“We have a team again,” Thierry Henry told BBC Sport in the build up to the game. “People can relate to them, everything is back on track. Six years ago everyone was laughing at us. Now we need that cup at the end to show how far we have come.”
Unfortunately for Henry and his nation, it was the power of Portugal’s team spirit that won out in the end. Robbed of Cristiano Ronaldo through injury, Fernando Santos’ side displayed the steel that had taken them so far in this tournament. You can frown and mutter under your breath about a side resorting to a defensive strategy to succeed, but this is knock-out football not synchronised swimming. There are no awards for style; the result is king.
Didier Deschamps has long been known as French football’s lucky charm, and it looked like the coach had rolled double six again when Ronaldo was left strewn on the Stade de France turf, shedding tears at his injured knee. The final had its biggest moment until Eder’s late magnificence.
Yet if a stricken Ronaldo gave this final a 1998 hue, France’s performance could not have been more different. Gone was the strut of the quarter-final and the efficiency of the semi, back were the doubts that have riddled teams of France past. Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba were supposed to be the country’s golden boys, but for now they’ll have to settle for silver. It was all that France deserved after a tepid evening during which only Moussa Sissoko performed to his potential.
This was not a final of discernible quality or excitement, if truth be told, but neither is that the exception to the rule. The heightened pressure and stakes inevitably increase the nerves, too often leading to a reduction in proficiency and adventure. Those moaning over the lack of goalmouth action may be viewing previous major tournament finals with rose-tinted glasses.
This was supposed to be France’s sporting reclamation, the reunification of a football team found guilty via public trial six years ago after they fought and festered in South Africa. This was supposed to be a squad overcoming injuries to notable players, drug bans, accusations of racism in the coach’s squad selection and a sex tape outrage accompanied by criminal allegations. This was supposed to be France’s third major tournament hosting in 32 years, and their third victory.
More symbolically, France was also supposed to be a country united, as in 1998. Paris, a city in fear and affected by floods and industrial strikes in the build-up to the tournament, anticipated celebrating not just sporting triumph but a moment, perhaps even a night, of unbridled unity. Just as the class of World Cup ‘98 had achieved a victory for harmony against the rise of the Front National, the class of ‘16 was viewed as the necessary antidote to a semi-permanent bad news stream.
For those reasons and others, Portugal will be portrayed as the bad guys. Critics will point to Ronaldo’s ego, Pepe’s sh*thousery and a team that won only one match inside 90 minutes during the entire tournament. “Sometimes the bad guys win,” people will say through gritted teeth.
Fernando Santos and his team will – and should – care not a jot. To label Portugal as undeserving winners is to display a very special kind of misery, one that ignores the tears of joy among a squad capable of performing in the exact manner to be successful. The Henri Delaunay Cup will have the word ‘Portugal’ engraved upon it, but there will be no space to add ‘Yeah, but they were a bit defensive’ in brackets. For those who demand heartwarming stories to accompany sporting triumph, speak to Jose Fonte, Eder or Raphael Guerreiro for further details.
Portugal were Euro 2016’s only unbeaten team, and are therefore its deserved victors. In international football, the only right way is the way that works. One title, one final and another two semis since 2000 suggests that Portugal’s way works just fine. France must find unity through a different means.