground and did a commendable job as the team’s de facto leader.

Portugal were the clear underdogs to France’s gilded attack, but when push came to shove, it was Santos’ men who refused to budge under pressure. Antoine Griezmann, the golden boot winner, Payet, Paul Pogba and André-Pierre Gignac had plenty of chances combined between them but could find a way to break down the Portuguese resilience. And from the team of underdogs emerged an even more unlikely hero – Éderzito António Macedo Lopes. Simply known as Eder, he was Santos’s last substitution, replacing Sanches in the 79th minute. He hadn’t previously scored for Portugal in any competitive match, and had been brought on as a substitute only once before at Euro 2016. Nineteen minutes into extra time, he muscled past Laurent Koscielny to crack a powerful shot into the right corner of Hugo Lloris’ goal. The goal was a tremendous winner, a bolt out of the blue, and worthy of winning a title.

“Ronaldo told me I would score the winning goal for the team,” the striker said post-match. “We went through a difficult spell after Ronaldo’s injury, because he’s the best player in the world and an important player for us. But after that he still gave us all his strength and bravery, and we got this important victory, both for him and all of Portugal.”

Ronaldo’s presence on the side lines during extra time clearly motivated the team, and gave them the belief that they could win the match and title. Injured and off the field, he still managed to play a leader’s role, almost taking over as a frantic “assistant coach”, next to the steely and composed Santos. After the goal, Portugal ran the clock down to register a historic victory. Having suffered pain and heartbreak so often at major tournaments, they became the first team that finished third in a finals group and eventually won the trophy. They also ended a 10-match losing streak to France, which extended as far back as 1975.

The match was an attritional triumph, a testament to the team’s spirit and determination. While Portugal lacked flair and eye-pleasing football, they did whatever it took for them to win the title. As Ronaldo limped up the stairs with his team and finally lifted the Euro 2016 trophy, he knew what this victory really meant. It was atonement for him and his nation.

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