Triumph of teamwork

Triumph of teamwork

Football : After years of frustration, Portugal scripted a victory that was a tribute to their pragmatic approach

Triumph of teamwork

True, Europe’s soccer championship finished in Paris rather like the Copa América had in New Jersey, with no one able to score a goal in 90 minutes. Cautious tactical play dulled both finals, turning them into marathons awaiting the first slip-up of tired minds or a careless error.

This was not the Beautiful Game. But that it happened at all, and that France was able to host 51 games in 10 stadiums over 31 days and nights of June and July, was a triumph of the human spirit over fearful dread.

To think that France could have secured all those games, and accommodated the free movement of many tens of thousands at fan zones near the Eiffel Tower and elsewhere throughout the country, was the greatest prize anyone could have wished for. Soccer was never going to unite the nation this year the way that the Bleus led by Zinédine Zidane did in 1998, winning the World Cup at home and sending a million people to the Champs-Élysées after that final.

Times have changed. A huge part of the celebration of ’98 was captured in the expression “black, blanc, beur,” a reference to the black, white and Arab-origin composition of the national team. But in November, the national stadium where that team had triumphed, the Stade de France in St-Denis, just north of the capital, was targeted by the terrorists who killed 130 people in Paris.

France and Germany were playing a friendly game at the stadium that night. Three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside rather than inside the packed arena because of tight security at the entrance.

Even so, and even after explicit threats to the European tournament that were made after the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March, the event was able to go ahead. And despite the violence between English and Russian supporters when their teams met in Marseille at the start of group play, despite Croatian and Hungarian fans somehow smuggling firecrackers into stadiums, the majority of those who came from all over Europe and beyond were able to safely enjoy the sport and their time in France.

The numbers outside the stadiums dwarfed those inside. While UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, sold 2.4 million tickets for the games, more than 3.6 million watched games on giant screens in fan zones in every host city. The Eiffel Tower zone, with a capacity of 85,000 and attracting people of every age and nationality, was reminiscent of the “fan mile” in Berlin that stretched from the Brandenburg Gate toward the Olympic Stadium at the 2006 World Cup.

That, too, had been sport’s answer to terrorism and exclusion: Let the people come, let humanity share the games.

For some, like for the game’s two great stars, Lionel Messi in New Jersey and Cristiano Ronaldo in Paris, it all ended in tears. For Didier Deschamps, the France coach, it ended in an apology to the fans after his side was defeated by the goal of a Portuguese substitute, Éder, deep into extra time.

“There are no words after that,” Deschamps said. “We won together, we suffered together, and today, unfortunately, we lost together.”

Yes, it happens. In sports you win or you lose. Antoine Griezmann, France’s golden boy and the player of the tournament, could not find the target on this long, hot night. Ronaldo obviously could not find it either after his injury so early in the final. But Éder, 28, originally from the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, magnificently did. Éder was referred to by Portugal’s coach, Fernando Santos, as one of his ugly ducklings that had turned into a swan.
That quite possibly reflected Portugal’s tournament.

The country had never before won a major tournament, and was thwarted in the 2004 European final, beaten on home turf by a Greek team playing to frustrate opponents until they wilted or lost concentration.

Santos had worked in Greece and understood the mentality of eking out victory by whatever means. His team did not transgress any laws, it was not dirty, just dogged. Even with Ronaldo, and with Nani at his finest form in years, the Portuguese game plan was not to lose.

After so many years and decades of decorous but unfulfilled soccer — with teams that included world-class stars like Eusébio and Luís Figo — this was a Portugal of pragmatism.

Yes, Ronaldo soared occasionally. Yes, the young bull Renato Sanches forced himself upon the team and at 18 became the youngest winner of a European final. And certainly Éder, who with great strength thrust the French defender Laurent Koscielny out of his way and fired a powerful right-foot shot along the ground from 27 yards, shook the lethargy out of a last game that was headed for the dreaded penalty shootout had he not scored. So a duckling became a swan and flew home to Lisbon a triumphant star at the end of a monthlong event in which Portugal won only one game in the 90 minutes of regular time, finished third out of four teams in its opening group phase, went to extra time and even penalties, but never yielded.

“Campeões!” the people sang when the team came home.
Champions of the whole Continent, and in the sense that teamwork and timing are ultimately the aims of the game, no one can deny this country of 10 million people its moment in the sun.