Euro 2016 final | The champions

Belief was vital: Santos

Revelling in the moment of triumph after the 1-0 victory against France, the injured Cristiano Ronaldo (lying down) is flanked by Nani (No. 17), goal-scorer Eder (extreme left), Pepe (second from left) and Ricardo Quaresma (fourth from left).
Revelling in the moment of triumph after the 1-0 victory against France, the injured Cristiano Ronaldo (lying down) is flanked by Nani (No. 17), goal-scorer Eder (extreme left), Pepe (second from left) and Ricardo Quaresma (fourth from left). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fonte likens surprise win to Hollywood film as nucleus of young side holds future promise

PARIS • They may not be everyone's cup of tea - a bunch of hard-running, well-organised unknowns led by an iconic superstar, who moans and groans even as he produces moments of sublime skills to eke out victories.

Portugal dragged fans through boring, defensive matches at this occasionally inspiring, mostly tedious European Championship tournament. Make no mistake, they were difficult to like.

Yet, they were the surprise winners of Euro 2016, and few could begrudge their doggedness in getting their hands on the trophy.

Some may even be inspired by the way they held on despite the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo midway through the first half through injury, then suddenly conjuring up a beautiful long-range winner in extra time to beat hosts France 1-0.

 

Their coach Fernando Santos only offered up this cryptic reason for their triumph: "I'd like to thank all the players for believing. We were as simple as doves and wise as serpents. I thank them all."

 

In seven matches which saw them winning only once in 90 minutes, and leading for only 73 minutes of the 720 they played, Portugal never faltered in their belief.

 

"It defies description; it could be a Hollywood movie," defender Jose Fonte said afterwards. "We've written our names down in history."

 

Perhaps the tournament's expanded 24-team format did Portugal a big favour.

 

The new format introduced an extra knockout stage, the round of 16, with the top two teams in each of the six groups going through as well as the four best third-placed sides. Portugal did just that, finishing third in Group F with three draws.

Yet, France coach Didier Deschamps said it is unfair to the side which beat them.

"Maybe Portugal did not win many matches but they did not make it to the final by accident and they won it," he said. "You can't take anything away from them."

Indeed, when most teams will crumble after the exit of their best player, Portugal stood firm.

Santos made all the right decisions, shifting Portugal's formation to stifle France's attack and, later, bringing on Eder - a forward who is often criticised for inconsistency - who delivered the title-winning goal.

"We knew we could surprise them at any moment," Eder said. "So that's what we did."

What they did, too, was to prove to the world that they could flourish without Ronaldo.

Immediately relieved of any obligation to pass to the Real Madrid star every time he was free or allow him to take all their free kicks, Portugal's players appeared less inhibited without him on the pitch.

Left-back Raphael Guerreiro, barred from taking free kicks when Ronaldo is playing, showed his abilities when he curled a sublime effort against the crossbar in extra time, shortly before Eder scored the winner.

After the broken promise of their "Golden Generation" in the early 2000s, this could be the coming of age of a potent Portuguese side capable of challenging for more major trophies.

Young players such as Joao Mario (23), Danilo (24), William Carvalho (24), Andre Gomes (22) and Renato Sanches (18) all became key figures in this Euro campaign, and the future looks bright.

Said Santos: "Portugal have had fantastic players and teams, but have not always been lucky.

"All these coaches and players contributed to this. All those who have worked in developing players have been fantastic. I believe Portugal have players with talent and quality as we have shown in youth tournaments and will show in Brazil (at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics).

"This is the result of the quality of the Portuguese coach and players. We have to believe in their talent, hunger and determination. I am certain that, with our humility, Portugal can face these future challenges."

And with this Euro 2016 victory, unlikely as it may seem to be, Portugal finally have the trophy to go along with their innate belief.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Belief was vital: Santos'. Print Edition | Subscribe