Campeões!July 12, 2016
The month-long football bonanza that was the UEFA Euro 2016 hosted by France has come to an end sadly. Well, it did on Sunday night in that ultimately less than pulsating final won by perennial bridesmaids Portugal, at the expense of France. The game itself was tense and maybe as a result the quality of football suffered, compounded by the fact that Portugal captain and main man Cristiano Ronaldo limped off after just 25 minutes with a knee injury on the back of a rather strong challenge from Dimitri Payet. The French failed to take advantage of Portugal’s attack being severely blunted by Ronaldo’s exit and did not shift a gear till the end. Funny enough, Portugal seemed emboldened by that particular setback, grew in the game, frustrated the hosts and eventually settled the tie and the tournament courtesy of a 109th minute screamer from Eder, on for Renato Sanches. And with Mark Clattenburg’s final whistle, Portugal were crowned European champions, their first major title win in their history.
Did they deserve it, though? That’s the question that lovers of the game have been asking ever since Ronaldo climbed the VIP section of the Stade de France and raised aloft the Henri Delauney trophy in the wee hours of Monday morning, local time. Are trophies, or indeed finals, deserved? Or are they won? I have always asked that for as long as I can remember. Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has in the past been credited with the quote, “finals are not played, they are won.” On top of that I add, trophies are not deserved, they are won. Portugal won, and that’s that.
Looking back, you get to see why people would be rankled with Portugal’s triumph. For starters they thwarted favourites and neutrals’ choice France to win the thing. That doesn’t tell the whole story behind the feeling of dissatisfaction. During the tournament, the new kings of Europe played 7 matches and only won one of them in 90 minutes – the semi final against Wales. It is a shocking statistic to say the least, translating to a win rate of just 14.3%. Compare that to Brazil’s World Cup triumph of 2002 where they swept to the title winning 7 out of 7 matches in 90 minutes and the glaring disparity hits you. Portugal’s win rate to become European champions was 85.7% less than that of Brazil in winning the biggest competition in the game some 14 years back. That’s crazy! Really, it is incredibly crazy.
Does it matter though, the number of matches a team wins in a tourney if they go all the way to the final and emerge champions? Given that a team can proceed from the group stage with as few as three points, all they would need to do, like the Portuguese would be to draw all their group matches. In the knock out rounds, all you need to do is force the match to extra time and even penalties and proceed in the same manner all the way to the final and ultimate victory. Does that mean you wouldn’t have ‘deserved’ to be the champion? Hell, it is possible to actually win a major tournament like the Euros without even scoring a goal! So just for the fact that Portugal in their win have greatly tested that possibility they are being branded undeserving champions is unfair and grossly missing the whole point of the competition. What’s important is to move to the next round till the final through any means so long as the rules of the game have not been flouted. And I don’t see any complaints of Portugal either fielding an illegible player or winning a game on the back of a goal scored with the hand or anything like that. Give the Devil his due.
They are not even the Devils, anyway, these valiant Portuguese men who have brought home this triumph that eluded many of their favourite sons like Eusebio, like Luis Figo, like Manuel Rui Costa, like Vitor Baia. The narrative putting a blot on their triumph has been that they have been boring, negative, even nauseating in their matches. That Portugal haven’t been attacking enough, or pleasing enough to the eye or exciting enough. It (the narrative) goes further to say instead, Fernando Santos band of champions doled out the worst football ever seen at the Euros, focusing on dogged defending, boring the hell out of opponents, pinching away the victories by the skin of their teeth – essentially playing the minimalist card, doing just enough.
Is there a correct style of playing football? Many commentators and pundits have decried the ‘poor’ quality of football on show at the Euros. Some believe than the expansion to the 24-team format has greatly contributed to this and led to this dilution in quality. Well, markedly there was a relative deficiency in goals, and probably this translates to either absence of top class strikers or just poor finishing, not forgetting ultra-committed defending. Then again, what’s wrong with top drawer defending? How does the occurrence of good defending an implication of low quality football? Also, I doubt whether most people have bothered to assess the impact of most of the teams on show being at a high tactical level. The participants at the Euros had ample time to study their opponents and find the right solutions to match them tactically and that’s why there were ‘dull’ games with nothing much separating the sides in terms of the results. But this shouldn’t be surprising. Portugal are just a manifestation of this. Go to a game with good tactics, apply them competently and it is more than likely that you’ll win, or in Portugal’s case, find a way of proceeding to the next round without having to win.
So some teams qualified to the round of 16 by being third in their groups. So some teams didn’t even need a single win to go on. So the best tactical side in the competition (Italy) had to go out on penalties in the quarter final. So the hosts were nullified by a better drilled Portugal side in the final. So what? I rooted for the best team in Europe (Germany) who were denied an appearance in the final courtesy of 50-50 penalty decision and bad luck with injuries. That’s just it, that’s how elite competition is. Not everything goes according to one’s script. If it did, then what would be the need to actually play the matches?
After a long wait, Cristiano Ronaldo and co can boast of an international title. They weren’t fancied or played up. They were despised and vilified. But you know what, there’s a new champion of Europe. They are Portugal and you had better stand up for them.