By Mohamed Jaward Nyallay
EURO 2016 was a tournament for the under dogs. Teams like Wales, Iceland and Hungary flourished under this newly expanded form of the competition. And more than any other team in this competition, Portugal have UEFA to thank for extending this tournament to 24 teams; this was what allowed Portugal to progress from the group stage even when they finished third.
Portugal becomes the first team in the history of Euro to finish third in their group and still go on to win the Euro.
Portugal was not even the best team in this tournament, performance wise. This is not to say they don’t deserve the championship, they do.
HOW DID THEY PULL THIS OFF?
Before the start of the tournament, Portugal coach, Fernando Santos was interviewed. When he was asked how far he expects his team to go, he replied saying that he had already informed his wife that he will not be back until after the final in July. It is July now and Santos has returned, with the trophy to his wife and 10 million other Portuguese.
The last time they came this close was when they hosted the tournament in 2004. They had a golden generation of players then, players like; Nuno Gomes, Jorge Andrade, Ricardo Cavalho, Rui Costa and Luis Figo; but all that talent was washed away by a very determined Greece side.
One could say Portugal cracked under the pressure of being the hosts by then, well in Paris, you could say the same for France.
But take nothing away from this Portugal side. Yes! They were nowhere closed to being exciting to watch and so they were very difficult to love. Santos himself even admitted and called his team the “ugly duckling.”
But Selecao played with a plan. Even before this tournament, this team was a compact defensive unit. You just have to look at Santo’s record since taking over.
The coach is still unbeaten. He has been in charge of the team for 14 matches now and nine of the 10 victories of the team are all by a one goal margin. This tells you something.
In an era where ‘Guardiolism’ has been the dominant playing style, he has been the complete opposite.
With Santos, everyone’s role on the pitch is clear, nothing flamboyant, stick to the script. Such is the game plan he implemented, especially in the knockout stages of the tournament.
Portugal only conceded one goal in 420 minutes of knockout football. As compact as they had been most people have condemned them for using an anti-football technique to win this tournament.
Portugal only won one game in 90 minutes, drawing three in the group stage and winning the other three at extra time and post match penalties.
You can describe their triumph as a triumph for compact organization or the death of possession football.
In fact, Portugal winning this trophy is a clear representation of how the entire tournament has been.
49% of games in this tournament featured one side having 60% possession or more. 51 games and 108 goals scored an average of just two goals per game. The picture is clear, this tournament was made for defensive teams and so Portugal had to adapt to fit in.
During the group stage, Portugal wanted two things, win and dominate. But after conceding cheap goals from teams like Iceland and three against Hungary, they knew they could not have it both ways.
They had to go defensive.
After the match, Santos described his team’s performance that they were simple as doves and wise as serpents.
But whiles some call it anti-football, others call it sheer resilience. France captain, Hugo Lloris was not shy of praising the resilient spirit of this Portuguese team.
“The one thing we can say about Portugal is that it’s about their mental strength and their spirit. When you see them winning three games after extra time, it means that there is something strong and special inside the team,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most rugged players in the tournament, Pepe , crowned it all with his comments after the game.
“We put blood, sweat and tears on the pitch. I said on the eve of this game that we’d leave it all on the pitch for our people, for our nation, and that’s what we did,” Pepe said after the match.
Ironically, the very week in which Lionel Messi was sentenced to jail it’s the same week Cristiano Ronaldo had made history by conquering Europe.
But whiles everyone is busy praising Ronaldo, there is a story; a story about the man who scored the winning goal, Ederzito Antonio Mercedo Lopes.
An old school No 9 who played just 267 minutes last season for Swansea and who in his 7 years of international experience with the national side had only scored 3 goals before the final.
If Ronaldo was not stretched off in the first half, perhaps he wouldn’t have played.
Many people raised an eye brow when he was included in the team for the tournament. He spent the rest of the season on loan at Lille scoring six goals.
He is not the great Eusebio or other Portuguese legends like Luis Figo or Cristiano Ronaldo, but who cares. His name has been etched in to the folklore of Portugal forever.
An immigrant from Guinea Bissau, who grew up in a care home in Coimbra, rural Portugal; who dazzled pass his colleagues whiles playing street football and who finally beat world class Laurent Kosceilny with a tap and strike to win the first ever major trophy for Portugal in Paris. Amazing!
This generation of players for Portugal is not even the best and probably it has over achieved a bit. But going forward, they have to manage the expectation that comes with being a European champion.
Spain were under achievers in Europe for half a century, but when they won the Euro in 2008? It set them on a path of success. They went on a roll to win the World Cup two years later and won the Euro after that. Portugal could do the same.
Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Nani, Jao Mountinho, Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe might be around for at least one more tournament, some might not be.
The younger generation of players like; Renato Sanches, William Carvalho, Jao Mario, Rui Patricio, and Andre Silva have to carry the team forward from now on. They are European champions and therefore they are already grownups.
How they perform in the next tournament would be crucial to building their confidence in the future. Russia 2018 is on site, they have to get there and give a good account of themselves.
But until then, the celebrations continue. The ugly duckling is now a beautiful swan.
© Politico 15/07/16