Portugal’s victory in the Euro 2016 final was a triumph of collective effort from a team known best for the abilities of its marquee player and skipper. Cristiano Ronaldo spent nearly 100 minutes away from the pitch and yet Portugal aced the biggest test in their football history.
What also makes truth stranger than fiction is that the matchwinner came from Eder, a cracking shot low at the near post that had Hugo Lloris in France’s goal gripping air. Eder came on as a 79th minute substitute for the promising Renato Sanches.
At Swansea last term, Eder had failed to score in 15 appearances and The Guardian quoted South Wales Echo as saying he was “one of the most disappointing transfer flops in the club’s history.” Eder was loaned to Lille whom he joined on a long-term deal this year. It took the 28-year-old 18 matches to score his first international goal. All that makes the kind of self-belief he showed after cutting in from the left and firing home from 25 yards seem even more incredible.
"He actually told me when I sent him on that he was going to score," Portugal coach Fernando Santos was quoted as saying by ESPN. "I smiled. But then the ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan."
By then, Ronaldo had reappeared pitchside and was cheering his mates on, making them believe that this could really happen. He had left in tears, the hope of smiling last after the final seemingly in tatters. But with the match deadlocked till the second half of overtime, that seemed a possibility many at St Denis wouldn’t have considered earlier on Sunday evening.
If Eder sealed the deal, it was Rui Patricio who kept Portugal in the game. The first of the two embarrassing moments of the night for Pepe came in the 10th minute and it meant Dimitri Payet could find Antoine Griezmann from the left. The man who has been France’s darling in this tournament leapt well and made a strong connection but Portugal’s goalie kept it out. A goal then with Ronaldo already limping following a clash with Payet one minute earlier and Portugal could have been down and out for the count.
Patricio had a great night, keeping out Patrice Evra’s delivery after Eder had stunned France, denying the impressive Moussa Sissoko twice and saving an Olivier Giroud left-footer. He was helped by Cedric who made a crucial interception on Anthony Martial, a surprisingly late introduction by France coach Didier Deschamps, and left-back Raphael Guerreiro. The left-back battled cramps when Portugal had used up their substitutions and had hit the framework with a free-kick earlier. Barring once in each half when his mistakes could have hurt Portugal really badly, Pepe too put in a useful shift.
In front of the back four, William Carvalho played well as a holding midfielder as Portugal changed from 4-1-3-2 to 4-1-4-1 after Ronaldo’s exit leaving Nani to plough a lone furrow in front. The shift helped them tackle France in the middle in a match of few chances. Portugal actually grew into the game, the first European Championship final that stayed 0-0 after regulation time, according to the website Goal.com, as it wore on.
Portugal won only one of their seven games in regulation time and this was their third game in the tournament that had stretched into extra-time and yet they were the ones who looked stronger then. Initially rattled by the loss of Ronaldo --- even Real Madrid would be and they have Bale, Modric, Benzema --- they had started believing that a miracle could happen on a night that was supposed to be about one colour, blue.
Contributing to that belief was Santos. He made all the right moves from the touchline. Such as getting Adrien Silva to play, changing to 4-3-3 after Eder was brought on and, most importantly, not panicking when Ronaldo had to leave. Add to that Ronaldo’s encouragement from the sidelines, his left knee heavily strapped, and you get to see team effort in action on a big night. Player for player France may have been better --- stronger and taller too according to statistics put out by Uefa --- but they couldn’t pull their weight against opponents keen on punching above theirs.
Yes, Portugal needed a lot of luck to get this far after finishing third in the group. That too wouldn’t have happened had Iceland not struck late against Austria. Even on Monday (India time), it could have been different had Griezmann not missed with a header around the hour mark and Andre-Pierre Gignac not rattled the framework in the second minute of second-half injury time after fooling Pepe. But more than good fortune it was Portugal’s collective desire to battle the long odds that helped them make history. There have been better Portugal teams but this one had greater belief.