Published On: Wed, May 3rd, 2017

Portugal's triumph a beautiful blend of teamwork, leadership and luck

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“Would I like us to be pretty? Yes. But, in between being pretty and being at home, or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly” – Fernando Santos.

No wins in the group stage. Just one victory in regular time throughout the tournament. Leading for a meagre 73 minutes in the entire competition. And yet, it ended in glory.

Being ugly has never been so beautiful.

Crowned European Champion for the first time in history on Sunday, Portugal was derided throughout much of Euro 2016 for playing insipid, unattractive football, and for being the beneficiary of good fortune that most argued should only be reserved for teams that earn it.

Related: 5 reasons why Portugal won Euro 2016

The Selecao sat back, soaked up pressure, and waited for talismanic captain Cristiano Ronaldo to inspire them. Such a strategy was unbefitting of a champion, they said, and thus France would have been more deserving of hoisting the Henri Delaunay Cup on Sunday evening in Saint-Denis.

Portugal won ugly. Say it again: Portugal won ugly.

Germany played some gorgeous football over the past month, and was unceremoniously dumped in the semi-finals. France, the vanquished host, scored five times in its quarter-final contest. That’s nothing more than a footnote in the story now. Even Belgium and Wales provided some attacking flair during their time at Euro 2016.

All the while, Portugal chugged along, doing just enough each step of the way. An extra-time win here, a shootout victory there, and before you knew it, two matches separated the Iberian nation from its maiden title.

Manager Fernando Santos wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m not worried about being the ugly duckling or someone who feels sorry for himself,” Santos said ahead of the semi-final against Wales, as the detractors of his unspectacular side became increasingly vocal.

“I’m interested about getting to the final and winning it.”

How prescient those words proved to be.

Related – Santos praises Portugal: We’re simple as doves, wise as serpents

In that context, the nature of Portugal’s 1-0 triumph over France was so absurdly perfect. This beautiful French team, with Paul Pogba‘s silky smooth skills, Dimitri Payet‘s penchant for the spectacular and Antoine Griezmann‘s golden scoring touch, was felled by a collection of ugly ducklings that, when brought together, created something gorgeous.

You don’t need to look too hard to find the beauty in this Portuguese side – and that has nothing to do with Ronaldo’s Greek God-inspired physique.

A sturdy defence anchored by the imperious Pepe – so long demonised as the poster boy for football’s most revolting qualities – won the day; and him, the official Man of the Match award. France created chances, sure – Andre-Pierre Gignac will wake up in a cold sweat thinking about his 92nd-minute opportunity that struck the post for many nights to come – but the Selecao backline showcased its mettle, as it had throughout the tournament.

The gangly Eder, a cumbersome striker deemed useless by Swansea City after failing to score a single goal in the first half of the 2015-16 season, played the hero by unleashing a fierce low drive in the 109th-minute. The once unloved forward is now a national icon. If that’s not beautiful, nothing is.


And all of that, of course, without Ronaldo.

The captain, who willed his team to the final with tournament-saving goals against Hungary and a thunderous header against Wales, waited 12 years for another opportunity to deliver his country a first-ever international crown after the heartbreak of Euro 2004.

“I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” Ronaldo said on Sunday. “Since 2004, I’ve asked God for a second chance at this.”

When he finally got there, his involvement was cruelly cut short. Stretchered off with a knee injury in the 25th minute, most thought Portugal’s chances of capturing the elusive championship disappeared, the likelihood of a win wisping away with each tear that rolled down Ronaldo’s bronzed cheeks.

Related: Heartbreaking photos of Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 final exit

They didn’t have him on the pitch, but perhaps, in a strange way, what they did get out of him was even more valuable.

“In halftime, Cristiano had fantastic words for us. He gave us a lot of confidence and said, ‘Listen people, I’m sure we will win, so stay together and fight for it,'” right-back Cedric Soares told ESPN FC’s Miguel Delaney.

“It was really unbelievable. I think all the team had a fantastic attitude. And we showed tonight when you fight as one you are much much stronger.”

“We lost our main man, the man who could score a goal at any moment,” Pepe added. “We said that we’d win it for him.”

That team spirit, an unquantifiable trait born of the leadership provided by both Santos and the maligned Ronaldo, was instrumental. It was fitting that the Real Madrid megastar emerged from the bowels of the stadium to join his manager on the touchline in the waning moments of the game, barking instructions, waving his arms furiously and once again willing his team, this time in an unconventional sense, to victory.

Missing its best player for 95 minutes, and faced with the prospect of a more talented opponent that was backed by a partisan crowd of some 81,000 supporters, Portugal still found a way.

The Selecao didn’t deserve to win? Didn’t they, though?


It’s not Portugal’s fault that both Iceland and Croatia flipped the bracket on its head with late goals in their final group matches, thus making the road to Saint-Denis enviously favourable.

Nor can you blame the Portuguese for Didier Deschamps’ tactical ineptitude. His decision to leave N’Golo Kante on the bench forced Pogba, his best midfielder, to spend much of the final languishing in the centre circle, picking up loose balls and winning tackles instead of flexing his creative muscle.

Neither Santos or any of his players could control that, though they undoubtedly benefited from it.

There’s a stench associated with the word “luck” when applied to football – or any sport, for that matter. Inadequate teams are most often described as fortunate when they topple favoured foes. But ask any recent champion, and they’ll tell you that a slice of good charm here or there is inevitably present.

Italy in 2006. Spain in 2010. Germany in 2014. Lady Luck is impartial.

In France, she smiled on the Portuguese, helping out where she could. The players, and Santos, did the rest. A collective effort, in the truest sense.

“I’ve always said we’re a team,” Santos pronounced after lifting the trophy.

And at Euro 2016, his was the best of them all.



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