Ghost of absent Cristiano Ronaldo haunted Euro 2016 final, but Portugal prove they are greater than sum of their parts
So now we know. Portugal are no more a one-man team than they are the perpetual nearly-men of international football. The European Championship gives a first major trophy to a nation who have clocking up enough semi-finals in the new millennium that it would be mean-spirited to begrudge them this gold.
They did, though, utterly deflate the hosts, France, whose party they have hardly embellished with great entertainment over the last month. The Portugal who drew all their group games, who went into extra time in two of their knockout ties, won the final of Euro 2016 in their distinctive way: in extra time, patiently, parsimoniously.
It was a triumph of stoicism, of defensive rigour and, in the end, a career-defining moment for Eder, barely fourth choice up front for his country, but a useful substitute, and when it mattered, deep into injury time, equipped with a powerful enough drive and a precise enough radar to score the winning goal.
By the time Eder settled a contest in which France were unable to convert possession into predominance, the Portugal captain and hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, had been off the field for almost 90 minutes. He missed most of his greatest opportunity to make a lasting mark as an international footballer because of a knee injury sustained in a challenge with France’s Dmitri Payet very early in the game. Ronaldo limped on for a while, but he was off stage for his country’s finest hour, on it again to accept the trophy.
Portugal played doggedly without him. But they have been mostly dogged with him while in France, where his form has been patchy, though he did produce some important contributions to steer them to the final. The Portuguese fans were singing Ronaldo’s name soon after Eder scored. He was absent, but his shadow is too large to remove.
And the loss to the spectacle, to the occasion, of taking away the most gifted name on either team-sheet, indeed on any squad-list of any European Championship of the past decade had left an eerie emptiness around the Stade de France for a while after Ronaldo was carried off on a stretcher. Some France fans had initially booed him when he first lay on the ground prone after the heavy challenge from Payet.
That is what happens when you have a pantomime villain reputation, an infamy for play-acting. It soon became plain that Ronaldo was not inventing his pain, or the restriction on his movements that the knee injury had caused. He had extended treatment twice and returned to the pitch each time. But his attempt to defy the inevitable lasted a quarter of an hour.
No one audibly cheered his departure, although for the vast majority in the arena – French fans – its implications can only have been viewed positively. Portugal had lost their captain and totem. On his way towards the tunnel, the stretcher bearers took the suffering patient across France manager Didier Deschamps’s technical area. Deschamps made a point of reaching through the medical orderlies to give Ronaldo a sympathetic pat on the arm.
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It would have taken a hard heart not to feel for him. It may also have crossed Deschamps mind that the last time a France team which had senior commanding role over played a major tournament here, a missing Ronaldo was a dominating theme. That was Brazil’s Ronaldo, Ballon d’Or holder in the year ahead of the 1998 World Cup, the final of which had him first not in the line-up, and then in it at the last moment, but clearly troubled, and without influence on a game France won easily.
The ghost of the absent Cristiano Ronaldo haunted the evening. When Pepe wheezed a header from a corner over Hugo Lloris’s crossbar, the thought could hardly be resisted that Ronaldo might have planted a firmer effort in those circumstances and put it on target. When Cedric thundered into Payet, earning a booking, the tackle had a flavour of payback, for Payet’s perceived part in wounding the Portugal captain.
Some energy left the contest, too, after Ronaldo’s injury. There had been a hectic pace to the opening moments, too frantic in the cases of Paul Pogba and Nani, who blazed shots off target when more poise was needed. France had started with adrenaline in their veins. Rui Patricio made good saves from an Antoine Griezmann header and a drive by the busy, excellent Sissoko.
Portugal would have to weather sustained France pressure, but it became suffocating only after the match had passed the hour mark. Payet’s withdrawal for Kingsley Coman presented fresh problems, and it was a Coman cross that presented Griezmann with a stunning opportunity to break the impasse.
Unpoliced, he headed off target from the sort of range from which he typically finishes with ease. Rui Patricio, who had a mighty evening, produced another fine save from another fine Sissoko drive. Andre-Pierre Gignac had the Portgual goalkeeper beaten, and prone, but could only prod his shot against the post.
France had returned to the mode they spent much of the earlier part of the tournament in, frustrated at the stubborn, defensive posture of their opponents, unable to capitalise on their superior possession. Their supporters kept faith, and nor did Portugal give them much to worry about, until extra-time.
Mostly, their counter-attacks fizzled, although Ricard Quaresma’s spectacular airborne volley, after Lloris had pawed a Nani effort at the substitute, demanded the goalkeeper stretch up to catch it.
Lloris looked a good deal less assured when swatting away an Eder header from a corner halfway through extra-time. It was still 0-0 then and the symptoms of tiredness had become apparent. William Carvalho was cautioned for a late, clumsy challenge on Coman. Blaise Matuidi’s name was taken, as was Laurent Koscielny’s. The latter conceded a free-kick that, in the absence of Ronaldo, Raphael Guerreiro took. He rapped it against the post.
Portugal had their tails up from there. They had gunpowder left in their muskets. There is a new name on the Cup, and Portugal, beaten as hosts by Greece in the final in 2004, will know how France feel. And they will savour this prize all the more for that, and for proving they are about more than just their resident hero.
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Updated: July 11, 2016 04:00 AM