At long last, Portugal are savouring their maiden international title. Victorious against host nation France in the showpiece game at UEFA EURO 2016, Fernando Santos and his players finally gave the country's fans something to cheer about after a long history of heartbreak.
Two of their most painful defeats came in the FIFA World Cup™, with the Portuguese losing semi-finals in 1966 and 2006, and they also suffered last-four exits at the 1984, 2000 and 2012 European Championships. But the most traumatic reverse of all came on 4 July 2004, when an entire nation watched in disbelief as Greece shocked the world by claiming the continental crown on Portuguese soil. What was meant to be the ultimate triumph for a golden generation of players like Luis Figo, Pauleta and Deco – plus a young Cristiano Ronaldo – quickly became a national tragedy.
Twelve years on, Portugal have now inflicted the same agonising fate on* Les Bleus. The hosts dominated the final at Saint-Denis but found their dreams thwarted by inspired defending, before Eder's moment of brilliance extinguished their hopes for good. His superb extra-time strike halted a run of ten consecutive defeats for A Seleçao das Quinas* against France, including three in semi-finals at major tournaments. Portugal's win thus upset a number of predictions, but it also proved a fitting end to a EURO replete with teams ending apparent hexes and overcoming the weight of history.
FIFA.com now looks back on some of the tournament's most memorable highlights.
Beyond the satisfaction of revenge,* Portugal*'s win was all the sweeter for the difficulties they had to overcome along the way. Kicking off with a trio of draws against Iceland (1-1), Austria (0-0) and Hungary (3-3), Santos's side only squeezed through to the knockout phase as one of the best third-placed teams, despite being heavy favourites to impose their will on an inviting Group F.
They subsequently managed to quell Croatia's attacking talents in the round of 16 before Ricardo Quaresma sealed a 1-0 success late in extra time, setting up a quarter-final meeting with Poland. This time, they were taken all the way to penalties at the end of a 1-1 draw, with Quaresma burying the decisive spot kick to clinch a 5-3 win in the shoot-out.
In fact, Portugal fans had to wait until the semi-finals to witness a victory inside 90 minutes, Ronaldo and Nani both pouncing in the second half to see off Wales 2-0. All eyes naturally fell on Ronaldo again in the final, and the captain played a key role – though not in a way anybody had imagined. Injured in an early challenge by Dimitri Payet, he left the game in tears with just 25 minutes gone, only to limp back to the sidelines as the action unfolded. With his knee in bandages, Ronaldo cajoled his team-mates from the edge of the pitch, doing everything he could until Eder's late winning effort from 25 yards.
The tears flowed again for Ronaldo after full time, but this time they were tears of joy as he brandished a trophy he had waited so long to hold. "When he told us he couldn't carry on, I told my team-mates we had to win it for him," explained Pepe, the centre-back ending the final voted as man of the match.
Portugal were therefore able to erase the pain of 2004 and triumph against adversity, while crucially proving that their fate does not lie entirely in the hands of their three-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner. They will now represent Europe for the first time at the FIFA Confederations Cup next year, and will look to build on the current euphoria when their 2018 World Cup qualifying bid gets under way in September.
What we learned
For* France, the pain of defeat is gruelling. After winning EURO 1984 and the 1998 World Cup on home soil, Les Bleus* now know how it feels to lose a final in front of their own supporters. "It's a huge disappointment," said coach Didier Deschamps after the match. "It's cruel to lose a final like that, and we have to accept it. I congratulate Portugal. It's a real blow, but it leaves us able to imagine an interesting future and better days ahead."
The hosts can certainly look back on a number of positives. For a start, France's back line passed the test after the absences of Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho had raised serious questions, and their midfield was equally effective. It was up front that they truly shone, however, racking up a tournament-best 13 goals thanks in particular to top scorer and Player of the Tournament Antoine Griezmann, whose tally of six strikes and two assists included a double in the 2-0 semi-final win against* Germany*.
That last-four success against the world champions was France's most notable result in ten years, but it also meant so much more. Avenging their quarter-final loss to the same opponents at Brazil 2014,* Les Bleus* finally recorded a first competitive victory against their neighbours since the 1958 World Cup. For Joachim Low's men, meanwhile, the tournament was an anti-climax after their exploits two years ago, but they were at least able to end a hoodoo of their own in their last-eight win against* Italy, having never bested Gli Azzurri* in eight previous competitive fixtures.
Despite that reverse, Italy came out of the tournament in credit, not least thanks to their brilliant defeat of holders Spain in the last 16. The two teams will not have to wait long to be reunited either, with both drawn in Group G of World Cup qualifying – the chance to begin a new cycle.
As for* Belgium, they were unable to capitalise on their quarter-final finish at the 2014 World Cup, exiting at the same stage against Wales, whose presence in the last four was one of the biggest sensations of EURO 2016. The Dragons shared that distinction with fellow newcomers Iceland, who met their match against the hosts but only after creating a major upset by beating England* in the Round of 16.
Unsurprisingly, the Three Lions now face a period of introspection following that shock loss, having soared through the qualifiers before making hard work of the group stage and losing their sole knockout tie.* Russia* , too, will need to bounce back strongly after finishing bottom of Group B, with just two years to go before they take on World Cup hosting duties.
45* - Ronaldo was by some distance the most active forward at the tournament, attempting 45 shots compared to 26 for both Griezmann and Gareth Bale. The Portugal star was the least clinical of that trio, however, putting away a mere three per cent of his efforts – a figure overshadowed by a 23 per cent success rate for the Frenchman and 13 per cent for Bale. Meanwhile, Ronaldo and Portugal may have ended their long wait for glory at EURO 2016, but their skipper was unable to reverse his set-piece fortunes, having failed to register with his last 43 direct free-kicks in EURO or World Cup play.
What they said
"I've always said Cristiano Ronaldo was very important for our team and that we had to rely on him. If he'd been on the pitch, he could have scored or made the difference at any moment. When he came off, I told myself we had to overcome this obstacle."*
Fernando Santos*, Portugal coach.
Best player: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Boot: Antoine Griezmann (France), 6 goals*
Silver Boot: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), 3 goals
Bronze* Boot: Olivier Giroud (France), 3 goals
Best young player: Renato Sanches (Portugal)
Team of the tournament:
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) July 11, 2016