Revisiting Euro 2016

I've been supporting the Portuguese National Team (the Seleção) religiously for well over ten years. I witnessed a heartbreaking finish to a very promising World Cup 2006 where the Portuguese bowed out 1-0 to France in the semi-finals (yes, Thierry Henry dove in the penalty area). Regardless, they still celebrated in Lisbon after, and I contend this version of Scolari's team was his best. After, the likes of Joao Moutinho and Nani entered the fray. They would lose to Germany in Euro 2008.  Qualifying for World Cup 2010 with Carlos Queiroz was tedious to say the least; a solid performance against Bosnia in the playoff round saw them through. They played ultra defensively in the group stage and even more defensively in the round of 16 against Spain, the eventual winners. Queiroz was sacked and Paulo Bento was in. He ended up ticking off a bunch of players, leading some to exit. But, Portugal again overcame Bosnia in the playoffs, booking a trip to Euro 2012. They lost to Spain in heartbreaking fashion in the semi-finals, 4-2 in penalties. Bento stayed on. They would go on to beat Sweden in the playoffs (the second game in Sweden is Cristiano Ronaldo's greatest game ever) and wind up in Brasil for World Cup 2014. Remember that thing about Bento ticking players off? Well, this made his selections very questionable. When Fabio Coentrao went down against Germany in Portugal's first game, there was no other left back to replace him. Antunes was never called up for some reason. Bento would later be sacked after losing their first Euro 2016 qualifier to Albania in Aveiro. But, miraculously, they won their group! They were in Euro 2016, a tournament they would conquer and claim as their own.

A lot of pundits said that Portugal did not deserve the European championship. It's true they had a relatively easy road to the final. There is no denying that. Croatia was their biggest challenge, and I contend they anticipated an open affair; however, Santos gave them a regimented, structured attack. Renato, Ronaldo, and Quaresma linked up for a late-game winner, and while the victory was sweet, us Portuguese were queuing up Amalia in anticipation of the eventual heartbreaking defeat. But, it never came!

Santos believed his team could win the championship, but you don't see this mentality much in European sports (especially not with Santos' predecessors). I suppose because there's typically a huge gap in quality between the contenders and everyone else. In America, I guess we're a bit more optimistic; anyone can win on any given day! This attitude was stitched in the very fabric of Portugal in Euro 2016. They played with passion and a composed sense of urgency. Add this to Santos' amazing tactics and player selections, and you have a formidable Portuguese squad. Consequently, when people say Portugal are not worthy champions, it infuriates me. It's not like they won by accident. Nor did they win on account of referee error. Did they play defensively? Yes, but they didn't park the bus. They played long stretches of games with the majority of ball possession. And what's wrong with playing to "win" if you're only chance of winning is to play conservatively? Italy is praised for playing in this manner. Why is Portugal the villain?

My guess is jealously. How can a nation the size of Indiana produce Eusebio, Figo, and Ronaldo? How can Portugal continue to qualify for the big tournaments? How can Portugal win without a legitimate striker? They're all great questions, and to some extent, I think someone in Heaven has a soft spot for Portuguese soccer. Additionally, we have been blessed with excellent youth development. While some nations struggle to integrate their youth, Portugal exceeds. They found a way to matriculate William, Raphael, Renato, and Cedric (and, more recently, Gelson Martins, Andre Silva, and Joao Cancelo) to complement the older guard.

Forca Portugal!