PORTUGAL, might not have lit up Euro 2016 with their dull, safety-first football, but, like Greece in 2004, they showed what could be achieved on the pitch by smaller nations through hard work, discipline, good organisation and a never-say-die spirit.
Even more astonishing was that the biggest triumph in the history of Portuguese football was achieved on Sunday night without their one world class player, captain and leader Cristiano Ronaldo, who was injured midway through the first half and left pitch in tears.
The Portuguese players were unfazed, stuck to their defensive game plan – to stifle France – and were rewarded for their spirit and resolve with an extra-time winner. It was a victory against the odds as they were facing the big favourites of the tournament, the star-studded French side, playing in its home stadium in front of its own fans. The Portuguese will not care a bit about criticism – not unjustified – that they won the European Championships by playing tediously boring, over-cautious football. They had failed to win any of their first five matches in 90 minutes – in the last 16 they won with an extra-time goal and in the quarters on penalties – and had qualified from the group stages in third place.
Sunday night’s final was a reflection of a dull and uninspiring tournament, the experiment with more teams participating – 24 instead of 16 – proving a failure. The new format may have generated more TV cash for UEFA and allowed more ‘small’ sides to take part, but it was also the reason for some woefully poor matches, with too many of the weaker sides playing for draws, aware that even a third place finish in the group stages could see them advance to the knock-out stage. Portugal would not have made the knock-out stage in the old 16-team format.
On the plus side, the 24-team format allowed European football minnows like Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales to take part and contribute a little excitement, if only for standing up to the traditional powers. Iceland made the quarter-finals having defeated England and Wales not only reached the semis, but their 3-1 defeat of Belgium was one of the best matches of the tournament. There were probably another three memorable games in the whole Euro – and the eventual champions did not feature in one of them – which was a very poor return for the much-hyped new format.
The 2020 Euro will keep the 24 teams but will be played in cities in different countries to mark its 60th anniversary. We can only hope that the spectacle will be better than the tournament of tedium we have watched over the last four weeks.