Portugal should not have surprised anybody by how they won Euro 2016. In beating host France 1–0 after extra time, the Portuguese followed the same pragmatic approach that got them through three elimination matches.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. Portugal were under no obligation to entertain.
This was a performance about defensive responsibility, teamwork, and the added motivation of winning it for Cristiano Ronaldo. It was about how to manage a winner-take-all match against technically superior opposition. In looking back at Euro 2016, this approach to tournament football will not be forgotten.
Euro 2016 will certainly also be remembered for growing to 24 teams from 16 and the success of underdog nations like Wales and Iceland. And by virtue of the tournament adopting the new format, Portugal squeaked into the elimination stage.
Portugal will have its fair share of detractors. They finished third in a relatively weak group featuring Austria, Hungary, and Iceland. They luckily avoided the difficult half of the elimination stage draw that featured Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. They reached the semifinal without winning a game in the regulation time of 90 minutes.
But then they put on their most convincing display in knocking out an undermanned Wales 2–0 in the semifinal.
Some might call it winning ugly, but it’s a proven recipe for winning football tournaments. Call it pragmatic. Call it boring. But make sure you realize it’s effective.
It’s also important to distinguish international tournament football elimination matches from, say, Champions League knockout stage ties, which are played over two legs and use the away goals rule. In international tournament football, there is no room for error and that can make teams play more conservatively. And both cases are clearly different from domestic league football matches.
Portugal adopted the most suitable tactics given the situation and executed to perfection. They were always resilient at the back and relied on the brilliance of a couple of players to get the goals when needed.
After a wacky 3–3 draw with Hungary to finish the group stage, Portugal conceded one goal in four knockout games—three of which had 30 minutes of extra time.
Pepe showed what a world-class central defender he can be. He was outstanding, most notably, against Poland in the quarterfinal. He missed the semifinal due to injury, but was rock solid in the final against the best attack of the tournament.
Portugal were heavy underdogs against France who were playing the best football in the tournament. The hosts had just humbled world champions Germany 2–0 in the semifinal on July 7.
Portugal has their share of world-class superstars led by none other than Ronaldo. But it’s teamwork that won them the Henri Delaunay Cup.
Ronaldo exited the final in the 25th minute shortly after a collision with Dimitri Payet that injured his knee. He was in tears as the medical staff carried him off. One can only imagine how he felt seeing his chance of helping his country win its first major trophy evaporate.
But Portugal didn’t bunker down and stuck to their plan after Ricardo Quaresma subbed on. The mentality of “win it for Ronaldo” motivated the Portuguese.
“We were warriors on that pitch,” Pepe, a teammate of Ronaldo’s with Real Madrid, told UEFA after the match. “We said we would win it for Cristiano.”
A team in Portugal’s predicament needs an outstanding performance from its goalkeeper and Rui Patricio more than delivered. Very early on, he came up with a diving save to deny Golden Boot winner Antoine Griezmann.
And talk about unlikely contributions. The winner came in the 109th minute from reserve striker Éder who unleashed a low drive from distance that evaded Hugo Lloris’ outstretched right arm. It was a perfect strike to beat a goalkeeper having a magnificent tournament.
“It was a goal that was very well created by the team,” Éder said after the match.
Hosts of Euro 2004, Portugal reached that final, but lost to Greece in the biggest surprise the European Championship has ever seen. The Portuguese reached the quarterfinal in 2008 and the semifinal in 2012. They reached the World Cup semifinal in 2006 and finished third in 1966. Some of the best players in the world are Portuguese.
It’s about time Portugal put it all together and won a major tournament.
Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETSports