The comparisons between Portugal’s Euro 2016 victory and their most painful defeat at Euro 2004, at the hands of Greece, are irresistible, poetic even.
The unfancied underdog puts in a display of grit and determination to defeat the tournament hosts, an opposition with arguably superior technical quality and skill. Except this time, victory was to be Portugal’s.
But it is telling, that in those 12 years, Portugal have gone from being perceived as having the quality and the players with a bit of magic, to a team now who work hard as a unit and are willing to drag a game down with them in order to get a result.
Portugal becoming European champions after only winning one game in normal time may be viewed as cynical and negative by many, but it is a testament to the hard work and focus that these players put in from start to finish.
It is an evolution of more than 15 years that has seen a change in the way we view Portuguese football.
I remember growing up watching those Nike adverts, Luis Figo and the Portuguese facing off against Ronaldo and the Brazilians in impromptu freestyle football. That was total football. The way the game was supposed to be played.
But away from the commercials and the bright lights, the Portuguese were suffering heartbreak. Abel Xavier’s handball in extra-time at Euro 2000 presented Zinedine Zidane with the penalty that put Portugal out of the tournament at the semi-final stage. They followed this up with an embarrassing exit at the group stages in the World Cup in 2002, with a squad considered the best since Eusebio’s time.
This resulted in them adopting a more defensive structure for their final group game, abandoning their natural flair. But to no avail.
Then came the heartbreak of being defeated as the hosts at Euro 2004 against a side who made it there via a series of 1-0 wins in the knockout stages. Potentially one of the lowest points in their football history. That year also announced a young Cristiano Ronaldo to the stage for his first major international tournament, now the captain and face of Portuguese football.
But aside from the international team, it wasn’t all doom and gloom – something else very important happened for Portuguese football that year. Jose Mourinho had led Porto to Champions League success that very summer, and in the Mourinho style we now know, it was the very antithesis of the total football freestyle we had come to associate with the Portuguese.
Mourinho introduced a methodical, hard-working outfit to the world, and took his style with him across Europe’s top leagues, claiming trophies wherever he went, with a style based on solidity and a willingness to win in whatever way was required. He was the managerial embodiment of the new Portuguese philosophy.
He once said:
“Players don’t win you trophies, teams win trophies, squads win trophies.”
These events, through joy and pain, showed the Portuguese what it took to win, and it resulted in a shift of their footballing culture, from flair to graft and dedication. A shift that can clearly be mirrored in the face of Portugal’s talisman today, Ronaldo.
Back in 2004 he was full of step-overs and tricks, a flighty and threatening winger. The Ronaldo we see today, in 2016, is almost closer now to a big, strong centre forward who won’t stop scoring. A result of hard work, as we saw with his team on Sunday. We hear all the anecdotes from those who have worked with him, declaring him the hardest working pro they have played alongside.
For example, Quentin Fortune revealed how he practiced those step-overs with ankle weights after training. We don’t see much of the step-overs or breathtaking runs that would rise us from our seat anymore, but he is a better, more accomplished player.
It seemed it would be yet more heartbreak for Ronaldo and his teammates, as he was hauled off through injury with barely 25 minutes on the clock. It didn’t seem fair that after 12 years of hard work, he would be sitting out Portugal’s finest hour.
But perhaps it is a more fitting testament to his legacy in this Portuguese team how far they have evolved together.
A demonstration that a team that works and plays for one another will conquer a group of even the best individuals.
Daniel Boland, Pundit Arena