From the embers of a disastrous 2004 Euro campaign, Bastian Schweinsteiger rose as a wide midfielder of some promise. He was the torch-bearer through three World Cups, the last of which he won spilling blood on the Maracana floor, and three more European championships, first for a young German team and then the one that combined muscle with magic to invent tiki-taka 2.0.
Did that end in the 78th minute of the second semifinal in Marseille when Schweinsteiger was substituted by Leroy Sane, who at 20 is nearly 12 years younger than the Germany captain? Six minutes earlier, he was a micro-second late -- that is all it takes at this level -- to challenge Antoine Griezmann, and Germany were duly punished.
Schweinsteiger, who will be 32 next month, had already lost his place in Joachim Loew’s starting 11 in Euro 2016, having spent more time off the pitch than on it in 2015-16. But with Sami Khedira injured, he got his chance against France on Friday (India time). And till injury-time in the first half, he had ticked all the boxes as holding midfielder, a role he moved to in 2010 and excelled almost immediately. Remember his tigerish attempt to deny the slick Spaniards a space in the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup?
Schweinsteiger also had a shot from distance that stretched Hugo Lloris and he was making the interceptions, be it near the centre-circle or in front of Germany’s penalty area, with enough confidence to let Emre Can play higher up the pitch.
Then came the handball, or the ball hitting his hand really, and it went all downhill from there. For him and Germany. For a team so clinical in its football and so technically and tactically competent that it makes keeping possession as natural as breathing, Germany have conceded two terrible penalties in successive rounds. Someone even tweeted that from coach Joachim Loew to Jerome Boateng and Schweinsteiger, Germany have a problem on their hands.
Patrice Evra’s header hit Schweinsteiger’s hand but he should have known better than to thrust his arms forward like he was about to dive into a pool. Griezmann, who started the match by waltzing past Benedict Howedes and another German defender before Manuel Neuer pulled off a diving save, didn’t need another invitation. This was Griezmann’s fifth goal of this competition equalling Zinedine Zidane’s mark in a single edition.
By then, having quelled France’s fifth-gear start, Germany had taken control of the ball - the possession statistics at one point showed 71% in favour of the world champions. And Thomas Mueller, playing as lone forward had already, albeit without power once and direction again, asked a couple of questions. Emre Can too tried long-rangers and, it seemed, a goal was almost round the corner. It was open season.
But France it was who had a foot in the final. They could have scored earlier had Olivier Giroud capitalised on Jerome Boateng misjudging the bounce that gave him a free run but Howedes made the challenge of the tournament. The domination of the ball continued in the second half but then Joshua Kimmich made a mess of a routine clearance.
Paul Pogba stayed alert and after beating Shkodran Mustafi delivered into the area. Neuer denied Giroud from getting a header only for Griezmann to slide home. A minute earlier, in the 71st, France replaced the attacking Dimitri Payet with hard-running midfielder N’Golo Kante to show they were downing shutters.
For all their hogging the ball, Germany couldn’t get enough deliveries to Thomas Mueller who played the lone wolf in front. As time ran out, Kimmich hit the framework and both Howedes and Mustafi shot over. And though Loew’s team has sometimes defended poorly in the past, they haven’t let in such goals repeatedly in major tournaments under his watch. France have never lost when Griezmann scored and they defended in numbers to ensure that the record wasn’t broken. The one of not winning against Germany in major tournaments in 58 years though was.
With six goals, Griezmann has stamped his class on this tournament. Only Michel Platini’s got more in one edition. Griezmann helped France get out of jail against the Republic of Ireland by suggesting to coach Didier Deschamps that he play a central role. There’s a bit of tradition here in the sense that in Platini and Zidane, France have had one hero when they hosted a major tournament. Should France continue the tradition of winning tournaments they host, Griezmann will have earned his place alongside those legends. What a turnaround it will be for a team that had a mutiny in its ranks in the 2010 World Cup. Les Miserables, they were then called.
For the record, the last time they lost to Portugal was in 1975.