France’s Euro 2016 campaign began and ended in tears. Dimitri Payet’s unstoppable winning goal in the opening match of the tournament led to an outpouring of emotion, not just for the West Ham man but for an entire nation troubled by deep-rooted divisions, terrorist attacks and labour unrest. But there was no such catharsis on Sunday night for the French, as Didier Deschamps’ team slumped to defeat against Portugal in the final. Some, such as Antoine Griezmann, just stood there at the final whistle, wincing and quietly taking it all in. Others burst into tears.
There would be no repeat of the 1984 Euros or 1998 World Cup, both won by Les Bleus on home soil, no celebrations along the Champs-Elysées. Not even beating Germany for the first time in a major tournament since 1954 could guarantee a French victory. Instead, Portugal succeeded in doing what Greece had done to them twelve years earlier by picking off the hosts with the odds stacked firmly against them.
Fernando Santos’ side will go down in history as one of the lowest quality teams to win the Euros along with Otto Rehhagel’s Greece, and it is easy to see why they won so few admirers in France. This was, after all, a team who squeezed through the group stages in third place via Uefa’s controversial new rule, and who went on to win just one of their seven games in normal time. Aside from a 3-3 draw with Hungary in the group stages, their football was dull and uninspired. This without even mentioning Cristiano Ronaldo, everybody’s favourite cartoon villain.
And yet, Portugal were worthy, if frustrating, winners. Euro 2016 was scrappy at the best of times, but the one recurring motif of the tournament was the victory of systems over individuals, and by extension the contrast between good and bad management. Take for example Chris Coleman, Antonio Conte and the duo of Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimson among others, who elevated Wales, Italy and Iceland to much more than the sum of their parts. Meanwhile the likes of Roy “systems win you nothing” Hodgson, Marc Wilmots and Deschamps did exactly the opposite for their sides, relying too heavily on the quality of individual players while disregarding organisation to varying degrees.
In this sense, Portugal’s triumph was a fitting end to the Euros. There were, of course, some extremely talented players in Santos’ starting eleven, but it was the way in which they ground out victories as a collective which dragged them to the trophy. There was nothing overly complex about their play (“simple as doves, wise as serpents”, as Santos put it), but crucially they were organised and efficient, as demonstrated by the fact that they only conceded one goal in the knockout stages.
Nowhere was this organisation and efficiency more evident than in the final. When a grimacing Ronaldo left the field injured, it seemed as if Portugal had lost their only hope of beating the hosts. In fact, they became even harder to break down without their star man. France’s glittering lineup ran out of ideas, as did Deschamps, who decided that the best replacement for Giroud was a burlier version of the striker in Andre-Pierre Gignac.
And then came the knockout blow, a sweeping strike from Éder which flew past Hugo Lloris. How apt that it should be delivered by the gangly Swansea outcast, who left South Wales without having registered a single shot on target, rather than Ronaldo, again emphasising that this tournament was not merely about star players.
Portugal’s success at Euro 2016 will not be remembered as a fairytale, and neither will the competition as a whole. For a nation of 10 million, however, this will go down as a huge achievement, and one which was richly deserved. Fernando Santos’ team did not make friends in France, but Portugal’s stony-faced manager is unlikely to care.