Before last night’s final, Portugal manager Fernando Santos proclaimed that he would “go home really happy” if his side were perceived as having won Euro 2016 undeservedly.
The sentiment was was understandable, if a little paranoid. Portugal had not made many friends on their route to the final due to their style of play, but at the same time it cannot be said that they weren’t there on merit. Not one team that they had vanquished could claim any sense of injustice.
That sense of minimalism had got them this far, so why change it?
As was the case for every Portugal match in the European Championships, they won and they deserved to win. France, for all their initial bluster, panicked when it mattered most and their opponents took full advantage. This was their big night and they messed it up.
That Portugal did it without Cristiano Ronaldo makes it even more significant. Beforehand, this match had been hyped up as Ronaldo’s crowning glory, but his night was over after just 20 minutes.
Robbed of their king, the peasants made hay. Ronaldo was the focus of a lot of media attention this morning, because it suits the narrative, but this wasn’t his night. This night belonged to the likes Pepe, Rui Patrício – the unsung heroes who had consistently delivered throughout the tournament and shut France out brilliantly. That wasn’t in the script – it certainly wasn’t in Ronaldo’s, anyway – but, for once, the Real Madrid man will have to bow to his teammates on a job well done.
And to Éder, the most unlikely of matchwinners. He began 2016 on Swansea’s bench, but he finishes the season a European champion and Portuguese legend.
Ronaldo’s injury galvanised Portugal in a way that perhaps surprised even themselves – not that there wasn’t an initial period of insecurity. The defensive steel remained, but it was obvious that in their captain’s absence they were unsure at the beginning what they were supposed to do in terms of an attacking outlet.
However, as the game wore on they became more sure of themselves and realised that maybe they could do this without their talisman.
And yet, but for the width of a post, it would have been the face of France striker André-Pierre Gignac gracing the back pages this morning.
Had Gignac’s stoppage-time shot hit the back of the net, then there would have been few more relieved men in the stadium than France boss Didier Deschamps. As it it was, where that goal would would have cloaked his tactical errors, Éder’s winner laid them bare for the world to see.
While it would be unfair to chastise the manager for leaving out N’Golo Kanté, particularly as Moussa Sissoko was arguably the best player on the pitch last night, Deschamps’ initial game plan failed yet again. The midfield became a congested mess where nobody was quite sure what role they were supposed to be fulfilling, rendering Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi anonymous as a result.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened either – but for the Iceland quarter final, France have not been at their best in any first half throughout the campaign. Though a certain level of praise should go to Deschamps for addressing the issues during the matches and ultimately coming away with results, it reflects really badly on him that he doesn’t have the tactical competence to plan ahead.
Roy Hodgson got pilloried for that; Deschamps deserves just as much criticism as the former England boss received.
In Fernando Santos and Portugal, France were coming up against the most tactically proficient and organised team at this tournament, and they were found wanting. This was their chance to become national heroes, but instead they and Deschamps have just instilled further apathy in a French public that already doesn’t have much regard for them.
Raphael Guerreiro’s thundering free kick in extra time should have jolted France into action. And yet a few short minutes later, they conceded the goal that cost them the tournament. The collective failure of France, right when it mattered the most, will haunt them for years.
But this is no longer a story about France. This is another tale of how tactics and collective team spirit overcame individuals.
Was it pretty? Not at all. Portugal had won just one match in six over the course of 90 minutes, this was always going to be aesthetically horrifying.
And yet they are deserved champions. They have played over 720 minutes of football – more than any other side in European Championship history – and yet still had the mental and physical strength to walk away with the trophy.
Santos said after the win, “We were simple as doves but also wise as serpents.” On the basis of the last four weeks, it is hard to argue with that assessment.