As Ronaldo limped up the long set of steps to receive his country’s first ever international championship trophy on Sunday I couldn’t help but think that this result is the perfect ending to an imperfect tournament.
Much of the EURO 2016 tournament has been bland and uninspiring. Aside from a few stellar goals from big stars, and some late dramatics in penalty shootouts (Specifically the nine round blunderfest between Germany and Poland… NINE), the majority of the games were lackluster in quality and bereft of the excitingly cogent play we become used to seeing at the club level. There were some exceptions of course including Russia’s late equalizer against England in group play, Wales’ drubbing of Belgium in the quarters, and France shutting out the mighty Germans in the semis.
These international teams have little to no time to practice together and their training sessions/warm up games are crammed into the small gap between the end of the domestic seasons and the opening group stages of the tournament. What we are left with are teams with a hodge podge of one or two great players matched with an amalgam of less talented teammates (Read: Wales, Poland), or teams with a group of individually very talented players who are not used to playing with each and which eventually spell doom for their title hopes (Sorry Belgium and England). It’s not the most riveting of soccer, yet it’s still compelling in that teams are forced to figure out on the fly how to play against opponents who are in the same exact position they are. It’s like being woken up from a peaceful slumber and being handed a very long difficult exam that you haven’t studied for. At first, you are going to make stupid mistakes, but as the test goes on and your sleepy brain starts to rev up, you’re able to salvage a passing grade (at least some folks are; RIP Ukraine).
That is how I would grade Portugal in this tournament. Not perfect, not the most inspiring of play, but they did just enough to get through the group stages (on three straight draws), and began to gain steam and confidence as they played through the knockout rounds and into the final. It’s of course worth noting that they drew the noticeably easier side of the bracket, but you still have to win the games to earn a berth in the championship. And they did just that.
Their scrappiness culminated in a monumental test against the red hot Les Bleus who appeared ready to win their first European championship since 2000. With golden boot winner Antoine Greizmann in tow the French had bested the Cinderella Icelanders and reigning World Cup champion Germans. All of this at home in front thousands of screaming fans. But it was not to be.
The Ronaldo injury so early in the game really seemed to take the wind out of the sails of a highly anticipated final. I respect the hell out of Cristiano for toughing it out for almost 20 minutes after being injured, but you could just tell he was in no way able to be the player we’ve come to know and love (or revile depending on where you’re sitting). Say what you want about the man, but few players would have tried to gut out an injury like that. You could tell by his face how much he wanted this game and it was devastating to see him finally take himself out halfway through the first 45.The unheralded Eder scored on a very Ronaldo-like goal and pushed Portugal to their first ever international hardware.
It was so fitting and really a snapshot of this entire tournament encapsulated in a single game for Portugal to lose their best player (let alone the best player in the world) and show so much character to find a way to win against a decidedly superior side in France. They weren’t the “best” team. They didn’t play perfect football all of the time. They made mistakes. But in the end they fought through adversity (and some fortuitous shots off the post) to eek out a win. Ronaldo may not have play for the majority of the final, but his team raised their play in his absence and gave their country a victory that will not soon be forgotten.