No one expected the EURO 2016 final to unfold as it did. Frankly, many thought it would take a miracle for Portugal to emerge victorious. It seemed that everything that could fall Portugal’s way, did. It didn’t start that way, though, especially when the second best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo (who some might consider the best) went down with a serious knee injury and after attempting to return to play was hobbling around too much and was forced to be subbed out. Now their strategy was clearer than ever: Fernando Santos was going to have his men park the bus, meaning that they would defend tightly at all costs to prevent any great scoring chances, but not really go forward at all on the offensive end. They knew they didn’t have the firepower to score a lot and didn’t want to give up a goal on a counterattack. It wasn’t an attractive style of play as the Portuguese sat back and prayed that a stray chance would open up or that they could send it to penalty kicks and steal the match there. Portugal didn’t come into this tournament with its best team. In recent major tournaments they had far more talented teams, which underperformed. In fact, this was a team that nobody really gave much of a chance. The only big talent on the team was Ronaldo, Pepe and a washed up Nani. The only thing that threw this low-powered squad a bone was the new format of EURO 2016 which expanded the knockout round from 16 teams to 24. Essentially, getting to the knockout round was less achievement and more a formality as a team didn’t have to be “elite” to quality for the knockout stage because 75% of the teams were in it. Instead of the top two teams in each group advancing out of the group stage, the top three did. In my opinion this made the group stage much less intense and entertaining because teams knew that they didn’t always have to go for the win and would be content to settle for ties just to secure a point. This resulted in many low scoring games or even worse, ties, which are what really turn people off from the game of soccer. Who wants to see a tie? There is that part of the human brain and feeling that feels left incomplete when there is no winner and no loser. Portugal had really been mediocre throughout the group stage, drawing all three matches with Iceland, Hungary and Austria; all lesser teams. But, by the new mediocre standard set, they were in the knockout stage. In any other European Championship, Portugal would have failed to get out of the group stage.
I have come to enjoy watching soccer more than I used to and I love watching the World Cup as well as the EUROs because of the high level of play and the great importance behind both tournaments. The EUROs are great because it’s like a mini World Cup; many of the great talented nations that play in the World Cup are playing in this tournament and it serves as a nice in-between to the World Cup as it is appears every four years but splitting the WCs in half. In the past the tournaments have been of great quality and entertainment, but this year was different. All of the big powerhouses, namely France, Spain, Germany, England, Italy, seemed to be good, but not great. Not what they used to be. There wasn’t the same hype surrounding many of those teams, maybe save France. Not as many of the great players I’d come to know over the past six years remained and maybe it was just a fantastic wave of players that had aged out which made this tourney less special. The stories that helped keep this EURO alive were the Cinderella stories of Iceland and Wales which made it to the Quarterfinals and Semifinals, respectively. I was surprised to find out early on that the Netherlands, another European powerhouse, didn’t even qualify for the championship. That’s already one entertaining team gone. It was good to watch these games again, but there was a noticeable drop in level of play and I wasn’t especially impressed with this year’s tournament. Portugal is the perfect team to exemplify this tournament based on their lack of talent and tactics in each match. Their coach really didn’t give a damn whether people liked the way they played or not, but he is a genius for getting his team to where they were. He played to the new format and his team did the bare minimum every time to get by and move on.
Many players, analysts and commentators remarked that the final was one that the tournament deserved; the play hadn’t been up to par. As stated earlier, everything that needed to happen for Portugal happened. For a while it was a stalemate with the Portuguese defending valiantly the entire match as the French desperately tried to break through. The French did have a golden chance, though, in the 75th minute when a cross into the box found the tournament’s best performer, Antoine Griezmann, alone for a header that he hit inches over the crossbar. He’d been finishing those all tournament with ease and at this point in the match, almost at extra time, the feeling was being built that this might just be Portugal’s night. They hadn’t actually won a match in regulation time (90 minutes) until their 2-0 semifinal victory over Wales! They drew all their group matches, beat Croatia in extra time, and Poland in penalties. And then in stoppage time on virtually the last attack in regulation, Andre-Pierre Gignac made some great moves to find room in the box but mis-struck the shot which bounded off the post, oh so close to giving France a dramatic Championship victory! And so it was disbelief for France and a renewed sense of optimism for the underdog and undermanned Portuguese as they headed to extra time. One of the possible reasons given for Portugal’s lack of scoring was their lack of a natural striker to play alone at the top of their formation. When Ronaldo went out Coach Santos shuffled the formation and put in Eder, a natural striker who while not overly productive a player still opened up more space and was able to manufacture a couple chances. Then in about the 107th minute there was a mistake foul called on a French player for a handball when in reality it was a Portuguese player whose hand it hit. A free kick resulted from a few yards outside the box and the taker struck a howitzer which rung off the crossbar, giving most of the stadium an arrhythmia. It was just a minute or so later, in the following sequence that Eder recieved the ball and moving to his right from just outside the box he fired a low drive across his body that was just out of the reach of remarkable French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Disbelief. Portugal had stolen this European Championship from the hosts in a position they never should’ve been in to begin with! Congrats to Ronaldo. Even though he wasn’t able to play the majority of the championship, he got his team to that point and was out with Fernando Santos at the end directing his teammates. So give it to him for helping as much as he could to do something Messi hasn’t been able to do: win a major championship. But, that still doesn’t overshadow the fact that this tournament was dull. There was a missing element. Unfortunately, UEFA has announced they will be sticking with the 24-team knockout format for EURO 2020. So until then we can look forward to the World Cup in what definitely isn’t a bribe-influenced location. Putin would never.