They say animals can sense disaster first. As the whole of France prepared to celebrate Euro 2016 success on last Sunday night, there was a strange feeling around the Stade de France that something ominous was in the air. It was a scene that could have been set within the minds of Edgar Allen Poe or Alfred Hitchcock.
The press corps arrived at the stadium to be greeted by a swarm of Silver Y moths invading their desks, fans tried in vain to bat the creatures away and no pre-match television shot was captured without one of the critters zooming past the camera – all of which left some viewers at home puzzled as to whether the moths were at the stadium or whizzing through their own living rooms.
It was a strange precursor to a game that was supposed to go one of two ways. The most likely scenario was that France were to continue the impressive form they had showed throughout the tournament and seal their third European Championship crown in fairly straightforward circumstances.
The alternative was that Portugal’s star player, captain and go-to guy Cristiano Ronaldo would single-handedly drag his supposedly lesser team-mates towards a first international success and thus take a permanent place on the pantheon of all-time international greats.
Alas, on Sunday in Saint-Denis, fair was foul and foul was fair. Of the two drafted scripts, the one where the French emerge victorious looked even more likely as soon as Ronaldo went down after being on the end of a heavy barge from Dmitri Payet. The three-time Ballon D’or winner went off the pitch before returning in a vain attempt to carry on and finally being replaced by Ricardo Quaresma in the 25th minute.
Portugal, already written off by so many before kick-off, now had to get themselves over the line without the help of their temperamental talisman. Disaster had struck for the Portuguese and maybe the moths weren’t out to spoil the home crowd’s party after all.
Portugal made it through to the half-time break with the scoresheet still level at 0-0, for the most part thanks to goalkeeper Rui Patricio who was proving to be more than capable of dealing with everything France had to throw at him.
In keeping with the sinister theme of the evening, the mood of the French crowd sank lower and lower as the second half wore on. Portugal, now being led from the back by Patricio and a central-defensive partnership of Pepe and José Fonte, were beginning to sense that something magical could just happen. Even if their opponents did seal victory, they could take comfort in the fact they gave everything they could to take the trophy home to Lisbon even if they had to do it without the spark that Ronaldo has so often provided for them in the past.
When André-Pierre Gignac hit the post for France in the dying seconds of normal time, it appeared like their fate was sealed. The draft was slowly building towards a final script and it wasn’t going to be a ratings-winner for the millions gathered to watch in fanzones across the land. On a night when they were supposed to be celebrating a famous triumph, they were being made to do it the hard way. So fair and foul a day they had not seen.
So, to extra time. To make matters worse for France, the mercurial figure of Ronaldo had now returned to the fray, encouraging team-mates and barking orders during the break in play. An evil presence to so many football fans around the globe. Theatrical. Petulant. Arrogant. The man who, according to so many, possesses a blinkered selfishness which would never allow him to get behind a team if he weren’t lined up to seal the glory himself. Would evil prevail?
As usual, Ronaldo wanted to take his place at the climax of the story, knowing that all eyes would be on him as he does whatever he possibly can to help the bad guys get the win they so craved. The team who had only one won game at the tournament in regulation time, who so many had denounced as unworthy finalists.
While the Portuguese were proving they didn’t need him on the pitch, Ronaldo sure as hell needed them. His place on the pantheon of international greats at stake, he was no longer able to secure it himself. Someone had to step forward to crown the king. That man was Éder. With 11 minutes remaining of extra time, he held off French defender Laurent Koscielny 25 yards out from goal before driving an unstoppable effort into the bottom right hand corner of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris’ net.
Cue scenes of delirium amongst the Portuguese crowd and on the touchline where players piled on top of each other in ecstasy. The moths,for the most part, had now disappeared. The sense of doom which had lingered all night had now taken hold. Perhaps the job was done.
The final minutes were played out amidst farcical scenes as television cameras alternated between the action on the field and the antics of Ronaldo on the touchline. Now apparently occupying the role of assistant manager to Fernando Santos, he paced like a man possessed, shouting and screaming at his team-mates in an attempt to get them over the line. His country about to create history, himself about to elevate himself to international greatness. Punching team-mates in the leg in frustration, pushing and pulling at Santos like a giddy grandchild that had been taken to his first carnival.
The final whistle. He is embraced by a member of staff, his face etched in disbelief and joy. He only played 25 minutes but the remaining 95 minutes appeared to be the most energy-sapping of his career. All through his playing days, he has carried teams on the pitch when they needed him most. At Manchester United, at Real Madrid, scoring 30, 40, 50 goals a season.
This time all he could do is watch and encourage. A winning mentality which has personified him since childhood, nurtured at Old Trafford and the Bernabeu, was so often satisfied by his own doing. This time he has a squad of men to thank.
Éder, the player who earlier this year couldn’t get a game for Swansea City in the Premier League. Who would have thought that this would be the man to seal the glory for Portugal and their illustrious captain?
Born in Guinea-Bissau, he moved to Portugal as a baby. His parents, unable to provide proper support for him, placed him in the Sunflower Care Home in Coimbra where he would spend much of his childhood. Now here he was sealing the fate of a nation while, at the same time, helping Ronaldo get one over on his famous Argentinian rival Lionel Messi who failed to win an international trophy before announcing his retirement from the national team last month.
Portugal couldn’t have done it without Ronaldo and Ronaldo couldn’t have done it without them. In particular, he will forever be in debt to Éder. A night that started off with tiny moths being batted away by their giant human counterparts ended with the little guys being crowned champion and their alpha-male owing a massive debt of gratitude to one of the littlest guys in the squad.
The big guys of France, however, were left to face an ending which perhaps they should have spotted from the start on a night – an evening that was always going to end in doom.
James Fenton, Pundit Arena