Portugal's tryst with history

Portugal was often labelled as a team that was always about Cristiano Ronaldo. It was poetic justice of sorts that the team finished the job in the final of the EURO 2016 without him.

The victorious Portugal team with the EURO Cup.   -  AP

I am cutting to the chase with this one. There is much talk about Portugal being a team that did not deserve to wear the crown reserved for the best in Europe, and my answer to that is rather simple: the team you think deserved it should have just done better. Portugal made it to the final playing to a set plan, and took its chance when it had to, and for me that makes it the rightful champion.

 

Yes, there were teams that played a better brand of football and while they grabbed the attention, Portugal was busy chipping away, taking games to extra-time before squeezing in a winner, or keeping its calm as the games extended to shootouts. It qualified as one of the best third-place teams from the group stages and often Portugal was labelled as a team that was always about Cristiano Ronaldo. It was poetic justice of sorts that the team finished the job without him.

That said, it broke my heart to see the man stretchered-off, denying him the stage and the moment he so longed for. No matter whom you support, you should never find joy in watching something like that happen to a player, more so in a final.

But full credit to the rest of the Portugal players, who were clearly fuelled by the early blow. These are really touch-and-go situations, where a team can either react or crumble, and Portugal showed what it was made of. Pepe, who is always the centre of abuse, marshalled the defence brilliantly to keep the far lethal French attack at bay.

France did have its chances but, as I said earlier, it is all about taking them. Gignac’s shot that hit the post won’t count for anything when this final is discussed. Meanwhile Eder shot himself into football folklore with a goal that is very difficult to pull off.

No one knew about Eder before that night, and if you heard the commentators clearly, they spoke of his poor goal-scoring record when he came on. But then, he found his moment and seized it. The rest, as they say, is history.

You feel for France, which had a really good tournament but couldn’t make it count when it mattered the most. Then again, that is the beauty of football. Antoine Griezmann had a brilliant month, and had he planted his header home, the script could have been different.

England flatters to deceive

It turned out to be a new tournament with the same script for England, who, I thought, had the kind of squad to make the last-four stage for sure. Instead, it ended in a humiliating defeat to Iceland (who were a far better team than England, to be fair) and the resignation of Roy Hodgson as manager. It is going to be interesting to see where England goes from here, who comes in as the manager and the blueprint to turn the nation’s fortunes around.

Goal of the tournament

The EURO 2016 drew flak for being a tournament where not too many goals were scored. But while that is open to debate, I would like to pick the goal of the tournament.

We hadn’t even begun getting a feel of the EURO when Dimitri Payet smashed home France’s winner against Romania in the tournament opener. Luka Modric soon joined the party with a ridiculous 30-yard volley that turned out to be the winner for Croatia against Turkey. Then there was Ronaldo, who had been at the receiving end of critics and fans for his lack of goals before he chose to shut them up with an audacious flick with his heel off a Nani cross against Hungary.

But here is my top three, and you can debate all day long!

In third place is Radja Nainggolan’s screamer against Wales. It didn’t end in a Belgium win, but boy, that was struck with power! It takes a lot to hammer home from that distance, and Nainggolan had been attempting the strike a few times before he finally sent one in.

My No. 2 goal comes from the same game. Hal Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff-like turn in the box, which made the Belgian defenders look foolish, before he struck home the lead, was work of a genius. You have to appreciate the goal because he was under pressure from two defenders in the box, but he beat them with thought and that is commendable.

I am going to keep aside my criteria of ‘impact the goal has had on the game’ when I choose my winner — Xherdan Shaqiri’s strike versus Poland. A Round of 16 game against Poland, and Switzerland is a goal down. With only five minutes left in the game, a partially cleared ball floats on the edge of the Polish box and Shaqiri chooses to go overhead with his attempt that flies like a bullet into the corner of the net to bring Switzerland into the tie it would eventually lose on penalties.

Shaqiri has scored some stunners in club football before, but this was something else.

Of Iceland, Wales and the underdogs

I will be honest when I say I was tempted to start this piece with what has been the story of the EURO. Iceland and Wales didn’t go all the way, but they will definitely be rubbing shoulders with Leicester City whenever exploits of the underdogs are spoken of in the years to come.

While Iceland and Wales made it to the quarters of the EURO 2016, you would agree with little fuss that, between the two teams, it was Heimir Hallgrimsson’s boys who captured our hearts.

In a group that had Portugal, Hungary and Austria, Iceland’s presence was meant to be strictly ceremonial. No one gave the team a serious thought and that worked very well for Iceland.

Iceland and even Wales for that matter were the most hard-working teams in the tournament. To prove that its 1-1 draw against Portugal was no flash in the pan, Iceland came out of the group undefeated. And just to show that they were teams that earned their right to make the knockout stage, Iceland pummelled England, while Wales annihilated Belgium’s golden generation in the Round of 16. The two games will rank on anyone’s list of top-five matches of the competition.

If Iceland was a joy to watch on the pitch, the team’s background stories were nothing but a delight to listen to. Like a dentist being a co-manager of the team, the outfit having a goalkeeper, who was a movie director, 10% of the nation’s population in the stands to watch Iceland in action… The anecdotes go on.

While Iceland’s performance may seem like a fairytale run (in all fairness, it was one), most people are not aware of the stellar work the nation’s football association is doing in order to improve.

I have read that in Iceland, the average temperature in the warmest month is between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius, and that during winters, it is dark for about 20 hours of a day. But where most would use these circumstances as an excuse, the football association of Iceland, KSI, went on to pool in money and resources over the last 15 years to construct 30 full-size all-weather pitches, seven of them indoors. Once you do something like that, it just acts as a trigger to being successful. Obviously, it needs the right people and practices, but how about infrastructure for a start?

Our knowledge of Iceland football began and ended with Eidur Gudjohnsen, but the EURO 2016 turned that around, and how! Iceland has left us with fond memories, the promise of a bright future and of course, the Viking thunderclap!