After 12 long years of coming close but always falling just short, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo can finally add another achievement to his long list of accolades: European champion. Portugal was finally able to get its captain one of the international championships that he had so desperately been craving, giving him the one up — so to speak — over his rival Lionel Messi. While the one title that he truly wants —World Cup champion — still eludes him, Ronaldo can rest easy knowing that he is a major tournament champion.
The Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal capped off a tournament that was at times incredibly dull, at other times rather exciting. The final itself seemed to be the very epitome of this contrast, although in my opinion it leaned more toward the boring side. For the first 20 minutes, it seemed that neither team was particularly interested in trying to create chances, although this is fairly standard for most games as the teams try to figure each other out. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Ronaldo went down with a knee injury, courtesy of Frenchman Dimitri Payet. It was not an overly reckless challenge — in fact, referee Mark Clattenburg did not even deem it worthy of a foul — but watching on the screen, you could immediately tell that something was wrong with Ronaldo. Love him or hate him, there is a very clear difference between when Ronaldo is faking an injury and when he is not. Valiantly, he tried to play on for another seven minutes but ultimately decided that he needed to be substituted off. The stretcher came out and it seemed that Ronaldo’s untimely exit was taking Portugal’s hopes with it.
Interestingly enough, it appeared that Ronaldo’s injury seemed to affect France more than it actually affected Portugal. While the rest of the regulation-time game was also quite uneventful, the Portuguese were at least trying to not let the game end in a boring stalemate. France looked nothing like the team that had come in and blown away Germany. Star striker Antoine Griezmann, who won the Golden Boot for his six tournament goals, was practically invisible the entire game. Payet’s only real contribution to the game was the tackle that led to Ronaldo being carried off. Paul Pogba, who has been the rumored target of a £100 million bid by Manchester United, looked nothing like a player who deserved that much money. It was astonishing that les Bleus could not be spurred into action by the loud home-team crowd at the Stade de France, especially when you consider the fact that Ronaldo barely played 25 minutes.
With neither team particularly trying too hard, it was inevitable that the game headed toward the two extra-time halves. It seemed a fitting end for Portugal at least, as the team only won a single game within regulation time during the entire tournament. For a while, it even seemed as though the final would be decided by penalty kicks. As someone who is passionate about soccer and will sit down and watch any game, even I must admit that I was incredibly bored throughout most of this game. I found myself wishing that anyone — even Portugal, despite the fact that I had tipped France to win — would score just so that we could avoid penalty kicks.
In the 109th minute, all our hopes were answered. Portuguese substitute Éder, who pundits and fans often describe as one of Portugal’s worst players, was able to curl his shot behind French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Lloris had absolutely no chance, and we received the goal that we had been so desperately craving. It came from the unlikeliest of heroes, but that hardly mattered. It seemed as though Portugal would be able to win a championship for its injured captain after all.
Eleven minutes. It may not seem like much, but in soccer it is plenty of time for a team to come back and equalize. For the next 11 minutes, all of us could only hope that Portugal would hold onto its improbable lead, if only for the sake of not having to watch yet another game go into penalty kicks. In the 117th minute, disaster struck Portugal yet again. Midfielder Raphaël Guerreiro, who was actually born in France to a French mother and Portuguese father, came down with a severe cramp. Portugal had already used all its substitutes and could only watch as Guerreiro tried to limp off the field, leaving the squad with only 10 players on the field to defend its slim lead.
Ronaldo was having none of this. With his knee heavily bandaged up, Ronaldo spent much of the extra time hobbling up and down the sideline yelling out instructions. He was essentially another coach for Portugal, trying to inspire his team in the best way he could. When Guerreiro tried to come off the field, Ronaldo basically forced him to go back on. It was magical, and easily the one of the best things to come out of the game.
Portugal was able to hold onto its lead, as France finally realized in the end that maybe it should try to score a goal after all. After the final whistle, Ronaldo collapsed in tears. At last, he was an international champion.
He may have not played much, but there is no denying that Ronaldo was the inspiration for Portugal’s comeback. After coming so close in 2004, where Portugal lost to Greece in the final in Lisbon, the Portuguese were not going to let their captain be denied yet again, injury or no injury. It was a fitting end to a zany tournament. While critics will point out that had the normal rules been in place, Portugal would not have even advanced out of the group stages, none of this matters anymore. Ronaldo is um campeao — a champion — at last and he has fulfilled his duty to his country. Congratulations Portugal, you deserved this win.
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