The Portugal captain could only stand
and watch as his team-mates edged a
tense final against France after
spending so many years being the man they relied on.
Once upon a time Cristiano Ronaldo
qualified Portugal for a World Cup with
four goals in two matches and earned
himself the Ballon d’Or in the process.
Back then they could have been
accused of being a one-man team.
Fernando Santos relied on Ronaldo for
Euro 2016 success but not to the extent
that he couldn’t orchestrate a win
without him.
For a country that has traditionally
failed to produce a classic No. 9,
Portugal certainly picked the right
moment to unleash Eder. Until the point
in the final in which he was introduced
at the expense of Renato
Sanches, Santos had made do with
Nani and Ronaldo as his central
striking options.
The loss of Ronaldo on 25 minutes
meant that one of those choices was
taken from him and Nani had endured
a fruitless night through the middle
against Samuel Umtiti and Laurent
Koscielny. What Eder gave Portugal
was a moment of pure instinct. He
rammed his right-footed drive past
Hugo Lloris, giving joy to 11 million of
his countrymen.
Ronaldo, one-legged, was directing his
troops from the dugout, walking
alongside his coach, trying to affect the
play in any way he could. Before extra
time and again at the switch over,
Ronaldo was there with his men,
talking to them and inspiring them.
There was nothing he could contribute
on the field following Dimitri Payet’s
awkward first-half challenge which
brought him to tears. He was
powerless. There were tears in his eyes
at the end of 120 minutes though. A
different kind.
So this was a victory for his Portuguese
team-mates on behalf of Ronaldo. He
is their record caps holder, their all-
time top scorer, their captain and
greatest ever player. But at the Stade
de France on Sunday night, he was not
one of 11. He was only one of 11
million. He was just another
Portuguese who could only watch,
wish, ache and fret as 11 heroes tried
their best for a first-ever senior trophy.
The French were disconsolate at the
end. They stood around the field
wondering just how it all happened.
Ronaldo knew how it felt. He felt the
exact same thing 12 years previous
when Greece snatched the Henry
Delauney trophy from Portugal’s grasp
at the Stadium of Light. This has been
a long time coming. And when it did
come it was fully deserved.
Maybe the lack of Ronaldo liberated
Portugal. He has not always played
well at this tournament – he had bad
individual games against Iceland,
Austria and Poland, and there lingered
a suspicion of how Portugal might get
on if only Santos could substitute him.
Not in a million years was that going to
happen other than in the circumstances
it transpired.
Portugal froze in the moments between
Ronaldo being injured and him going
off. After he left though, Nani took the
armband and they got down to
business. Joao Mario – surely one of
the best players here in France –
excelled in his midfield battle against
Paul Pogba. Pepe defended heroically,
so much so that he vomitted in
exhaustion – or emotion – when it was
finally all over.
There were moments of outright
fortune. Andre-Pierre Gignac had the
outcome on his right foot with
practically the last kick of the 90
minutes. He hit the post. Kingsley
Coman outshone his Bayern colleague
But it’s been one of those tournaments
for Portugal; they have relied on their
defence. They have masked their
deficiencies with strong collective
efforts. They tried to play zero risk
football to maximise their chances of
winning. It wasn’t always pretty, but
better to play ugly and win than play
prettily and already be on the beach.
But to the beach they can now go, all of
them worthy champions. In the end
they used all 20 outfield players and
Santos rotated his lot tactically with
great precision and foresight.
Portugal are worthy champions and
they did it without the man that was
supposed to carry them as far as he
could. Ronaldo has won enough games
for Portugal on his own, it was time
they paid him back.