Well, well, well. After almost two whole years of qualifying, group stage and knockout round drama, this was it. We started back in September 2014 with 53 teams from each and every nook and cranny of the continent, from Iceland to Israel, Andorra to Armenia and Bulgaria to Bosnia and Herzegovina, whittled it down to 24 for the tournament proper, and after countless matches, goals and shocks, now we were down to two. Hosts, pre-tournament favourites and football fanatics France versus noble, moderately blessed but highly unexpected Portugal. Some billed it as Ronaldo vs Griezmann, but it was far, far bigger than that. This was 10.46 million people and the footballing royalty of Eusebio, Luis Figo and Rui Costa, on the very western edge of Europe against the 66.03 million in the centre of Renaissance culture, Napoleon’s empire and ancient sporting history, France. This was bigger than anything right now, this was a battle of footballing history, one side far more common winners in terms of trophies, but both fairly successful for their size. It was a match to savour, one to sit and enjoy, however defensive we thought one side was going to be, this was the final stage, the culmination of two whole years of effort. This was footballing drama at its very best. A side which has only improved over the course of the tournament, adapting tactics, building up to their best performance in the semi-final, against a nation which has played arguably the best football, only failing to win or score in a single match, although they put in a totally contradictory tactical performance at the last four stage. What was going to be the result? Well, that was anybody’s guess.
So, who were the big names lining up for a shot at this once-in-a-lifetime trophy? Well, Portugal made two changes to the side which dispatched Wales in the last round, Pepe and William Carvalho coming in for a vastly experienced Bruno Alves and a comparatively young Danilo, following their injury and suspension respectively in the last round. One of the successes of the tournament, Renato Sanches, became the youngest player to play in the final of any Euros, at just 18 years and 326 days, with Fernando Santos putting his faith in the teenager. France, still fresh with their impassioned fans behind them, stuck with the same XI which thrashed Iceland and narrowly edged out Germany, Moussa Sissoko (now a Championship player) keeping his place instead of N’Golo Kante and the 4-3-3 returning, and Samuel Umtiti being rewarded with his third straight start after being a relative unproven talent on the international stage just four weeks ago. Was it time for Fernando Santos, who I thought looked desperate and clueless in the group stage, to win the European Championship, having been seen as a failure as Portugal boss before? Or was it time for the underperforming French to win their first trophy since 2000? The next 90 minutes (or more) would prove it all.
Early play was niggly and tense, with both sides setting out their clear tactical plans, Portugal to waste time whenever they could, press tight and target their two front men Ronaldo and Nani, France to play the ball around as much as possible to carve out patient chances. Antoine Griezmann and Nani both had decent opportunities early on, but neither were ever realistically going in. But then the drama of this final was dealt a massive blow. Cristiano Ronaldo, targeted by Dimitri Payet for the opening quarter of an hour, was forced off the field, not once, not twice, but three times in the space of 25 minutes, only for the challenges of the West Ham playmaker to take their required effect and eliminate him from the game. Finally, after giving his all in attempting to run off the ankle problem, he decided he couldn’t continue, and winced off the field in the comfort of a cold, hard stretcher, bringing to an end his involvement in this tournament, in which he has excelled both as captain and as a world-class individual. This was not only massive for him, it was game-changing for his country, as without arguably their best ever player in a team of mediocre but promising talents, they would surely have no chance in such a massive final.
The French were only spurred on this substitution (Ricardo Quaresma on for Ronaldo), as Moussa Sissoko surprisingly enough took control of his side’s attacking moves, forging his own shots and crosses with his effervescent power, pace and skill in tight spaces from the right wing. Thank god he tried to take control, because we hardly saw anything of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi or Olivier Giroud going forward in the first half. As the French stars faltered, the Portuguese actually began to take control in the latter stages of the half, Nani, Quaresma, Sanches and both full-backs (Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro) linking up well on the edge of the box to just threaten Lloris’ goal with a few deflected shots and one-touch moves. Pepe almost got a decisive header from a corner, but other than that chances were at a premium. At the conclusion of it, the first 45 minutes fell into the pattern of a astonishingly large percentage of matches this month (21 of 50), goalless at half time. It was not the best football we had ever seen, but it was certainly tense and packed full of tight battles, everything you expect of a final. Nobody had shown anything worthy of deciding this final yet, but you could feel it was just around the corner. the game was just waiting to wake up and become a classic.
With both sides considerably roused for the decisive second half by Santos and Deschamps, it was time for play to begin again for potentially, and remorsefully, the last 45 minutes of the Euro 2016. The side in red (and green socks) looked up for it, Quaresma in particular stepping into the shoes of Ronaldo (however impossible that job was going to be), attempting to lead his side by example as the elder of their squad. Their attempt at a tiki-taka, in the style of their previously successful neighbours Spain, was in parts fairly effective, especially when they linked up in triangles along the by-line, cutting out numerous French midfielders from the game by tiring them out, only to lose the ball seconds later. France, on the other hand, struggled for any meaningful passes forward, usually getting crowded out as soon as they entered the opposition’s half. Deschamps decided to liven it up, benching an (other than injuring Ronaldo) ineffective Dimitri Payet for Kingsley Coman, bringing a little more guile to their attack. Only a few minutes later, the sub had an immediate impact, as Griezmann had a golden opportunity, from a delightful Coman cross which eliminated the Portuguese defence, but the Athletico Madrid striker could only mess it up by failing to judge his jump correctly. The ball struck him right on the forehead, but it sailed just above the crossbar, much to the despair of the millions of French fans across the country.
Portugal took heed from this warning, tracking back into their positions and tactical roles they had clearly been lectured on pre-match, if they were going to stand any chance at winning. They were playing outstandingly well defensively, with two players combining to shut down any danger at the first sight of it, and William Carvalho providing a vital presence in front of his defence, taking up any positions when they had been abandoned. It was heading for a stalemate, but Portugal were making it an easy-on-the-eye one, mastering the art of beautiful defending having learnt from the master, Monsieur Santos. France decided to go direct; Andre-Pierre Gignac, the big bumbling hunk of goal scoring (at least in the Mexican league) meat, coming on in place of a non-starter in Olivier Giroud. Portugal also brought on a target man of their own, former Swansea man Eder replacing Renato Sanches in an unexpectedly attacking move.
Despite the fact they had been defending for the past 10 minutes, it was Portugal who had the next best chance. Nani’s askew cross planted into the shocked palms of Hugo Lloris, who could only beat the ball away to Quaresma, who wonderfully turned his back and struck an impressive overhead kick, only for it to be swiftly saved by a lucky Lloris. But only a few minutes later, they were back to defending. As Umtiti surged forward from defence, he opened up the space for Sissoko to fire a bullet of a shot to Patricio’s right, only for the so-far outstanding goalkeeper to force it away, diving with all he could give. We all accepted the game would now go to extra-time, but Gignac nearly had a massive say in the tournament, so close to the biggest goal in the whole of Euro 2016. With 90+2 minutes on the clock, he picked up a low cross from his left, wriggled free of Pepe (leaving him on the floor) and scuffed a close range finish around Patricio and onto the near post, when he really should’ve scored. There were centre metres in it, but fate didn’t allow the Frenchman the glory. Not yet.
So this one was going late into the French night. Fitting I thought, considering how long France took to win their opening match (can you remember it now?) all of four weeks ago now, how long they struggled under the pressure of an expectant nation. Fitting too, for the Portuguese, because they had only won a single match in normal time in the whole tournament, having ground out late, late wins against Croatia in extra-time and Poland on penalties. If either team really wanted this, they were going to have to dig deep. In the first half of extra-time, the game drifted on without any serious goal scoring chances, other than Eder’s dangerously rising header from a corner, which Lloris used his cat-like reflexes to keep out.
Second half, and with little expected of it, the first chance came as a nice surprise. Raphael Guerreiro stepped up to strike a free kick on the edge of the box, in the absence of Ronaldo, and I’ll tell you what, he struck it just as well as the big man. It flew over the wall, kissed Lloris’ fingertips and smashed the crossbar, bouncing out and livening up the crowd. But that only started something much, much bigger. Just two minutes after Mark Clattenburg wrongly awarded Portugal the free kick (as it hit Eder’s hand, not Koscielny’s), the offender for it, the former Swansea striker, the lanky but powerful Eder, cracked what was potentially going to be a winning goal, a world changing goal, from 25 yards out, bumping along the surface as it went, straight into the bottom right corner of Lloris’ net, exactly where he couldn’t reach it. This was AMAZING. Portugal, vastly inferior, especially without Ronaldo, to the world-class French, were winning this match with only 11 minutes left. Eder, who had only previously scored three goals in 28 appearances for his country, had scored what was surely going to be a winning goal in the EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL. Was this all a dream? No, this was the cold, hard truth, and it was cutting to the French fans.
But their side didn’t demonstrate the urgency to get back in the game. They may have had the ball, but they didn’t use it wisely, hitting it at Portuguese shins, leaving it for easy interceptions, and overall not finding the final ball. For a side widely tipped to win this competition, for a side so skilled, so blessed by world class talents, they were going to lose this. They were seriously going to throw this away after being the best team in the tournament prior to this match. And after they did finally chuck a decent ball in the box, and Martial volleyed it straight at the wall of Portuguese defenders, we all knew their chance was gone. The big timers lost in the final to the band of brothers, the most organised and determined side in the tournament, the ones with more steel than a thousand trophies.
So Santos did it. He had masterminded a minor nation to continental success, defeating the highly skilled, highly rated, expensively built side expected to win in the final. Well, it’s fair to say that he is a genius. He built a side capable of defeating anyone on any day, just by grinding out results. They had finished 3rd in their group to Hungary and Iceland, having failed to beat either of them, nor Austria, but they have ground out a route to winning this special tournament. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, with his agonising-looking ankle injury, was leaping up and down on the touchline like the manger himself, so passionate about the cause. In many ways, despite being a singular, arrogant player most of the time, Ronaldo exemplifies the spirit of this side; contributing all he could for his nation despite being good enough to win games on his own. And in the end, they didn’t need him in the final, beating the seemingly unconquerable French without his presence on the pitch. This was magical stuff, unbelievable stuff, spellbinding stuff, worthy of books and films in decades to come. Heroic victors, worthy champions, despite what we all predicted. I don’t think even Ronaldo himself would’ve realistically predicted that his side would win this tournament, particularly after his ‘microphone in the lake’ incident early in the tournament. Everything else is history know now, what we saw tonight was truly epic.
Team of the Day
Is this even worth debating anymore? We have proven the side of the tournament, not just the side of the day, it is that nation at the very south west of Europe, the incomparable Portuguese.
Player of the Day
William Carvalho set this game alight for me tonight. He is what kept his side in the game defensively, and what allowed for them to be successful, just the one time, going forward. He pinged great cross-field balls all across the park, and kept his position in front of the defence, splitting Griezmann and Giroud (and later Gignac), effectively stopping the French because their playmaker couldn’t link up with their goal scorers. Patricio, Guerreiro and Sissoko also deserve massive credit, but Carvalho set the tempo for a win tonight, and he was the heartbeat for his side’s unbelievable victory.
Goal of the Day
From the single goal scored, I don’t have a choice, but any tournament-winning goal is always worthy of an award. And this one was worthy of plaudits and awards all over the world, Eder smashing in an uncompromising, maybe speculative, but always goal-bound shot right into the perfect area, claiming everything it deserved. After everything we saw this month, this was a goal well, well worthy of getting the blood going for the Portuguese, and giving them their first ever international tournament trophy. Shocking, shocking, but oh so fitting after the year we’ve had, with upsets all over the world. It just seems that our lives have been shaken upside down, doesn’t it? And that is what sport does, it shakes up what we know, and turns it on its head.
Shock of the Day
If there was going to be one shock in a final, you would’ve surely thought that it would be a goal, a red card or a penalty miss maybe. But no, not here in the Stade de France, where a plague of ever-active, buzzing moths blighted the moods of players, management and fans inside the 80,000 seater. They covered the suits of Santos and Deschamps, the corner flags, the advertising boards and most comically Ronaldo’s face when he first lay down injured, just hovering over his finely tweezed eyebrows. Aah, nature, it tries to ruin every occasion, especially in the summer, doesn’t it?
Other than that, maybe the fact that PORTUGAL BEAT FRANCE TO WIN EURO 2016? A real, world-changing shock that will reverberate across the world for years to come.
Day Rating: 10/10 (Just because of the way it ended, and that it was a final)
I’m Looking Forward to…
Unpicking the rest of this now, and returning to normal life in a few days! Well, maybe I have to admit I don’t want to go back to life without Euro 2016, but it is certainly good for it be concluded. I’ll see you next week, with a blog probably up on Saturday afternoon, but possibly on Sunday, we’ll see what happens. But for now, let’s celebrate Portugal and how great Euro 2016 was! Goodnight, and goodbye from A Continental Affair!
P.S. Thank you all so much for keeping up with the twists and turns of this tumultuous month with me, I’m so grateful for the support and loyal reading you’ve given the blogs, and I hoped you enjoyed this month with me and Euro 2016!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!