Such is the nature of knockout tournament football that it is not the team with the most gifted personnel or the finest style of play that necessarily triumphs in the end. Often the trophy is lifted by the side that knows best how to survive. Portugal did not play the prettiest football at Euro 2016 nor did it possess the most talented group of players, but its resolve and organisation were second to none. Eder’s extra-time winner against France, in what was a dour final in Paris, gave the Iberian nation its first major international trophy, ending the pain of five semifinal exits and one runner-up finish in global competitions. There is no denying that Portugal rode its luck along the way. It progressed to the knockout stages by the skin of its teeth, after finishing third in Group F; found itself in what was undeniably the easier half of the draw; and over the course of the five weeks won only one match in regulation time. But all that will matter little in the final analysis. The victory came as sweet relief for Portugal’s captain and talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, who was stretchered off the pitch in tears in the first half. He would end the night sobbing on his colleagues’ shoulders, but not for the reasons he may have imagined at that stage. His efforts in Portugal’s success, having almost single-handedly dragged it to the final, should cement Ronaldo’s legacy as one of the greatest footballers of all time.
For France, though, the loss came as a soul-crushing blow. Euro 2016 was played in the shadow of the November terrorist attacks in Paris and the home team had continually spoken of helping heal some wounds. The Stade de France, the venue for Sunday’s final, had itself come under attack, during — hauntingly — a friendly match between France and Germany. A French victory in the same arena would have been poignant. But it was not to be. This result, however, must not detract from the host nation’s performances en route to the final, or indeed the brilliance of its little forward Antoine Griezmann, whose own sister, incidentally, survived the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall. But Euro 2016, expanded to 24 teams to much disapproval, will forever be remembered as the tournament of the underdog. Iceland, a nation of just over 300,000 people, memorably advanced to the quarterfinals while Wales, a deeply passionate, spirited side, made it as far as the last four; both were appearing at the European championships for the first time. Teams like Albania, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland enjoyed fervid, heart-warming support in the stands; their presence was impossible to ignore. Indeed there was much joy for the uncelebrated, right to the very end.