Not for the first time in the evening Cristiano Ronaldo put his hands to his face and struggled to contain the emotion. On this occasion it was overwhelming joy. The Portugal captain, who was cruelly knocked out of this 2016 European Championship final by a knee injury early in the first half, walked along the touchline to take a moment alone, as the hysteria exploded around him.
Éder had just scored the goal of his life – one of the goals of Portugal’s history – the bench had emptied on to the pitch and the country was set fair for its first major trophy. After all the semi‑final misses and the defeat against Greece in the Euro 2004 final – at their championship – it was finally to be Portugal’s time.
Ronaldo would have chosen to act the role of match-winner, of the star, but in the end even he did not seem to care that it was Éder, a substitute, who had conjured the decisive moment. The striker’s adaptation to life in the Premier League with Swansea City was so problematic last season that he spent the second half of it on loan at Lille and then joined them permanently. Here he wrote his name into folklore.
Those minutes from Éder’s stunning 25-yard finish to when Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle for the final time at the Stade de France seemed to stretch like an eternity for Portugal. By then Ronaldo appeared to have become the de facto manager, or at least Fernando Santos’s assistant, and he gestured this way and that. All of the Portugal bench did.
When the whistle did sound, the celebrations were frenzied. There were more tears. Ronaldo celebrated with one member of the staff, at first, as the players streamed on to the field to pile on to Éder. There were the bumps for Santos – the staunchly pragmatic architect of this triumph – and then there was the sight of Ronaldo, having limped up the steps towards the trophy, hoisting it high into the night sky.
The mind went back to the 2004 final, when a teenage Ronaldo had been on the losing team and was left distraught. This was atonement for him and his nation. Back then Portugal had wilted under the pressure of being the hosts and favourites. This time it was France who had failed to deliver, despite having had a number of chances during regulation time to have won it. Rui Patrício, the Portugal goalkeeper, was prominent on the list of the heroes.
No country had played more ties at the European Championship finals than Portugal without winning it – until now. They had lost their previous 10 matches to France, including semi-finals at Euro 1984 and 2000 and at the 2006 World Cup. The revenge tasted impossibly sweet. And what about their record under Santos, who took over in September 2014? He remains undefeated in competitive games, with the number now standing at 14.
Nine of the 10 wins have been by a single goal and that tells a story. This Portugal team, who scraped through to the knockout rounds after finishing third in their group – they have plenty of reason to approve the expanded format of this championship – have not been easy to love. Even Santos had admitted beforehand that they have been the tournament’s “ugly ducking”.
This was no grand spectacle but nobody in the red of Portugal cared. It was an attritional triumph, in which Santos kept things tight at the outset and even tighter after the loss of Ronaldo.
Portugal swarmed into tackles; they worked tirelessly to compress the space between the lines but their technique on the ball ought not to be overlooked. João Mário, the Sporting Lisbon midfielder, once again demonstrated his easy rhythm while Renato Sanches grew into the contest. When Santos withdrew the 18-year-old in the 78th minute, the manager’s craggy features creased into a smile.
Ronaldo could not overcome the effects of the shuddering collision with Dimitri Payet on eight minutes, when the France winger had banged into the side of his left knee. It was an emotional scene in the 23rd minute when Ronaldo realised that his final was over.
Sitting on the turf, he removed the captain’s armband and insisted upon wrapping it around Nani’s biceps. He was inconsolable as he was taken from the field on a stretcher; hand across his face to hide the tears.
Santos tried to get Ronaldo’s replacement, Ricardo Quaresma, and the excellent João Mário closer to Nani as the second half wore on and his final change was the introduction of Éder up front; Nani moved out wide and João Mário dropped into midfield. Portugal’s flexibility was plain.
They did not contribute too much in an attacking sense and they rode their luck, not least when Antoine Griezmann headed his gilt-edged 66th-minute chance over the crossbar and André-Pierre Gignac hit a post at the end of regulation time. Patrício was outstanding and he made four saves of the highest order, including two from Moussa Sissoko. He had stretched to keep out Griezmann’s header in the early running.
However, France ran out of ideas – they were eventually stifled – and it was Portugal who found the extra gear in extra-time. Éder worked Hugo Lloris and Raphaël Guerreiro hit the crossbar with a free-kick. The Portugal supporters had brought the noise throughout the occasion and it was this nation of 10m people who could rejoice.
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