The History of The UEFA Euro: 2016, Portugal Silence Home Crowd

The stories of underdogs winning major tournaments are what make people fall in love with the beautiful game. They inspire and ignite an element of romance that football purists cherish so much, which is one of the essences of the game. Over the years, there have been several stories where the unthinkable has actually happened. Uruguay’s triumph in the 1950 World Cup and the unexpected victories of Denmark and Greece in the 1992 and 2004 European Championships were the biggest surprises in nearly a hundred years of international football.

Euro 2016 was the stage for another of those “underdog tales” though not necessarily from a technical point of view. Euro winners Portugal ruined the “expected party” by causing a major upset against all odds by beating host country France in the Final. Portugal had suffered some memorable defeats in previous tournaments, many of which were heart-breaking. Plus, they were  enjoying a golden generation of players for whom victory seemed guaranteed, but who had still failed to deliver at crucial moments.

This time, however, it was different. To do so, Portugal had to adopt much more rigid methods that were built on defensive solidity and swift counter-attacks designed to play to the strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo. They were not the most exciting team to watch, but they were effective and assured – something they may had lacked in previous major tournaments. Portugal built on this defensive edifice; their ball movement lacked intensity and was rather ponderous, but they still managed to find way to their success utilizing a more pragmatic style of play.

For the first time since the 1996 tournament revamp, the European Championship had introduced some tangible changes. The number of participating teams was increased from 16 to 24, which welcomed a number of newcomers. The expansion of participating teams also meant a more detailed change in terms of the group stage format: Instead of the traditional format of 4 groups of 4, the 24 participating nations were now divided into 6 groups of 4, with the 4-best third place finishers also advancing to the next stage. In addition, the Round-of-16 was introduced for the first time in the history of European Championship.

Portugal celebrate their first ever European Championship title win

At the start of the 2016 European Championship, no one gave Portugal a chance of reaching the Semi-Finals, let alone winning the championship. Their prospects of progressing to the latter stages of the tournament reached another low point after their performances in the group stage.

The Portuguese began their campaign against football minnows Iceland. It was expected to be an easy affair for coach Fernando Santos’ men, and the game went according to script as a Nani goal ensured his side went into the break with a narrow lead. However, Birkir Bjarnason equalized in the 50th minute and Iceland secured a respectable 1-1 draw in their first game at a major international tournament.

That game prompted Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo to deliver some questionable remarks about Lars Lagerback’s team. Basically, the then Real Madrid striker accused the Icelanding of having a “small team mentality” and said they would not get far in the tournament with their style of play.

There was more frustration for the Portuguese as they were held to a scoreless draw by Austria, with Santos’ side missing numerous chances. On that night, Ronaldo played his 128th international match for his national side, surpassing the great Luís Figo.

After failing twice in the first half and after the break, Ronaldo was awarded a penalty after being brought down in the penalty area by Martin Hinteregger. He stepped up but the hitherto excellent Robert Almer dived the wrong way and the number 7 hit the penalty against the post. To make matters worse, shortly afterwards a Ronaldo header was disallowed for offside.

Portugal played fluidly and full of ideas, Ricardo Quaresma forming a front three with Ronaldo and Nani, the latter linking well with the excellent Andre Gomes. However, they were also wasteful. Nani failed to beat the agile goalkeeper Almer and later hit the post with a header; Ronaldo shot wide and failed with another attempt.

The Austrians, who were not at their best in Bordeaux, had to do without Zlatko Junuzovic, who was missing through injury, and had David Alaba in a slightly advanced role. The Bayern Munich midfielder was put in to good effect, and had a good chance just before half-time, but Vieirinha headed his powerful free-kick across the goal. The picture changed little in the aftermath and Ronaldo twice tested Almer’s reactions as Portugal played out their second draw of the tournament.

Ronaldo missed from the spot as Austria held Portugal to a goalless draw

With just two points in their account, Portugal could not afford to lose to Hungary if they wanted to progress to the next round. In this game, Ronaldo once again showed the world what he is made of as the Portuguese star scored two goals and provided one assist. The crazy game ended in a 3-3 draw and as the third-placed team, Portugal advanced to the last 16 of UEFA Euro 2016.

The Real Madrid striker, making his 17th UEFA EURO final appearance, had cut a frustrated figure in the opening two games and his mood was hardly lifted by the first goal in a frenetic game. It was Zoltan Gera who fired a half-high ball across Rui Patricio and into the net after taking a half-high corner with his chest.

It was an excellent goal for a team that was already through, but Nani equalized just before half-time after Ronaldo had played an exquisite, effortless pass. After the break, an already tense game turned spectacular with Balazs Dzsudzsak firing Hungary back into the lead from a deflected free-kick.

Portugal were on the verge of turning the game around again until Ronaldo became the first player to score in four successive editions of this tournament – and he did so with characteristic panache when he latched onto a Joao Mario cross with a flick into the corner. But Hungary were not done yet and it was Dzsudzsak who put them ahead again with another deflected shot. The final word belonged to Ronaldo, however, who redeemed the Portuguese for the second time by nodding in.

Ronaldo’s incredible back-heel goal against Hungary

After their fortunate ending in the group stage, Portugal faced the game-changing team from Croatia. Santos took a very pragmatic approach as this time the back line and midfield worked quite brilliantly, but the strikers failed to impose themselves on either side. The game went into extra time and in the final minutes a clever counter-attack decided the game for Portugal when Quaresma scored with his head after Ronaldo’s shot from close range was blocked by the goalkeeper.

Two of Europe’s most goal-hungry strikers in Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski faced off as both sought a Semi-Final ticket. Lewandowski opened the scoring as early as the second minute of the game, but the score was soon leveled by a brilliant shot from Renato Sanches. Neither team could decide the game in 120 minutes, so it went to a penalty shootout. Rui Patricio showed the world once again why having a top goalkeeper in the penalty shootout is a blessing, as he made some fantastic saves to secure his team a place in the Semi-Finals.

For Wales, this was the first ever major tournament and making it to the Semi-Finals was already a major achievement. The match was set up as the clash of two Madrid superstars: Cristiano Ronaldo against  Gareth Bale. Ronaldo scored the opening goal with a stunning header and shortly after Nani doubled the leaf after a pass from Ronaldo to make it 2-0. Wales tried too hard to mount a comeback, but the back line of Fonte and Pepe was absolutely untouchable as they nullified any danger coming from Wales. A 2-0 win sent them to Paris with home side France eagerly waiting to beat them on home soil.

Ronaldo inspired Portugal with a brilliant header as they reached the European Championship final for the second time in history

It was a tough task for the Portuguese national team as in the Final they were expected to face tournament hosts France, who had been improving throughout the competition. The Final was held in Paris and, with the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane in the team, it was clear that they were the natural favorite. However, Portugal had other ideas. The one-two passing game was on full blast and France had to run from deep to register shots on goal from Rui Patricio.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo twisted his knee in a one-on-one with Dimitri Payet and had to leave the pitch after an emotional end to a highly anticipated Final. The game went into extra time with the defenders and Rui Patricio literally saving Portugal with everything they had. On the other side, Santos brought on Eder who held off Laurent Koscielny and scored the most important goal in his nation’s history.

The entire Portuguese team went into ecstasy mode. The greatest night in Portugal’s history proved once again how pragmatic football can overcome the challenge of teams with a lot of individual talent.