Portugal are the EURO 2016 Champions!
An inspired Portugal fought off French pressure to win the European Championship at the home of the hosts at the Stade De France.
Eder’s goal in the 109th minute was enough for a Portugal side without their talisman Cristiano Ronaldo for 105 minutes. Despite Andre-Pierre Gignac striking the woodwork in the 93rd minute Portugal’s superb togetherness pulled them through.
Ronaldo, who suffered an injury so early on in the game, was in tears on and off the pitch. But this wasn’t a match decided by him. In fact, his injury galvanised the squad.
The irony of the victory is that in 2004 Portugal lost at home to an unfancied Greece side. Tonight Fernando Santos managed a team who perhaps caused a bigger upset.
France had not lost to Portugal in ten matches, they had not lost at home in a tournament final, they had not lost a home tournament match in 78 years. Tonight that ended.
Seven months on from the harrowing terrorist attacks on the Stade De France, Bataclan and local restaurants in the Paris area, the tournament had brought France together. Men, women and children were out on the streets in nervous trepidation and apprehension.
Therefore it should have been no surprise that preceding Euro 2016 they had never lost a tournament final in their home country. In the 1998 World Cup Final France beat Brazil 3-0 and in the 1984 European Championships they triumphed over Spain 2-0 in the final.
In the run up to the final France had extended their winning record at home tournaments to 19 matches. The last time Le Bleus lost a home match in a tournament was against Italy in the 1938 World Cup quarter-final. With precedent came expectation.
Portugal meanwhile had not beaten France in ten matches. The last time they reached a major final was in the 2004 European Championship when they lost to Greece 1-0 in the final in Lisbon.
Brian Bannister, the famous American baseball player, once said that ‘That’s just winning ugly and just staying alive out there. Sometimes I wonder what I win with. Sometimes it is just pure determination.’ If there was one quote which optimised Portugal’s campaign this would be it. Before the final, they had only won one game in normal time, against Wales in the semi-final.
Pepe’s return for Portugal was vital in their attempt to win their first major tournament. Like Brazil in 1998, they reached the final at the Stade France with their protagonist: Ronaldo. Would it be Deja Vu? Certainly, Portugal’s visiting president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa hoped that injury would not occur in attendance.
David Guetta’s musical closing ceremony warmed up an anxious crowd whose nerves could have powered the electric generator at the stadium. The night before the Stade De France officials left the lights at the stadium switched on, creating a cacophony of chaos as moths invaded the stadium.
After the two charismatic national anthems were drowned out by the speaker system, so poignant after recent events, the final match of what had been an emotional whirlwind for French nationals could begin. There was no doubt that they felt that this was their match to lose.
And so France started the match like a team with a point to prove, a message to deliver, a trophy to keep in the country. After wild efforts from Nani and Paul Pogba at either end, it was Antione Griezmann who provided the first element of surprise in the match, a looping header towards the goal from a curling Dimitri Payet cross. Olivier Giroud’s powerful header from the resulting corner, although straight at Rui Patricio, emphasised France’s vibrancy in an attack.
Payet had been so instrumental in the tournament with menacing freekicks, monstrous crosses and sumptuous finishes but in the seventh minute, he created another moment, barging into Ronaldo’s knee. The Portuguese protagonist had scored three goals in Euro 2016 but down injured he looked in pain. Ronaldo’s critics have claimed that his ‘pantomime on the pitch’ is one of his biggest downfalls but the grimace to his medical staff told the story itself.
Ronaldo would not be denied in his biggest match of his career. Bravely, like Richard the Lionheart, the great leader and warrior limped on in agony. But like Diego Costa’s hamstring injury in the 2014 UEFA Champions League Final which forced him off after just seven minutes, Ronaldo’s time was up. Even though medical staff wrapped up his left knee the great entertainer was out of the final, stretchered off in tears of absolute anguish.
With Ronaldo out of the final, Quaresma replacing him, France sensed a great psychological advantage. And so Moussa Sissoko, a player who was relegated with Newcastle United last season, drove past two men for the third time in about ten minutes before launching a fierce shot at Patricio. No doubt Newcastle fans were mixed emotions watching his performance.
After Ronaldo’s departure Portugal’s system changed, now they had one extra midfielder with Nani pushing even further up the field. Andrea Silva dallied with the ball in front of the French blue wall, his patience his downfall. Portugal were sitting deep, wary of French attacks.
Renato Sanches the engineer, Jao Mario the orchestrator to break up play, and Pepe the protagonist at the back were keeping Giroud, Griezmann and Pogba at bay. France had only three shots on target. Portugal? Well, they had so far failed to test Hugo Lloris.
The hope for France and their fans, who by now had sung the rendition of the La Marseillaise at least a dozen times, is that 85% of their Euro 2016 goals were scored after the 42nd minute. With Patrice Evra and Quaresma clashing heads, and Cedric Soares booked for kneeing Payet in the back, fans witnessed more players on the ground than actual shots on goal.
Vibrancy was key to France’s recent success so it was not surprising that Didier Deschamps rallied his troops at halftime to increase their tempo in the second half. Suddenly Payet started to make in-roads but as Pogba’s shot ballooned over and a person charged onto the pitch looking for a moment of fame, the frustration just continued.
Looking for inspiration Deschamps decided to take off Payet to bring on Kingsley Coman, and it was the Bayern Munich winger who provided the cross of the match in the 65th minute. But when Griezmann looked like he would put the hosts 1-0 up his glancing header skimmed the roof of the net. Deschamps was not impressed.
Coman’s bright sparks of energy allowed him to trespass into the box, feeding into Giroud whose shot from a tight angle flickered off Patricio. With the game threatening to open up Nani nearly caught Lloris off guard with a deceiving cross. As Portugal started to awake from their slumber, a fierce Sissoko effort from 30 yards tested Patricio. But still, it remained a knife edge.
Then the chance that both teams prayed for arrived. Gignac, who had been substituted on for Giroud, gathered a low cross, swivelled his body, but scuffed the shot which hit the post. Agonisingly for Griezmann, the ball deflected away from his direction, looking for a tap-in at the back post.
Fatigue was now a major factor as both teams started the period of extra time. France were six inches away from the trophy in the 93rd minute but now they and Portugal had to regroup.
Ronaldo signalled the battle cry for Portugal and suddenly the team became energised. Minutes after Raphael Guerreiro hit the bar with a free kick Portugal stunned the hosts. For so long they’d withstood French attack but in a second Eder turned Laurent Koscielny and propelled the ball into the back of the net. Lloris’ despairing dive to his right was not enough. Portugal were ahead. Ronaldo in tears of joy.
So as Ronaldo dictated from the touchline like a conductor on caffeine the Portuguese crowd rose. Tapping his watch like his great mentor he understood the situation.
Portugal were labelled as a one man team before the tournament and even with Ronaldo’s influence off the pitch this was not a squad of individuals. Eder’s goal terrific, but the defence triumphed for the underdogs. Finally, Portugal are top of the footballing tree in Europe.