By Suresh Nair
FOOTBALL has really gone bonkers. Portugal, minus God-like captain Cristiano Ronaldo, showed us how, why, when, whatever.
Twelve years after losing to Greece on home soil in their last appearance in the final, it was Portugal’s turn to spoil the host nation’s party. And they achieved it after winning only one of their seven games at Euro 2016 inside 90 minutes, and after losing the inspirational Ronaldo midway through the first half.
And as I watched the “live” telecast climax, close to 5.00am Monday morning, amid the red and green confetti descending from the roof onto Ronaldo and his victorious teammates as supporters of the host flooded out of the stadium, I thought football was a very cruel game as it denied hosts France a third victory on French soil to add to Euro ’84 and the 1998 World Cup.
France was in tears. As hurt, too, probably bleeding emotionally, like the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks. They felt the footballs were like bombs exploding right at their faces. As Hugo Lloris, France’s goalkeeper-captain said: “The overriding emotion is a lot of sadness.”
Yes, football can be funnily unpredictable, too. It was a mostly dull and stodgy final but the record books will only show that Portugal went from third-place in its group to champion, and with little help from Ronaldo in its last match.
Like Gareth Bale missing from a Wales’ big match, European football’s biggest game lost its biggest name after 25 minutes through knee-injury of a cagey final on the outskirts of the French capital. Portugal were left feeling like they had been mugged in the final when Ronadlo was stretchered off under 25 minutes.
But who cared, without Ronaldo, who knee-strapped and hobbling from the bench, gave ultra-passionate instructions, even ironically, over-riding coach Fernando Santos.
Looking back, was Euro 2016 a turning point of sorts? After years of planning, the championship’s first 24-team tournament became a reality over the last month, but the quality of football deteriorated. Such a sterile showpiece — the first European Championship final to be scoreless after 90 minutes — seemed a fitting climax.
Looking back to Euro 2004, when every blue-chip country seemed mediocre at best, Germany, Spain and Italy departed before their time, style has quickly gone out of fashion at these finals, but Portugal arrived on the Paris catwalk sporting some hand-me-downs. Yes, Euro 2016 did feel like a little bit of history repeating itself.
Looking back at France pin-up-boy striker Antoine Griezmann, the tournament’s leading scorer, who couldn’t rise to the big occasion. There was no seventh goal of Euro 2016 from the Atletico Madrid forward, who also lost out in the Champions League final six weeks ago to Ronaldo’s Real Madrid.
The injured man, with his knee heavily strapped, Ronaldo was the last to climb the steps up to the VIP area to collect the trophy. Unlike his great rival Lionel Messi, the Argentina and Barcelona forward, he has now filled the medal void on the major international stage.
Yes, no doubts about it, luck (and God, too) was on Portugal’s side, and substitute Eder was able to strike the decisive blow. For the unheralded striker, who plays in France for Lille, it was only his fourth goal in 29 appearances for Portugal.
“The ugly duckling became beautiful,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. Rightly said from the gnarled 61-year-old Portugal coach, who has already intimated that he is content to win ugly and says “pretty football” rarely works in tournaments. Like Greece coach Otto Rehhagel (who led Greece, 150-1 rank outsiders to the Euro 2004 title), Fernando is now the undisputed “king” of his Portuguese clan despite sexy football long being rendered impotent from the country that gave us Eusebio.
To entertain in football, let alone sports, is all about the art of creation. Spoiling is easier. In that respect, Portugal may appear to be desperately, depressingly poor champions of Europe.
And who really cares?
LESSONS TO LEARN
For Malaysia and Singapore, the lessons to take away: You don’t fluke your way to winning an international tournament such as the European Championship. You simply don’t. You don’t survive a tough group that included Hungary and Iceland, you don’t beat teams the calibre of Croatia and Poland, and you don’t best a nation in Wales that had a great deal of momentum, behind it strictly with luck.
As far as that old chestnut about how Portugal wouldn’t have even qualified for the second round under the old Euro format, that’s probably a silly argument. Who cares?
They won this tournament. That’s all the matters. One win in 90 minutes? Who cares? Did I miss the famed note that says victories earned in extra time or in a shootout don’t count the same?
Debunked, too, is the notion that Portugal is a one-man team that relies on Ronaldo to carry them. That argument has been put to bed, hasn’t it? Ronaldo had his moments in France, but he was hardly the dominant player we’ve witnessed over his career. It says so much about this team’s character that it was able to carry on and beat the host nation, without their captain and talisman.
Ultimately, from the north-west state of Perlis to Pasir Panjang Road, from east state Sarawak to Serangoon Road, every youngster must know that skill, tournament management, and execution of a clear game plan were the major right reasons why the Portuguese were crowned kings of Europe.
Portugal is now on Cloud Nine. Ronaldo and company are holding on to the Henri Delaunay. Pray tell me, who really cares?
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist, who supported (urgh!) England at Euro 2016. He feels it’s a fitting end to a five-week tournament lifted by underdogs, and Portugal, rightly so, spoiled the big French party. Tap to read full story