Pepe revealed he had urged his team-mates to “win it for Cristiano Ronaldo” as Portugal claimed their first major trophy at France’s expense with their injured captain and talisman reduced to barking instructions from the technical area.
Ronaldo hurt his left knee in a challenge by Dimitri Payet early on and, having initially attempted to play on with the leg heavily strapped, eventually hobbled off midway through the first period in tears. Yet the forward returned from the treatment room to speak to his team-mates in their huddles before extra-time and spent the latter stages bellowing instructions from the touchline alongside the manager, Fernando Santos, as Portugal claimed Euro 2016 courtesy of Éder’s goal.
“This was tough because we lost our main man and we’d pinned all our hopes on him,” said Pepe, who was outstanding marshalling a backline France simply could not penetrate. “Cristiano’s a player who can score a goal at any second but, when he said he couldn’t go on, I told my team-mates that we had to win it for him; that we were going to fight, to fight for him. At the break the manager set us up very well, strategically speaking, and implemented Plan B. It worked.
“We put blood, sweat and tears on the pitch. I said on the eve of this game that we’d leave it all on the pitch for our people, for our nation, and that’s what we did. That’s what the Portuguese are about: humility, work, overcoming hardship. We represented our country as best we could. Regardless of those who doubted us, and the criticism we’ve had here in France for our performances, we had our goals set out for us and this was the goal.
“The manager is a very intelligent man. 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.”
The match-winner, the substitute Éder, played 267 minutes for Swansea City last season before being loaned to Lille – to whom he is now contracted permanently – without mustering a league goal en route. “Cristiano told me I would score the winning goal for the team,” he said. “He gave me this strength, this energy, and it was vital. It was a goal I’ve been working for from the first minute of the Euros.”
“He told me he would score when I sent him on,” said Santos, whose side won only once in 90 minutes all tournament. “The ugly duckling went and did just that. Now he’s a beautiful swan. As for Ronaldo, twice he tried to carry on but he couldn’t. Personally I think the referee should have shown a card [to Payet for his challenge], yet he didn’t even give a foul. Anyway 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. On his behalf I’d like to thank all the players for believing. We were as simple as doves and wise as serpents. I thank them all.”
Defeat was agonising for France, who struck the post through Andre-Pierre Gignac in the last minute of normal time only to be undone in the extra period. “We’ve missed a unique opportunity to win a Euros in our own country,” said the manager, Didier Deschamps. “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.”
He was asked whether the extra day from which Portugal benefited between their semi-final and this occasion had played its part. “Of course we used a lot of energy against Germany on Thursday, but, if I say that, it looks like I’m seeking excuses,” added Deschamps, who suggested he would remain as coach looking towards the 2018 World Cup. “There’s a big difference between three or four days to recover is a great deal. We put a lot of energy into the Germany match, and we could have benefited from a bit more freshness this evening. That, in turn, would have helped us be more clinical.
“But there you are. The winner always merits their trophy. They didn’t make it to the final by chance. This is the first time a team who finished third in their group finishes as European champions. They didn’t win many games in normal time, but they won the important one. Perhaps there were some other generations in Portuguese football with more talent, but they didn’t win. This team won.”
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