Portugal, pressure, and vindication

The victors get to write the history books. When you achieve such a peak of greatness in winning Euro 2016 like Portugal, you have a moment of pause when there’s any questioning of your version of the events.

From a “rousing halftime speech” from an all time player in Cristiano Ronaldo to the unwavering belief from head coach Fernando Santos, Portugal penned it’s own chapter in international soccer lore in the only way they knew how. This Portuguese team wasn’t the best group in the past several weeks, but that didn’t matter.

Irreverent while mocked for early group struggles and failing to win a contest in 90 minutes until the semi final, head coach Fernando Santos and his players stuck to their script. They bogged games down. They downright played negatively, choosing instead to pick their spots and stay patient — a maddening thought for the soccer world. When you have central defenders like Pepe to lean on and without hyperbole, the greatest counter attacking player in history in Ronaldo, you can afford to frustrate teams rather than blitz them.

Even so, this wasn’t supposed to be Portugal’s moment. The reigning world champion Germans came in loaded, deeper than the 2014 version. The host French, after some soul searching within their national soccer organization, were incredibly dynamic and possessed the most productive forwards in the tournament.

Portugal especially, as mentioned, didn’t play particularly well according to typical soccer standards either. Many argued they were fortunate with the new 24 team format to advance out of Group F with three draws. They even received the “luckier” draw of the bracket in the knockout stages, not having to face a traditional world power until the Final in France. Their best player Ronaldo, would be injured and unable to play the approximate last 90 minutes in the most important Portuguese soccer moment ever. In such a one off tournament, you can only take your lumps and move on.

It’s funny how things play out.

For their counterparts, after a bloodbath semi final against Italy, Germany was left in pieces, derailed by injuries.

The French, for all of their talent and status as favorites, seemingly couldn’t take the mounting pressure as host as time ticked on late in Stade de France.

You could see the frustration mount for “Les Bleus” as they generated chance after chance against a Ronaldo-less Portugal. An Antoine Griezmann header just over the bar. A laser from Moussa Sissoko parried away by the best man on the pitch in goalie Rui Patricio. Finally, with Pepe turned out of position and the Euro title in sight in stoppage time, an Andre-Pierre Gagnac glance off the post. Not to be.

At this point, heading into extra time, no one could say the opportunities weren’t there. Fortune favors the bold but it also plays no favorites as the French would be reminded. On this night and in the past month, lady luck for whatever reason smiled on Portugal instead. It’s easy to see why French head coach Didier Deschamps would agree.

“It’s a great disappointment for it to end now, with this final. We must not throw everything that we’ve done away, but we threw away a great chance to be European Champions, not the only one, but a great one.” said Deschamps to ESPN FC of his less than plucky blue bloods.

This was supposed to be France’s return to glory. A 16 year international title drought coming to an end. It was said the French don’t lose tournaments they host. Who knows if it was pressure for them, but you would be remiss not to see Portugal outright laugh at these plans.

With a remarkable strike in late extra time by Eder, the biggest goal he will ever score and the biggest goal for Portugal ever, it was time for vindication.

Vindication and acknowledgement of a highly underrated and successful past decade plus. Portugal has recently been on the cusp of transcendence in international soccer–appearances in four of the last five major semi finals speaks volumes– but there was always something missing.

It started in a lonely night in Lisbon in Euro 2004, one of the great upsets in soccer history bringing shame and expectations of recouping for a 19-year-old Ronaldo. Even while dominating the next 12 years in terms of domestic success, pressure to make up for 2004 always loomed. You knew it weighed on Ronaldo and Portugal much more than any club title.

In that respect, you’d think the moment, that moment, would come much more elegantly, especially with Ronaldo actually, you know, playing. Instead, there was another historic upset, as if it was karmic retribution for a nation that always came just this close. How appropriate.

“I’m so glad, it’s something unbelievable in my career, something that I deserve. Today I had bad luck because I had a small injury, but my colleagues do it. They run, they fight, we played against everyone, we played against 70,000 people in the stadium, nobody believed, but we won.” said catalyst Ronaldo to ESPN FC.

You can feel the passion in those words. The monkey off of his back. A player criticized as a selfish diva couldn’t care less that he had no say in the pinnacle of his career. The turn is evident. The leadership, trust, and especially love was always there in “Coach” Ronaldo and his team, we just refused to see it. Ronaldo deserved better than being crunched off without a chance to make his mark on a title, and he received that.

And still, this championship isn’t only a validation of everything Ronaldo has accomplished in his illustrious career. As said, it’s a testament to the support from his underrated Portugese teammates and program that he even has this to celebrate. Also, in case he cares (he definitely does), he has an international championship his long time counterpart Lionel Messi doesn’t. How sweet it gets.

There were better opportunities and teams in the past. It wasn’t supposed to be the boring Portugal with confetti streaming. Frankly, other than Ronaldo and friends, no one saw this coming. This will be seen as one of the worst Euro tournaments ever. Somehow one gets the sense none of these things matter in the slightest to a team that at long last patiently waited it’s turn.

Robert Zeglinski is an editor and writer for Second City Hockey and No Coast Bias. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.

(Photo via The Guardian)

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