This article first appeared in Portugoal.net
By Eric Krakauer (@bigsoccerheadny)
From Cristino Ronaldo’s accusation that Iceland had a “small mentality” to Éder’s winner against France, Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph is replete with headline grabbing storylines.
All 23 squad members are national heroes, but here are the three biggest individual stories thrown up by the tournament that no Portuguese person will ever forget.
The Fernando Factor
If you’re looking for an explanation for Portugal’s unlikely European Championship, you need not look any further than Fernando Santos.
It’s worth noting that Portuguese people received his hiring somewhat acrimoniously. A tactical pragmatist who valued substance over style – a reputation reinforced by his tenure as Greece national team coach – Santos’ approach seemed antithetical to the footballing philosophy so clamored for in Portugal. Yet, as the sullen-faced coach steadily navigated his team towards automatic Euro qualification, his critics took a back seat despite the prevalent feeling that the Seleção was racking up unimpressive wins.
It became evident, though, that while Portuguese supporters hoped – albeit halfheartedly – that Santos would assemble a team in the same image as those that impressed during the 2000 and 2004 Euros with their attractive football, the coach was more concerned with trying to address Portugal’s two biggest problems. The first was how to devise a strategy that got the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo while taking the adjustments to his game into account. The second was how to mitigate the team’s Ronaldo-dependency in order to not have the Seleção crumble if the captain happened to have an off day.
Both problems were solved in one fell swoop. Traditionally deprived of a 9, Santos fabricated one (well, a hybrid of sorts) in Cristiano Ronaldo. The logic was simple. Since the Portuguese often ran out of solutions when Ronaldo didn’t make it onto the score sheet, Santos placed him further up the field in the best position to score, while at the same time ensuring that his star player didn’t become a defensive liability (as he had been with Paulo Bento). Essentially, and at the risk of being too reductive, the strategy continued to depend heavily on Ronaldo’s scoring exploits, but it also relied on a well-regimented and cohesive defensive scheme that was buttressed by good defenders and a dynamic and flexible midfield.
Portuguese Euro success hinged on this strategic adaptation, particularly in the knockout stages against tougher opponents, and was epitomized in the final against France. While Ronaldo’s two goals against Hungary ensured Portugal’s progression to the last 16 – and were all the more important considering the game exposed the need to remedy some early defensive frailties – his impact in the following three games was minimal, his fantastic leap and thundering header against Wales notwithstanding. Highlighted in those games was Portugal’s ability to neutralize its opponents. The ultimate test, though, came in the final after Ronaldo hobbled off the field. Without the talismanic captain, the Portuguese had no choice but to batten down the hatches in order to stunt and frustrate the French, while hoping that one of their few counterattacks culminated with the ball in the back of the net.
Given the derision with which Portugal’s triumph was received, one would be forgiven for thinking that Santos simply tasked his players with sitting back and closing any and every viable path to Rui Patrício’s goal. Some have gone so far as to claim that Portugal’s accomplishment was a death knell to the beautiful game, portending future tournaments rife with defensive football – the proverbial parking of the bus. That this reaction is a disservice to Santos and his players goes without saying. Not only was Portugal far from a defensive team in the group stage, but also the ability to defend that resolutely requires organization and tremendous work ethic, all of which find their roots on the practice field.
What should not be lost in the noise is that Santos was able to devise a pragmatic and effective system that helped establish a winning mentality. That cannot be overstated. The overwhelming sense of doom once Ronaldo went down in the final is a testament to fact that he was – as much as the Portuguese hate to admit it – the team, prior to Santos’ arrival. That Portugal emerged victorious after a grueling 120 minutes ultimately comes down the coach and the new attitude he’s inculcated in his team.
Everyone loves a good redemption story. And Portugal has a good one.
Ronaldo’s reputation has taken a pummeling down the years, rendering him a villain of the game. Some of the vitriol aimed at Ronaldo has certainly been unwarranted, but there’s little doubt that he has invited a lot of the criticism that has forced his supporters into becoming his biggest apologists.
But even his most ferocious apologists were at pains to come to Ronaldo’s defense, after the Portuguese captain accused Iceland of having a “small mentality,” in what was yet another example of his nauseating petulance. The tantrum was rightfully chastised by the world media, and inspired a plethora of memes and cartoons lampooning everyone’s favorite footablling diva. The unsavory comment also embellished the narrative of his missed penalty against Austria four days later, in what was regarded as a lesson in karmic fate.
Burdened by a raft of unwanted attention, and clearly off-kilter on the pitch, Ronaldo appeared destined for the annals of ridicule. However, three moments of majestic skill against plucky Hungary began to turn the narrative. Two goals and one assist rescued Portugal from a humiliating early tournament exit, and reminded us that Ronaldo was not only capable of turning a game on its head, but also of doing it with inimitable authoritative style.
However, his sublime back heel goal alone could not correct the terrible impression Ronaldo’s comments had made. His career has, to some extent, been dichotomized in terms of what he does on the field of play and what he does outside of it. In order to repair his image, something would have happen off the pitch that spoke to his better qualities. That came in the form of his leadership.
Much has been said about Ronaldo’s professionalism and his role within the dressing room. Nevertheless, because that is kept from the public eye, it does little to change the perception of the player. Yet, Ronaldo’s injury in the final brought that to the fore.
After limping around in attempt to shake off Dimitri Payet’s challenge, the captain finally dropped in a heap, in streaming tears, resigned to the reality that his game was over. That image in itself, aided by the consoling kiss of a moth, was enough to soften the most callous of hearts, but it was Ronaldo’s appearance on the sideline that redeemed him.
If anyone expected the captain to wallow in his own misery, they were dead wrong. Bandaged-up, and wearing the countenance of desperate fan, Ronaldo spent the rest of the game gesticulating nervously and muttering to his teammates. His frenzy reached its apex in the dying minutes of the game when unable to contain himself, Ronaldo paced the touchline, furiously shouting instructions at the players on the pitch, and seemingly taking the role of an assistant coach. This was not about him. This was about his nation, his teammates, and the long-suffering Portuguese.
His relationship with Santos was also evidenced in those instants. A couple of chest bumps, an unexpected bear hug, and a tight embrace once Mark Clattenburg blew his final whistle, revealed the level of trust the captain had in his coach, as well as his gratitude.
The tears, the agitation, and the euphoria were reminders that Ronaldo is so much more than the self-involved pantomime villain he’s made out to be, and that in spite of his insatiable desire for personal accolades, his will to propel his national team to glory reigns supreme.
The Unlikely Hero
It is something out of a fairy tale.
The derided individual, so often accused of not belonging, producing the moment that forever silences his or her detractors. That is Éder’s story.
In March, Portuguese Federation Vice-President, João Vieira Pinto, publically defended Éder after boos rained down on striker when he came on against Belgium in a friendly. “As a former player, I think we should show more respect for our national team’s players, independently of whether we like them or not,” an angry Pinto said. “Éder was representing our country and I think he deserved a lot more respect,” he added.
Éder’s cold reception was not unusual. Since putting on the Portuguese jersey for the first time in 2012, the Lille player has always been considered undeserving of his call-ups by Portugal’s supporters. If Santos was considered the antithetical coach for Portugal when he was hired, then Éder was the antithetical Portuguese player. Lanky and a little clumsy on the ball, he contrasted starkly with his teammates, and his scoring struggles did little to assuage the animosity that came from the stands.
The fact that it was Pinto that publically defended Éder made perfect sense. Beloved for his club career in Portugal, as well as his years with the national team, Pinto became infamous and a popular target for seeing red and subsequently punching Argentine referee, Angel Sanchez, in a game against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. Incapable of resurrecting his career after the incident, Vieira understood all too well the toll that fan hostility could take on a player’s career.
Predictably, the effort either fell on deaf ears or completely backfired. It was tantamount to having your mother reprimand a bully for picking on you.
Ensuing friendlies, as well as his two performances in the group stage did nothing to dispel the widely held belief that Éder did not belong on the team. That he had only been sent on with a few minutes remaining against Iceland and Austria, when Portugal looked more like a desperate team than one with a plan, hardly figured in the square of public opinion.
Thus, when Santos burned his last substitution in the final by replacing Renato Sanches with the maligned striker, the move seemed to add further insult to Ronaldo’s injury. How could the man who routinely underwhelmed for Portugal be introduced into the most important game in national team history?
Of course, what followed was a very competent and efficient performance that will forever be ingrained in Portuguese lore. Éder provided an outlet and much needed respite for Portugal’s defenders and midfielders who were pegged back by wave after wave of French attacks. However, that probably is not even remembered anymore. The turn past Laurent Koscielny, the squaring-up towards goal, and the quick low shot that made its way past Hugo Lloris have eclipsed that and in all likelihood obscured all the times when Éder failed to impress.
After denouncing his critics, João Pinto justified Éder’s inclusion in the Portuguese set-up. “He’s here because the coach saw his qualities,” he said.
They were right. Everyone else was wrong. And no one would begrudge Éder for saying so. But he won’t. He’s got his moment, and that speaks for itself.