It was a mostly dull final in-keeping with a largely forgettable tournament on the pitch, but that was the only thing the script-writers got correct. Portugal spoilt France’s home party on a moth-infested evening in Paris while Cristiano Ronaldo, aiming for the crowning glory to his illustrious career, watched from the bench as his night ended in tears in the 25th minute.
Ronaldo, determined not to depart prematurely from his headline night, finally succumbed to the thigh injury he picked up in a challenge with Dimitri Payet, but had returned to the bench to orchestrate and encourage alongside manager Fernando Santos when substitute Eder, last season deemed not good enough for Swansea as he was packed off on loan to Lille, struck the winning goal.
It was a captivating moment. Portugal had won just once in this tournament during 90 minutes and after the rollercoaster 3-3 draw with Hungary in the group stage exposed a haphazard defence, Santos went into lockdown, steering his team to the final with turgid, soporific football. France lacked the creation and guile to break them down in St Denis and, just like Croatia, Poland and Wales before them, duly paid for it.
“We were as simple as doves and wise as serpent” said Santos, and Eder, who was no longer the “ugly duckling but a beautiful swan” according to the manager, supplied the venom. Held together by the immense Pepe and the solid Jose Fonte, who was just 6 years ago lifting the Football League trophy with Southampton, it was a defensive effort of remarkable resilience and France, with Payet anonymous and Paul Pogba making a mockery of his outrageous £100 million price-tag, didn’t have the answers.
Antoine Griezmann, finishing the tournament as golden boot winner with 6 goals, was diligently shackled by William Carvalho and couldn’t find the space he enjoyed against Iceland and Ireland, though the gilt-edged header he flashed over from Kingsley Coman’s cross will be difficult for him to forget.
Olivier Giroud was denied by Rui Patricio shorty before he was withdrawn for Andre Gignac, who weaved his way free in the box before agonisingly striking Patricio’s near post. “It’s awful. It’s a nightmare. It’s really terrible” said the inconsolable Tigres striker, summing up the overbearing emotion of disappointment after Les Blues had received their runners-up medals.
Patricio had probably deserved his good fortune, exceptional as he was in repelling Giroud, Griezmann and Moussa Sissoko who was France’s stand-out performer despite being limited to a series of stinging long-range shots.
With Pepe and Fonte comfortably dealing with Giroud’s aerial threat, Griezmann suffocated subdued in his supporting role and Payet unable to trouble Cedric Soares, it meant there was little reason for Portugal to panic after losing Ronaldo.
Robert Lewandowski’s goal for Poland was the only one they had conceded in the knockout stages and so assured and confident they were in their shells in Paris, it meant they could absorb the pressure before launching the ultimate sting in the tale once Blaise Matuidi and Sissoko had begun to tire in France’s midfield.
Matuidi had covered acres of ground from his home of holding midfield but, after warning signs had been ushered with the award of a free-kick that the superb Raphael Guerreiro curled against the cross-bar, wasn’t in the vicinity when Eder shrugged off Laurent Koscielny and blasted low into the corner of Hugo Lloris’s goal.
Didier Deschamps, whose contract as France manager is up after these finals and admitted last night that he requires more time to decide if he wants to continue, called it a “great disappointment” and said his team had “thrown away a great chance to be European champions”.
The ex-captain could not escape culpability here though as it seemed Pogba was kept on in a stuttering midfield for too long while Anthony Martial had to patiently await his time on the bench. When the Manchester United striker eventually did make it on it was in response to Eder’s goal and far too late for him to have an impact more significant than the half-volley he saw desperately blocked in the dying stages.
There is a huge clamour, understandably, for Deschamps to carry on however as France’s positive performance in their home championships, coming 6 years after their implosion at the South Africa World Cup, bode extremely well for the qualifying process for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
While this tournament may mark the end of full-backs Bacary Sagna and the evergreen Patrice Evra; Matuidi, Koscielny and Payet are approaching the prime of their careers while Martial, Pogba and Coman form a promising next generation.
Samuel Umtiti, who has shown why Barcelona have parted with £24 million to lure him away from Lyon with assertive displays against Germany and then Portugal following a nervy debut with Iceland in the quarter-finals, has laid an inarguable claim to the centre-half spot and will await the return of Raphael Varane, injured on the eve of these championships, to partner him. 25 year old Griezmann, continuously growing and improving under Diego Simeone’s guidance at Atletico Madrid, can be the nation’s shining light for the next 4 years.
That is for the future but the present undoubtedly belonged to Portugal for whom, with the likes of Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves coming to an end on this stage and Ronaldo, Pepe, Fonte and Ricardo Quaresma approaching the autumn of their careers, it felt like a defining moment after reaching the last-4 in four of the five European Championships held since the turn of the century.
This night belonged to all of them, as well it did to those who will be tasked with carrying the next generation of the Portuguese Selecao; the superb Raphael Guerriero, Sporting Lisbon duo William Carvalho and Joao Mario, Valencia’s Andre Gomes and Bayern Munich’s newly acquired Renato Sanches who, unhindered by his draping dreadlocks, ran himself into the ground in St Denis.
The night also belonged to Fernando Santos, whose faith in his squad was so strong he booked the hotel in Linas-Marcoussis until after the final and said his “ugly” team would leave after the party. It was a victory for him and the uncompromising dedication to defensive organisation and rigid drilling of shape.
The 61 year old ex-defender, boasting a degree in electrical and telecommunications engineering, complimented his playing career with Estoril as a director of technical services in a nearby hotel. Limping through the group stages and carefully rope-treading the knockouts before spoiling France’s party was a triumph for skilled engineering of a different kind.