France may have failed to win but they have achieved something that did not seem likely a couple of years ago. Under the leadership of Deschamps, there’s a French team that its country can love again.
108 minutes were over. Only a minute ago, Portugal had offered a glimpse of what it could do. A free-kick from the young left-back Raphael Guerreiro had struck the crossbar after Éder had earned the Portuguese a fortuitous free-kick. His hand had struck the ball but the referee Mark Clattenburg was fooled. He mistook it for the French defender Laurent Koscielny’s arm. If Guerreiro had struck home, Éder would have had a ‘hand’ in the goal.
A minute later, he did. Koscielny once again got close to him but Éder moved away. He had beaten his marker and was well-placed to shoot from 25 yards. But he is not the most threatening striker in the world. Forget that, he could not even earn a place in a struggling Swansea side last season. 15 appearances and no goals for the Welsh club. He was a liability and subsequently loaned out to French club Lille at the start of this year. It was not a bad move for Éder. He scored six times in 13 matches. But there was another goal to score in France.
French defender Samuel Umtiti probably saw Éder as the player he was at Swansea. Umtiti, who represented the French club Olympique Lyonnais last term, had not played against the striker when he came to the country; Les Bleus and Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris had also not faced him when Éder was in England. He was probably seen as innocuous, for Umtiti chose to stand away. He did not close Éder down. The 28-year-old striker was only too happy that he had space, that he had time. He looked up and sent a rasping drive towards the goal. Lloris leapt to his right, hoping to stop the ball. But it was out of his range, it was out of his sight soon after.
France had thought Éder would not score. The French fans in the stands had thought Portugal would not win; many agreed with them. But Éder scored and Portugal won. It lost its best player Cristiano Ronaldo due to injury after 23 minutes but the team did not stop fighting. France kept piling the pressure but Portugal somehow held on. Sure, it needed some luck to survive but no successful side seems to be complete without it.
It is a success that has made the nation proud and exorcised the ghosts of 2004. Back then, Greece had spoilt Portugal’s party in Lisbon by claiming a highly surprising win. The Greeks were a bunch of determined players who had flipped expectations by playing within their limitations. Portugal did something similar to France but not exactly in the dour fashion that Greece had achieved its success. Not that either win is privileged over the other, but they remain shining examples of what collective hard work can achieve. In this year of surprise results, it’s not just Portugal that stands out in this regard.
Euro 2016 brought us two other effervescent stories that were defined by their beliefs in collectivism – Wales and Iceland. The Welsh had not participated in a major tournament since 1958; Iceland was making its competition debut. Wales, like Portugal, was a side predicated on getting the best out of its star man Gareth Bale. Iceland had its standout player in Gylfi Sigurdsson as well but the team was even more rooted in the collective.
In some senses, the Wales-Portugal semifinal was the best semifinal to demonstrate what lesser fancied sides can achieve with proper organisation. Here were two sides that were not expected to feature at such a late stage in the tournament and yet they trumped the odds to reach it. In the end, Portugal was a worthy winner. Ronaldo and Bale were slightly upstaged by their lesser-known but big club compatriots Pepe and Aaron Ramsey, respectively, in this tournament. Both were missing in the semifinal but it was Arsenal’s Ramsey who proved irreplaceable. Real Madrid’s Pepe was missed too; he proved himself to be arguably Portugal’s best player of the tournament in the games he played.
In the final, though, it was the Portuguese manager Fernando Santos’s clarity of thought that won through. Despite France’s impressive run to the final, there was a sense that Didier Deschamps was never too sure of his tactics or best eleven. While he eventually found a workable model in the quarterfinals, it was almost as if the changes were forced upon him. It seems unlikely that Moussa Sissoko, France’s best player in the final, would have found a place in the starting 11 if not for N’Golo Kante’s suspension for the quarterfinal.
Santos, on the other hand, outlined a clear plan of action throughout the tournament. Although he used no less than 21 out of the 23 squad players, it was not a sign of cluelessness. Instead, all the players in France were there were for a reason. No ‘water boys’ were brought from Portugal. The players understood what the coach demanded from them and tried their best to implement the vision.
Santos had spent a long time in Greek football during the first decade of this millennium and his time there had allowed him to refine his ideas on squad organisation. Influenced by British coach Jimmy Hagan, who had worked in Portugal in the 1970s, Santos is also known to be a strict disciplinarian. He had once famously said, “As a coach, I do not have a heart.” This was in reference to his ability to make tough decisions without letting sentimentalism take hold.
This is not to say that Santos presents the best approach to football management. In the sphere of ideas, there is hardly anything that can be characterised as superior to everything else. But Santos has found a model that works for him. Now, it works for Portugal too.
But where does this place the Portuguese national side? Will it go on to accomplish greater things in international football? Or is this a triumph that will be the plateau of its achievements?
There’s a bunch of talented young players in this side who could go on to serve the team for the next decade. The standout performer is Renato Sanches who is just 18 but already seems to belong to the elite level. The Bayern Munich-bound midfielder was named the best young player of this tournament. Then there are Andre Gomes, Joao Mario, Raphael Guerriero and William Carvalho, among others. But the senior stars of the side may not even make it to the World Cup in two years’ time. It would be a surprise if Pepe, Nani and Ronaldo are able to perform at their best in Russia if they are part of the team.
However, if Santos continues to instil the same beliefs and attitudes in the side that brought them this success, one can safely assume Portugal will remain competitive. He described the current side after the final in a poetic manner. “We were as simple as doves and as wise as serpents.” Despite the triumph, though, there is still much to be done. But there are reasons to be quietly optimistic.
France should possess similar optimism as well. It came unstuck on the day of its biggest party but there is a nucleus of a side that can go on to challenge for the World Cup title. Ever since the arrival of Spain as world-beaters in 2010, there has been at least one outstanding team in international football. Such is no longer the case anymore.
The French may have failed to win the cup but they have achieved something that did not seem likely even a couple of years ago. Under the leadership of manager Deschamps, there’s a French team that its country can love again. The fracas surrounding the national side at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is a distant memory now. This is a younger side with little of the brattish behaviour that had marked out the mutineers from the previous core.
The bigger story
As the tournament draws to a close, however, there is something else that continues to stand out above everything else. In a tournament of diluted quality and not enough goals, we got a reminder of what top coaches bring to the table. Santos is the shining example at the moment but it would not be easy to forget what the likes of Antonio Conte and Chris Coleman achieved.
Italy was roundly written off by most for bringing the worst side in its history to the tournament. There was some truth to that claim. On paper, there was little to enthuse the mind of a football fan. The squad looked terribly bereft of quality. Yet, Conte was able to derive the most out of the side through his mastery of tactics and strategies. It was an impassioned campaign by the team and manager that was only thwarted on penalties by Germany in the quarterfinals.
Coleman with Wales and Lars Lagerback with Iceland brought similarly passionate sides to the tournament and pushed the boundaries of what was expected of them. Following on from Leicester City’s success in the Premier League, there was something to be said for a coach who could make players play better than they even believed themselves to be. In a tournament that saw trends being broken – Germany’s elimination of Italy, France’s defeat of Germany and Portugal’s win over France for the first time or in the longest time – it was the coach that set new trends. Small teams, in reputation, could believe that they had the chance of scripting unimaginable stories. Surely, that’s a victory to behold. As Portugal will agree.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.