This summer, the national football team of Portugal provided its people, in the homeland and throughout the diaspora, as well as its fans all over the world, with the peak of achievement in the history of the Seleção, the crowning glory coming on that unforgettable night of elation of 10 July at the Stade de France in Paris.
As a memorable year for Portuguese football draws to a close, PortuGOAL brings you 10 snapshots of a forever-to-be-cherished month in France.
The new approach.
Something was different. The Seleção were no longer that team from a little country that played flamboyant fun football brimming with individual flair, providing an entertaining sideshow before conveniently falling by the wayside to let the big boys fight it out for the trophy.
Coach Fernando Santos made no apologies for implementing a fundamental change in Portugal’s football philosophy and prioritising a solid defence. “If we remain concentrated and fully focused, then with the players we have it will be difficult for any team to beat us,” he said. The plan worked to perfection.
Prior to Euro 2016, Portugal had reached four semi-finals and one final in the eight major tournaments staged in the new millennium, only to agonisingly fall short with glory in sight. Perhaps it needed a new approach to break the spell. Or, as Portuguese football journalist Nuno Madureira colourfully put it: “winning a first tournament is like losing one’s virginity: it’s too important to expect it to be perfect.” After so many near misses, finally, the Seleção could shed its image of a gallant also-ran.
The false start.
A series of encouraging build-up matches had ended with a 7-0 thrashing of Estonia at a packed Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. The magnificent seasons enjoyed by the likes of João Mário, Renato Sanches and Adrien Silva; Ronaldo and Pepe fresh from another Champions League triumph; and the scintillating form of Ricardo Quaresma, raised optimism among Portugal fans that the Seleção could put on a good show in France.
Two matches later and that optimism had been severely dented. Reasonable performances against Iceland and Austria ended in two draws, with an all-too-familiar failing raising its ugly head. Despite dominant displays and a multitude of chances created, Portugal had only one goal in 180 minutes to show for it. With captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s uncomplimentary remarks about Iceland and the subsequent Correia da Manhã microphone throwing incident dominating the headlines, it is worth remembering how the Seleção were at serious risk of an early trip home and a very different kind of welcome back to Portugal.
If Portugal could complain about a lack of fortune in their opening two Group F matches, things got plain ridiculous in a crazy match on a burning hot afternoon in Lyon as Portugal and Hungary played out a thrilling 3-3 draw. Three times the Magyars took the lead, twice with wickedly deflected shots from distance leaving Rui Patrício grasping at thin air. Three times Portugal roared back, Cristiano Ronaldo having his best match of the tournament with two goals, the second a brilliantly audacious back-heel, as well as providing an inch-perfect through ball to assist Nani for Portugal’s first equaliser.
In a tournament that was drawing criticism for negative play, a dearth of excitement and a paucity of goals, Portugal and Hungary had put on an exhilarating show. No doubt Hungary fans enjoyed it more while their Portuguese counterparts suffered a succession of near heart failures, but the upshot was the Seleção had maintained their record of never failing to progress from the group stage of a European Championship. Just.
Portugal-Croatia. 25 June. One hundred and seventeen minutes of gruelling football had been played with no quarter given by either side. As an example of how thoroughly the Seleção squad had bought into Fernando Santos’s mantra of making themselves difficult to beat, Cristiano Ronaldo was tracking back amid a late surge of Croatia pressure. Yes, you read correctly. Ronaldo was tracking back.
He intercepted a pass at the top of the box Portugal were defending and laid the ball off to Renato Sanches. The 18-year-old saw the pitch open up in front of him and needed no second invitation, surging up field, his sprint matched by Ronaldo motoring up the right wing, Nani on the left. Sanches chose Nani, who proceeded to (a) play a delicious cross right into the path of Ronaldo, or (b) scuff an attempted shot, sending the ball enticingly onto Ronaldo right foot ten yards for goal. ‘Tis the season of goodwill, so let’s choose (a).
Ronaldo thumped a shot low and hard at goal, bringing a breathtaking reaction save out of Danijel Subasic, only for the ball to capriciously loop up and hang in the air. It could have gone that bit higher and dropped over the bar. It could have bounced to the right of Subasic’s goal and gone out of play. It could have bounced back to the left, allowing the goalkeeper to pounce on the loose ball or a defender to hack it clear. But no, the footballing Gods that had been so conspicuously absent for the Seleção until that point decided to smile on Portugal and the ball magically looped up directly above the goal-line, allowing the onrushing substitute Ricardo Quaresma to nod into the open goal and trigger manic scenes of celebration among the whole Portuguese contingent inside the Stade Bollaert-Delelis.
Portugal were into the quarter-finals, and at that precise moment an unstoppable momentum had been triggered. Quaresma, in one instance, had wiped out his national team legacy apparently destined to be one of wasted talent and replaced it with a shining entry in the Seleção annuls as one of the chief protagonists of Portugal’s finest footballing hour. ("On-the-whistle" audio report after Portugal 1-0 Croatia)
Question in the press conference the day before the European Championship final:
“How do you feel about the critics disparaging Portugal for the way the team has won through to the final?”
Fernando Santos: “I want them to continue. I want them to continue criticising us and for us to keep winning.”
Cue much laughter in the auditorium in the bowels of the Stade de France.
Fernando’s unstinting optimism.
“I’m going home only after the final, and I’m not talking about staying here for holidays,” said Fernando Santos, after the group stage had seen Portugal collect three disappointing draws. A couple of weeks later and his steadfast optimism, completely going against the grain of the Portuguese psyche – and sharply juxtaposing his permanent hangdog expression – had clearly infected the whole Portuguese delegation, not to mention journalists charged with chronicling Portugal’s journey at Euro 2016. Clearly, “it was time”.
CR7 as never before.
The main reason that drives Ronaldo’s success is neither his talent nor his insatiable and much documented workaholic attitude. They are a means to feed Ronaldo’s most important attribute, which is his blazing and limitless ambition to win. At no time has that been more evident than in a game he barely took part in.
Crocked early by Dimitri Payet’s heavy challenge in the European Championship final, the sight of the team’s best player battling a losing battle against injury and leaving the pitch on a stretcher bathed in tears was heart-breaking and dispiriting for Portugal fans. But by half time, the captain had pulled himself together, right-back Cédric Soares explaining post-match how he had delivered a stirring speech to his team-mates at the break.
Into extra time and the hobbling Ronaldo was giving his contribution on the side-lines, cajoling and encouraging his team-mates, man-handling coach Fernando Santos with the nervous energy of man possessed but lucid enough to realise he and his team were on the cusp of making history. The final whistle saw tears of anguish replaced by tears of joy. His post-match talk to his team-mates in the changing room was more of the same, shooting down any lingering notion that he’s in it for the personal glory.
Cometh the hour.
In a final featuring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, a resurgent Nani, a magnificently efficient cold-eyed assassin in front of goal in Antoine Griezmann and the soon-to-be world record transfer holder Paul Pogba, nobody could possibly have guessed it would be Eder who was destined to be the match-winning hero. The much-maligned striker had only played 17 minutes in Portugal’s previous six matches in the tournament.
And amid the glory rained down on Eder for his decisive shot in the 109th minute, it should not be forgotten that it was his entrance as a substitute 30 minutes earlier that did most to swing to the tide in Portugal’s favour. Using his strength and height superbly, winning header after header, drawing fouls, holding up play, allowing Portugal to stem the hitherto suffocating pressure from the French, Eder was simply magnificent. For those who insist Eder is little more than a joke footballer, I invite you to watch his full contribution again.
Being at the Stade de France on the evening of 10 July 2016 was a privilege I will forever treasure. There was only one thing bad about being there. It meant I couldn’t be in Portugal for the celebrations that night and the following day.
Thankfully, my colleague Simon Curtis took it upon himself to pen an incredible description of a country’s capital, for want of a better phrase – going completely off its euphoric head. The opening paragraph and respective link to the full article is reproduced below.
By Tom Kundert
Sardine bones. Little frilly complex things that stick in your gums. Lisbon is in sardine season now. The unpretentious oily little fish is the symbol of summer here. Little grills sit on pavement edges wafting out the familiar aroma. It is the sight and the smell of summer in Portugal. The most unobtrusive little fish, the sardine. I can smell them now but my focus is on the television, which is wobbling as a clutch of bodies pass and pass again leaping and yelling. We were supposed to be having sardines, I keep thinking. My heart is leaping, everyone shrieking and shouting, a din arising outside. Something weird is happening. The world is turning upside down and they’ve not served the sardines. This can’t be happening. Not here, not to Portugal.
To read the full "A Celebration for the Ages" article click here.