On Sunday night, a Portugal side often derided as a one-man show toppled a heavily fancied French team boasting several of the most talented attacking players in the world to lift the European Cup.
Euro 2016 has copper fastened the theory that superior talent has become a distant second to organisation and mental resilience in the modern game.
France could call on the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet three of the most talented and influential players in Europe over the last season. Griezmann has been a revelation at Atletico Madrid, confirming himself as one of the best players in the world. Payet has led West Ham to their best season in years and imbued the club with a new found sense of optimism. While Pogba is set to become the most expensive player in world football. There is quality throughout the rest of the squad, with names like Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and N’Golo Kante also featuring in the French campaign.
Portugal on the other hand entered the tournament with their talisman, Ronaldo, operating way below his optimum level. Their supporting cast of Nani, Ricardo Queresma and Renato Sanchez all have question marks over their careers for one reason or another.
However, their blood and guts merchants turned out to be the real stars of this campaign.
Joao Mario, Raphael Guerreiro and everybody’s favourite football villain Pepe went about their business with deadly efficiency. Breaking up attacks, disrupting the opposition’s flow, refusing to allow their adversaries any momentum at all.
It’s thanks to this ruthlessly destructive streak that Portugal were crowned champions having only won one game in the whole tournament in normal time, when they beat Wales 2-0.
Much of the credit has to go to manager Fernando Santos who places a heavy emphasis on vigilant defending at any cost, a philosophy perfectly suited to a player like Pepe. The Real Madrid man is a pure defender. He sees no shame at all in just lumping the ball into the stand when he senses danger, something that can often be misconstrued as lacking composure.
France with their abundant talent had no answer for Portugal’s dedication to defensive shape and organisation. Moussa Sissoko was their most dangerous player on the night, due to his powerful running. He was virtually impossible to stop once he’d built up a head of steam, but could only do so in a straight line. France’s ultra talented individuals just couldn’t link up effectively enough to really pick Portugal apart.
The trend of organisation and solidity overcoming superior talent could be seen all over the tournament in fact, England v Iceland and Wales v Belgium to name just two instances. It has become more prominent in football in general in recent years, look at Leicester’s Premier League title. Atletico Madrid too, although they have some exceptional individuals such as Griezmann, have shown how effective a well drilled team can be against more talented opposition.
There’s a strange juxtaposition to Ronaldo being the spearhead of this Portugal team. In essence he is the antithesis of everything they represent. As a team they are selfless, unified by the idea of their whole being more than the sum of their parts. He is the quintessential individual often exerting more energy berating team mates than tracking back. It’s an ironic twist that perhaps his greatest victory has been delivered by team mates with such fundamentally opposite characteristics.
In the recent documentary about his life Ronaldo said he wished Portugal had more players like him, on reflection he may change his mind.