It has been a Euro 2016 tournament in which the underdog stories have been the ones to savour, and Portugal were able to tap into one of their own during the long old slog that it took to beat Croatia in Lens on Saturday night.
With the ageing Ricardo Carvalho having been dropped from the side following his cat on a hot tin roof of a performance in the 3-3 draw with Hungary, coach Fernando Santos opted to turn to a player only six years Carvalho’s junior, albeit one who has had quite the different career.
Six years ago, when Carvalho was completing a move from Chelsea to Real Madrid having won three Premier League titles in west London, Jose Fonte was down in League One with Southampton, helping a club once used to life in the higher reaches of English football clamber back towards the top.
And clamber back they did, because ever since then, Fonte has been at the heart of the Saints’ remarkable rise, with the south coast club overcoming the repeated loss of high-profile players and managers to record progressively higher finishes in the English football ladder, reaching sixth place in 2015/16. Given what they’ve had to put up with, they really are one of the most consistently impressive clubs in modern football.
And Fonte has been there through all of that, standing firm as his central-defensive partners and pretty much everyone else around him has changed. He has become a club legend, an icon to the Southampton supporters and a man seemingly not flustered by the prospect of change.
He didn't earn his first cap for his country until he was almost 31, and he is now relishing every opportunity that he gets with them. So what’s the small matter of a European Championship second-round match to him, then?
“Saturday's game was important for me as I played my first game in such a big competition,” Fonte told reporters at Portugal’s training base on Monday, as reported by Reuters (via the Daily Mail). “If the coach considers it, I am ready to play the next game.”
Of course he is. Southampton supporters would tell you that Fonte was born ready, and having handled Mario Mandzukic and then Nikola Kalinic superbly in Lens, the central defender will now have his gaze set on stopping Robert Lewandowski in his tracks in Marseille on Thursday evening.
If Euro 2016 has taught us anything it is that reputations can be respected but not feared, and given that Fonte plays against the Premier League’s best forwards week in week out, then he isn’t likely to be flustered by the prospect of coming up against the Bayern Munich man.
If selected—and he must be selected now—then Fonte can be the calming influence on the defence, with his leadership skills vital given that you’re never quite sure what his central-defensive partner Pepe will do next.
This might not be an underdog story to compete with the likes of Iceland, but the centre-back’s rise up to and now prominence in his national team is a just reward for all of the hard work that he’s put in over the years, as well as his loyalty to Southampton.
Whereas the English football elite have spent the past few years cherry-picking the best players from St. Mary’s, it is perhaps Fonte’s age that has always ensured that he has never quite been showing up to brightly on their radars. But given his understated abilities and his effectiveness, then perhaps he should have been. Portugal are finding that out now, at any rate.
Carvalho has been a fine defender over many years, but his best days are long behind him now, with Fonte—at 32—probably enjoying the best time of his career at exactly the right time for his country.
He is loving being in France, loving representing his country and loving being in the quarter-finals—all qualities that the impressive underdogs in this competition have repeatedly used to their advantage.
It’s been a long and winding road to the top for him, but the view might just be about to get even better.