The signs were there. In 2014, Fernando Santos quit as the national coach of the Greek football team. For four years, the ex-Portuguese player had done a fine job with Europe’s favorite underdogs. He had led them to the knockout stages of Euro 2012 and the World Cup in 2014. Since October 2014, Greece failed to win a single game. They failed to qualify for the 24-nation Euro 2016 tournament, and lost to the lowly Faroe Islands twice in the period. With Santos’ exit, Greece were left to pick up pieces of an ideology only he was capable of running.
Less than two years later, the coach, who had won five major titles with Porto a decade ago, is now a Euro-winning coach of a team that should have won its first major tournament decades ago. Portugal has, for long, been Europe’s most notorious underperformers. Spain held that unflattering unofficial title for decades, until they won their first Euro tournament in 2008, after which the floodgates opened for a World Cup and another Euro title. Portugal, however, are long remembered as the team who failed to win Euro 2004 on home turf with their ‘golden generation’, after reaching the final against a compact Greece (ironically).
Not surprisingly, on Sunday night at the Stade de France, the Portuguese did onto hosts and favorites France what Greece did onto them 12 years ago, defeating France with an ugly 1-0 scoreline on their own turf. The Greek underdog fairytale was hyped up enough to forget about the fact that they had won the tournament ugly; a bunch of 1-0 defensive scorelines indicated that they were there to spoil other teams’ footballing rhythms instead of making their own chances.
But the Portugal football team has been a disliked one, ever since it drew its first three group games and sneaked through as one of the four best-placed third-placed teams – with just 3 points to their name. They were placed on the easier side of the draw, with no Germany, France, Italy or Spain, and only Croatia seeming like the side who could pose them problems.
Portugal didn’t lose once in their 7 games. They drew against Iceland, Hungary (a thrilling Ronaldo-inspired 3-3 draw) and Austria. They finished third in a group of four. They also won only once (against Wales, in the semifinal) in regulation time – winning the other three games either in extra time or penalties. This is no world-beating story. It tells a sordid story, one that purists wouldn’t want to touch from miles away, one that demonstrates the fact that coach Santos and captain Cristiano Ronaldo were willing to do anything it took to win themselves an elusive international title.
In the end, they won with the kind of football most experts and officials condemned as “cynical” and “ugly” – with Santos himself labeling his team the Ugly Ducklings of the tournament. The point is, they won with the kind of football Portugal are not known for, which is ironical, considering France were the ones embracing the attacking ideology for their tournament. Most importantly, they won without Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch in the final. He was stretchered off in tears less than twenty minutes into the match. Once again, it looked like he would have to make do, like his great rival Messi, without an international title to his name. He soldiered on the sidelines, acting as assistant manager to Santos, desperate for his team to stick to their strategy and not concede. And, after that, the defense, led heroically by Pepe, thwarted off attack after French attack, to take the game into extra time.
Eder’s long-range-ish goal was lovely to watch. It broke the deadlock, he was a sub, and Santos became a hero for bringing him on. But, to be honest, it was also kind of a fluke. And Portugal needed that fluke desperately. They made France pay for not taking their chances – something that France made World Champions Germany pay for in the semifinals, after managing just 35% of possession throughout the game.
After reaching the 2004 final, the 2008 quarterfinals, the World Cup 2010 Round of 16 and the 2012 Euro semifinals, the Portugal football team – without a Luis Felipe Scolari or a Figo, with an injured Ronaldo – finally won a trophy long overdue. They didn’t do it the way most teams win championships, but they did it because it needed to be done. It was high time.
A week after Messi failed to win the Copa America for the second time in two years, Ronaldo won his holy grail. This, only a month after winning the Champions League with Real Madrid – a match where Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, a Frenchman who would go on to win the Golden Boot at Euro 2016, missed a penalty. Griezmann lost his second final in a month, and Ronaldo won his second in a month.