Why Portugal Are Deserving European Champions in Football's Year of the Underdog

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistJuly 11, 2016

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal celebrates the victory with teammates during the trophy ceremony following the UEFA Euro 2016 final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Saint-Denis near Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

For a tournament where the drama was often centred on the moments and feelings around the football, and not the purity of the football itself, there was a fitting ending.

That’s right, Portugal. The football gods were going to see to it that you could win this thing, but you were going to have to do it without your captain, your icon and one of the greatest players the world has seen.

Fortunately for the Portuguese, that description relates to only one man and not three. If watching football in 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that teams can be greater than the sum of their parts, even when one of those parts is Cristiano Ronaldo.

The forward’s tears when finally departing the pitch with an injury 25 minutes into what became a tough final to watch were a sad sight to see, but they only emphasised what coach Fernando Santos has turned this Portuguese side into in the short time he’s been in the job.

Indeed, perhaps just because you have Ronaldo in your team, you are expected to play a certain way. So it was almost fitting that Santos was deprived of a functioning captain for 113 of the 120 minutes of toil and graft against a France side which, in the end, almost drove themselves to distraction.

Following a strong start, the hosts—who can’t have failed to think it was going to be their day when Ronaldo went off—allowed anguish and angst to take over at a time when cool heads were needed.

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On the sidelines, Didier Deschamps’ strange decisions soon descended into instructing his team to just give the ball to Moussa Sissoko and watch him charge through midfield. It neglected the talents of the marginalised Blaise Matuidi, Dimitri Payet and, most criminally of all, Paul Pogba.

Portugal's defender Pepe (L) and Portugal's defender Fonte vie for the ball with France's forward Olivier Giroud during the Euro 2016 final football match between Portugal and France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on July 10, 2016.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/Getty Images

Pogba will apparently become football’s first £100 million-plus player soon if his former club, Manchester United, get their way, as detailed in the Manchester Evening News. But such lavish spending on players would surely become a thing of the past if football were to learn from the underdog stories which have characterised 2016.

Because in the year of Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, and in the tournament of Iceland and Wales, Portugal are fitting European champions.

While Pogba struggled to make an impact in midfield, the tigerish Adrien Silva scuttled menacingly. Joao Mario picked the perfect time to have his best game of the tournament as he worked in tandem with Nani and Ronaldo’s replacement, Ricardo Quaresma, to tuck in and restrict service to the French full-backs.

At the back, the excellent Pepe served a reminder that for all of his theatrics, he isn’t about to go into a 10th season as a Real Madrid player for no reason. A special mention should also be made for Jose Fonte; the Southampton titan’s trophy cabinet now features medals for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, Euro 2016 and nothing else, and he had a fine tournament.

It is players such as Fonte and match-winner Eder who ensured this was a thoroughly merited success for the Portuguese.

The forward, who at least found a little more success in the latter half of last season at Lille OSC, had only featured for 13 minutes of this tournament prior to the final. He failed to get off the bench in the last 16, the quarter-finals or the semis.

If this is a team obscured by the dominating presence of Ronaldo, then Eder is the definition of that. He was the only other recognised centre-forward in the squad, and one who was only there in case of emergency.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo poses with the winners trophy during the UEFA Euro 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de Lyon on July 10 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Craig Mercer/CameraSport via Getty Images)
Craig Mercer - CameraSport/Getty Images

Santos didn’t even trust him to come on when Ronaldo was injured, but when he eventually did, he delivered the sweetest of strikes to secure the sweetest of victories. It was Portugal’s first in a tournament final and yet another first in this year when football has almost been turned upside down.

It might not have been the prettiest and it might not have been the best, but that is a description which could also be said for a tournament in which perspiration was valued over purity.

Portugal—a team in their coach’s rather dour image but who just so happen to have Ronaldo in their ranks—had their moment thanks to Eder. But they had their victory thanks to toil, sweat and the tears of their captain.

They might not be the most universally loved European champions, but they most certainly deserve to be among the most respected.