Football is a cruel game. Sometimes even for its winners.
Cruel because Cristiano Ronaldo had to watch the victory of his life — at least one of them — from the sidelines.
Portugal’s name, for the first time, is now engraved on a major trophy. But one of the enduring memories of the European Championship final will be that Ronaldo played too small a part in the 1-0 win against France for him to deserve being anointed as world player of the year for a fourth time. Truth is, Portugal played better without him.
And cruel because France lost in the very stadium that suicide bombers attacked last November. After that horror there was a solid argument to be made that the French would have been more endearing winners, that a pick-me-up trophy could have helped speed their recovery from the trauma.
And also cruel because in six games before they lost their scoring touch in the all-important seventh match, the French on balance played better football at Euro 2016 than Portugal.
Wales, in the semifinals, was the only team the Portuguese beat inside of 90 minutes. Against France, it took them 109 minutes for Eder to burst through Les Bleus’ defenses, with a stunning strike.
Let’s also not forget that, in Portugal, Europe has a champion that didn’t win any of its group-stage games and only squeezed into the knockout stages, with just three points, thanks to the more forgiving format adopted for this expanded first tournament with 24 teams. Critics who feel that the new system’s addition of eight teams has come at the expense of footballing quality will doubtless argue that Portugal’s victory proves them right.
But, as the French themselves say, “c’est la vie” — or, as English speakers would say, “that’s football.” Because football’s stubborn refusal to follow the script is what makes it so compelling, this final again offering strong evidence of that.
Who, after all, would have penned only a cameo role for Ronaldo, now the proud owner of one type of winner’s medal that Lionel Messi doesn’t have, in Portugal’s Hollywood moment?
As at Euro 2004, we again saw Ronaldo cry — this time after his left knee buckled in a scrap for the ball in the 9th minute with Dimitri Payet. Normally, the French winger tends not to bother himself with the grunt work of tackling and defending. But Payet and his teammates were combative, even borderline aggressive, in the opening half where they quickly swarmed over Portugal’s defenses. France, a team that used to be bullied, most infamously in losing a 1982 World Cup semifinal to Germany, was the more physical side.
To be fair to Payet, the injury to Ronaldo wasn’t malicious, but rather just one of those things that can happen when one man clatters into another at an awkward angle.