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2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog- Story No. 8

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© SportsCafe

2016 | The Year Of the Under Dog- Story No. 8

For a team that had finished 3rd in their group by drawing all of their first three matches and then reached the final by winning just one knock-out match in regular time, any normal fan would have scoffed at Portugal's chances of Euro 2016. Cristiano Ronaldo and co defied the odds to exactly that.

Portugal reaching the final of the Euro 2016 had many elements of the Argentina team that lost the World Cup final in 2014. They had a global superstar in their ranks, they laboured through the knock-out stages and even had to stretch a match as far as penalty shootout to win and were up against the strongest team in the final. Much like that other final at the Maracana two years ago, the normal time at the Stade De France in Paris between hosts France and Portgual was uneventful. 

But this Portugal team was different. They had their backs to the wall when their talisman and captain Cristiano Ronaldo hobbled off in the first half hour of the game after suffering a nasty injury. The opposition had more fire power in their team, but there wasn't a moment when the Portuguese backed away because they the power of organisation with them. They did not lose their concentration even when the hosts came close on multiple occasions, a blueprint they have used to vanquish their stronger opponents en route to the final.

When the chance finally fell to them in the 109th minute, the goal came from a relatively unknown striker called Eder. And Cristiano Ronaldo, who had quite literally taken up the role of the manager after his injury, shed tears of joy and didn't care about his heavily-strapped knee when he jumped onto the pile of his madly-celebrating teammates. 

 © Getty

They deservedly collected their first-ever major trophy in their footballing history that night, but detractors and neutrals went home with a bitter taste in their mouth. According to them, Portugal played “boring” football, they were unworthy Champions for being pragmatic. Some called that the tournament's format was wrong in allowing four third-placed teams to qualify for the last-16. But that did not matter a bit for the country or their coach Fernando Santos who said before the match, “Let them continue saying the same thing. That Portugal won without deserving it. I would go home really happy.” And the 61-year old, indeed, had the last laugh.  

The system Santos set up with Portugal was totally result-oriented and in order to implement it, he had to bring out every ounce of talent present in his squad. It did not hapen overnight. Right after he took over from Paulo Bento during Portugal's Euro Cup Qualifying campaign, he made sure that his team had the perfect balance of attacking and defensive players.

The progression from group-stages seemed easy when they were put in a group alongside Hungary, Iceland and Austria. But to everyone's surprise, Portugal couldn't even beat any of them and finally scraped through the group stages after playing out a 3-3 draw against Hungary. Santos realized that his team no longer needed to play some attractive brand of football to succeed. Instead, a plain and simple approach of disciplined defending and opportunistic attack is required.

As the first part of his implementation, he realized that players such as Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes were having a hard time knitting passes between the attack and the defence and employed Adrien Silva and Joao Mario in the central midfield. He then allowed the less-experienced but highly-talented Renato Sanches the creative freedom in the midfield trio which played out extremely well. The teenage sensation terrorized the defences of superior teams such as Croatia and Poland on the rare occasions Portugal went forward and created two of the crucial goals the team scored in the knock-out phases.

The defence, led by the bullish Pepe of Real Madrid, was almost impregnable allowing just one goal from the 330 minutes they played in the knock-out phases. And when it came to attack, every forward - even the substitutes - took upon the responsibility to score goals not over-burdening Cristiano Ronaldo. With Ricardo Quaresma and Eder scoring the winning goals in the Round of 16 and in the final respectively, Portugal also put an end to the taunts being called as a one-man team.

Even the global icon that he is, Cristiano Ronaldo, marshalled his team not as their premier striker, but more as a dutiful captain. The 31-year old had just a decent tournament individually, scoring just 3 goals and sacrificed his usual flair for the team's greater good. Emotions ran high when he clattered into Dimitri Payet in the 17th minute in the final, but his will to contribute to the team was clear when he came back on the pitch with some heavy strapping to his knee. Though it eventually led to him being substituted eight minutes later, he came on the touchline, barking orders, spurring on his teammates and finally celebrated madly after the extra-time goal—which silenced the people who accused him of not being a team player.

 © Getty

Even now, some cry foul that Portugal had been lucky to win the tournament, but is it their luck that France buckled under the weight of expectations in the final? Is it their luck that they played the entire final without their talisman and still won it? Is it their luck that they have been able to beat superior teams such as Croatia and Poland while getting the better of in-form Wales in the semis? We bet that none of these questions will be answered properly by the naysayers.

And most importantly, it must not be forgotten that the Euro Cup has long been a stage for the most unexpected team to take home the title. It has given us an unlikely winner in Czechoslovakia when they beat defending Champions West Germany in 1976. The same could be said about the Denmark team that grabbed the 1992 European Championship right from the hands of Germany while Greece beat Portugal in the final in their own backyard in 2004. When the competition itself has been competitive enough to give use so many underdog triumphs, it can be expected that the unexpected could take home the trophy.

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