Sport

France v. Portugal is a Happy Ending to the 2016 European Championship

At the Stade de France on July 11, it will be a chance for both French and Portuguese fans to nurse their pain from the recent past and cheer their team on to expunge some of it.

A fan ahead of the Euro 2016 finals. Credit: patrice_calatayu/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: patrice_calatayu/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Antoine Griezmann will be present for the Euro 2016 final at Stade de France on Sunday. So will be his sister, Maud. Manuel Colaço Dias, however, will not be there.

Dias was there on the fateful night of November 13, 2015. A bus driver who had retired three years before, the Portuguese was coaxed by a group to take them to the France-Germany friendly. Despite his retirement, 63-year-old Dias would sometimes drive people to matches and watch football with them. He loved the sport.

That night, however, he did not return home. Seconds after the passengers left his bus, he was killed by the first explosion of the night. Dias would be the only casualty of the night around Stade de France. He loved his football but he would never come to know what happened thereafter. He will not be there to see the Euro final on Sunday night – a contest between his home country Portugal and his adopted nation France.

Dias had moved to France to seek better professional opportunities. In an interview to The Guardian last year, Dias’s son Michael had aired his worries about the upcoming days and months for Parisians. “It is more the sense of insecurity that worries me. The fear of being in Paris, to go out and eat out,” he had said. If he was alive, one suspects Manuel Dias would have gone out on Sunday for the final. Perhaps, he would have driven some passengers to the stadium and watched the match with them.

Maud Griezmann will be inside Stade de France. On that night in November last year, she was inside the 1,500-seater Bataclan hall to attend an Eagles of Death Metal concert. Ninety people were killed and over 200 injured by ISIS gunmen; Maud was hurt mentally. The scars of that attack have not really left her, she’d told the New York Times in an interview.

Yet, she will make the visit to the stadium for the final. For it is France’s first chance to win a major international football tournament in 16 years. Chances are, she will be going home happy. France won the European championship the last time it was held in this country in 1984; the achievement was repeated in the 1998 World Cup. The French side’s displays have been better than its opponent Portugal, which has made its way to the final in less attractive fashion.

If Les Bleus end up winning on Sunday night, there is likely to be individual satisfaction to draw upon for Maud and her brother Antoine. The Atletico Madrid striker will probably end up as the tournament’s top scorer. Antoine has already struck six times in this tournament, three more than his nearest competitors.

As a young boy, Antoine was not sure of making it to senior professional football. His slight figure did not inspire the confidence that he would be able to hold his own against the world’s best. Maud, however, remained a supportive presence throughout and even played as goalkeeper to help her brother practice his shooting.

As a teenager Antoine was turned down by many French clubs, who expressed similar doubts over his physical stature. However, a chance meeting with a French scout ensured that the Spanish club Real Sociedad was willing to gamble on him. That marked the starting point of an upward trajectory that has brought the 25-year-old to this exalted stage. It’s a stage that demands immense responsibility and acuity from the Macon-born footballer.

That’s why this January, Maud decided to partially take charge of Griezmann’s career. Now his sister, who has a degree in public relations, is his chief publicity strategist. Antoine was happy to take Maud’s assistance as the siblings are known to be close to each other. The terror attack left its scars – even physical ones as Maud sports a tattoo showing the lead singer of the Eagles of the Death Metal hugging the Eiffel Tower – but this is one of the ways in which she nurses her hurt soul.

France’s run to the final was an exercise in catharsis, too. As the campaign has progressed, the support for the side has grown from one level to another. The semifinal against Germany gave a glimpse of a nation yearning for victory. As France had not even scored a goal against Germany in a competitive fixture since 1982, let alone beating its opponent, there was a sense of paranoia as the day of the match approached. However, when the contest arrived, France turned up for the occasion and claimed a win that is likely to be termed historic. It was not the most polished performance but it did not need to be. The atmosphere and fervour pushed France through.

It is unlikely that anybody would begrudge a tournament win for the French side but the Portuguese fans have had to embalm their own wounds. Official figures state that no less than 1.5 million people of Portuguese heritage live in France. Last November’s terror attack left them reeling as well.

Portugal’s collective pain in 2004 is not far from memory either. The nation hosted the European championship with much fanfare back then. However, the national side came unstuck on the biggest occasion when it met unfancied Greece in the final. A narrow defeat thwarted Portugal’s dreams of winning its first major football trophy. For all the host’s flair-driven style, a resolute and sometimes dull Greek team was able to spoil the party.

Portugal will be hoping to achieve something similar on Sunday. This tournament has seen the side engage in a safety-first policy on the pitch. This has resulted in a style of football that has at times been an uninspiring watch. It would perhaps not be a surprise to know that Portugal’s coach is Fernando Santos, who was in charge of a similarly unadventurous Greece side before this job.

But Santos does not deserve any blame. In fact, he should be praised for getting the best out in a side that is limited in some respects. Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo stands out as the team’s star but an expansive style of play would be to the team’s detriment. There is probably a parallel here with the struggle Portugal has had to make in its post-recessionary times.

Since 2010, the country has battled a high economic deficit and the burden has eased just slightly. Many Portuguese families continue to move abroad as they seek better opportunities. The socialist government in power has offered hope that the economy could be resuscitated with an anti-austerity budget earlier this year but its impact remains to be seen. Despite the rise in minimum wage and a few other welcome measures, the mood is not the most cheerful.

This is probably one of the reasons why the Portuguese media has rarely been critical of the national side’s displays under Santos’ leadership. Portugal has historically been associated with an attractive style of football but its stodgy displays have surprisingly not brought any ill-will. In times of little optimism, nothing succeeds like success.

A win on Sunday will give Portuguese people across the world a reason to cheer. Supporters of multiculturalism, though, can draw joy from either side’s triumph. Some 37% of the French and Portuguese squads possess players of African heritage; then there are others like the host’s Dimitri Payet, who was born on the tiny island of Reunion. The societies that these teams represent continue to be among the best models for integration of people from a varied cultural background. While serious problems exist, there is a long history of multicultural interaction in these countries. In fact, Portugal is ranked second on the Migrant Integration Policy Index for demonstrating a positive approach towards establishing an inclusive society.

At Stade de France on Sunday, both France and Portugal will have another opportunity to demonstrate their best football and behaviour. It will be a chance for both sets of fans to nurse their pain from the recent past and cheer their team on to expunge some of it. Maud Griezmann will be there to remember Stade de France for more positive reasons; it will also be a chance to recall the missing Manuel Colaço Dias to memory at an occasion that would have pleased him. Dias knew that football made him happy; Maud has found happiness from football too.

When asked whether he regretted the unfortunate manner of his father’s demise, Michael Dias refused to blame misfortune. Instead, he told The Guardian he believed that “his time had come, that it was his destiny and that it was inevitable.” On Sunday, Antoine Griezmann’s time might arrive. If it does, it could be his destiny.

Or perhaps, Cristiano Ronaldo will deliver a moment of brilliance to make a Portuguese victory seem inevitable. He was on the pitch that night in 2004 when his and his country’s wishes were swept away by a bunch of plucky footballers. Now, he leads a determined bunch of players. It could be his time too.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.