Portuguese were ‘simple as doves and wise as serpents’

The unheralded Fernando Santos has been accused of playing dull, dour football, but he has presided over an extraordinary victory, delivering Portugal’s first major trophy.

Portugal's star player Cristiano Ronaldo was stretchered off after an injury, but he was quite animated on the sideline, shouting instructions to his team-mates in the company of coach Fernando Santos. Their efforts paid rich dividends.   -  REUTERS

The victorious Portuguese team displays the Euro Cup in Lisbon.   -  AP

It was ironic that on the night of perhaps his greatest accomplishment as a professional footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo played but a minor role on the pitch. Then again, this was a night of ironies. A nation seemingly incapable of producing strikers had an extra-time winner in a European Championship final scored by a big, tall number nine. A golden generation of Portuguese players failed at home against a mediocre Greece team in one final, while a far more inexperienced bunch overcame France, the undeniable favourite, in its own den, in another.

Nobody in Portugal will care. The unheralded Fernando Santos has been accused of playing dull, dour football, but he has presided over an extraordinary victory, delivering Portugal’s first major trophy. There is no denying that Portugal rode its luck along the way. It drew all three of its games in Group F, finishing third, and under the old 16-team format would never have made it to the knockouts. It scraped past Croatia in extra time, overcame Poland on penalties, and claimed its only win in regulation time at this tournament against Wales in the semifinals. It fell into the kinder half of the draw, where it avoided Germany, Italy and Spain en route to the final.

But it also must be noted that Portugal did not lose. In tournament football, it is the tougher, doughtier team that triumphs and not necessarily the most talented one. Except for the wild 3-3 draw with Hungary, after which Santos made important changes, dropping Joao Moutinho and Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal did not look like a team that could easily be broken down or beaten. Raphael Guerreiro, born and raised in France, was excellent at left-back, while Pepe — immense in the final — and Jose Fonte formed an able centre-half pair. Ahead of them, William Carvalho, the young Renato Sanches and Joao Mario formed one of the best midfield partnerships at the tournament. Ronaldo and the seemingly rejuvenated Nani were pacy threats up front.

 

“Let them continue saying the same thing, that Portugal won without deserving it,” Santos had said the day before the final. “I would go home really happy.” The manager deserves much credit here. After taking over in September 2014, following Paulo Bento’s sacking, Santos turned things around, giving young players a chance and organising the team defensively. “The manager is a very intelligent man,” Pepe remarked in the aftermath of the win. “He has been able to blend youngsters with the more experienced players. From day one he said the first goal is to qualify for the Euros and the second is to win it. We managed both things. This is not down to chance. This comes from hard work. We listened and all pulled in the same direction and now we’ve written a brilliant page in the book of Portuguese football history. No one will ever forget this victory.”

Ronaldo may have left the field in tears, but he walked back out after regulation, offering words of encouragement to his team-mates. During extra-time, he seemed like a cat on a hot tin roof around the dug-out, in his mind kicking every ball, heading every cross, lunging into every challenge. At one point, as Ronaldo bellowed instructions from the touchline, it was difficult to tell who the manager was. When Eder’s goal went in, he broke down. It cannot be said that he does not care about his team.

“The way Cristiano spoke to us and reached the lads, motivating them, in the changing room and in the dugout — he believed that tonight was going to be our night,” Santos said. “On his behalf I’d like to thank all the players for believing. We were as simple as doves and wise as serpents.”

Eder, Portugal’s hero, added: “Cristiano told me I would score the winning goal for the team. He gave me this strength, this energy, and it was vital.” Eder’s is a remarkable story. He was second-choice to Bafetimbi Gomis at Swansea last season, where he played just over four hours of football in total before being loaned out to Lille — a move that has now become permanent. “He told me he would score when I sent him on,” said Santos. “The ugly duckling went and did just that. Now he’s a beautiful swan.”

While Portugal will rejoice, France will be plagued relentlessly by what-ifs. Having secured an inspirational victory over Germany, due in no small part to the brilliance of Antoine Griezmann, the home side passed up the chance to record a colossal triumph. The significance of a win, the players believed, would have been felt beyond football in a country still struggling to come to terms with November’s terrorist attacks. Didier Deschamps, hailed for his tactical manoeuvring earlier in the competition, when he switched to a 4-2-3-1 from a 4-3-3 and did not hesitate to drop Paul Pogba, Griezmann and N’Golo Kante at various stages, now has to take some of the blame for his team’s ineffectiveness on the final night.

“We’ve missed a unique opportunity to win a Euros in our own country,” he lamented later. “There are no words. The disappointment is there, and it’s huge, and it will take time to digest it. But we won together, we suffer together and today we lost together. We so wanted to rouse the French people and it would have been magnificent to bring the trophy home to them. But unfortunately that isn’t going to be the case. It’s a great disappointment for it to end now, with this final.

“I’m very proud of what these players have achieved and we must not throw everything that we’ve done away, but we lost a great chance to be European champions: not the only one, perhaps, but a great one.”

But all is not lost for France. This team has come a long way from the shambles of Raymond Domenech’s reign, and the infamous player revolt in Cape Town. Laurent Blanc began the repair work that Deschamps took to the next level, restoring belief in the national side. He left Karim Benzema out of the side, battling unfounded allegations of racism, with team harmony his first priority. “He worked hard to make sure that he wouldn’t take the best players necessarily, but those players who were ready to fight for each other,” Deschamps’ former international team-mate Frank Leboeuf told Sportstar last month.

In the immediate future, though, there will only be disappointment in France. As a crestfallen Thierry Henry noted after the final, appearing as a pundit on British TV, no player puts his runner-up medal on the mantelpiece.