So nobody really rated them much, but there was plenty to respect about this summer’s Euro 2016 winners
It wasn’t pretty, but then it didn’t need to be. After six games, why change for the biggest of them all?
Portugal had been pragmatic rather than crowd-pleasing at Euro 2016 before this instantly forgettable final against the hosts, but in the end it was just enough: no side broke them down when push came to shove, and that durability saw them through to the end.
France were expected to prove their superiority on home turf after an impressive semi-final win over the ever-worrisome Germany, but they too were blunted in their somewhat feeble efforts to break down the brilliant Pepe & Co. Moussa Sissoko was their best player, temporarily forgetting he was that other bloke on Tyneside known as Moussa Sissoko.
Portugal won Euro 2016 with a goal (a brilliant one, albeit) from a bloke who couldn’t score in 15 appearances at Swansea last season, after the one who struck 51 times for the Champions League winners was forced off through injury with a moth on his face after 24 minutes. (Disclaimer: it wasn’t the moth’s fault.)
At that point Fernando Santos’s side were already uninspiring and outplayed, but perhaps the premature departure of their talisman galvanised them to do more without him. Portuguese heads didn’t drop, they rode on past the two decent headed chances that Antoine Griezmann couldn’t convert, and set about executing the effective gameplan their manager wanted them to.
For France, Paul Pogba was deployed deep and barely had chance to exert any real influence. Dimitri Payet was taken off before the hour mark. Griezmann’s opportunities were few and far between, and his biggest was squandered, but not quite so badly as substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac managing to scuff one onto his own foot with Rui Patricio’s goal at his mercy. After that there was nothing left.
Euro 2016 will not be a tournament remembered fondly. Its good games were far outweighed by the bad, it averaged fewer goals than any major tournament since Euro 96 (even if, weirdly, it probably had the best of them all) and it was won by a team that nobody particularly rated who finished third in their group.
But there’s something often overlooked about Portugal, and their pedigree at these events. They’ve reached at least the semi-finals in four of the last five European Championships, and, before a rubbish 2014 World Cup, were beaten narrowly by that brilliant Spain side at South Africa 2010 after finishing fourth in 2006.
Portuguese fans realised long ago that they didn’t need to worry about winning pretty anymore; that those days ended somewhat abruptly when Rui Costa and Luis Figo got too old to have their say in games.
It might be tough to swallow when functional teams win major honours – not least, for some folk, when they’ve got Cristiano Ronaldo in them – but over time we learn to respect them.
“It would be nice to play pretty but that’s not always how you win tournaments,” said manager Santos, after the last-16 game against Croatia everybody except Ricardo Quaresma hated.
He’d got a point.