Thursday, September 22, 2016
In hindsight, the Euros were easy to call...
"We are not going there on an excursion," insisted Portugal coach Fernando Santos.
"We are going there to win!"
Cue the smirks from the assembled press at the pre-Euro 2016 conference.
Looking back at this summer's big European tournament, we can all we so maddeningly wise after the event, convinced now having read the statistics at leisure that the best team all along won it in the end.
The elements for Portuguese victory were thus:
Three appearances in the semi-finals out of their last four European Championships, seven consecutive one-goal wins, a tight defence, a focused and unified group of players, the young star of the tournament, oh and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Speaking to 442 magazine before the tournament, Portugal centre-back Jose Fonte's resonating words should have alerted us to his team's potential:
"We have the best player in the world," he reminded us. "We have a strong team, a fantastic manager and the full support of a nation."
Well that sounds like a recipe for success.
He went on:
"I think we're very well organised, we're a close-knit squad and we have players who are extremely dangerous offensively."
Yup, can't argue with that.
"I think Portugal have a very good chance, " ex-goalkeeper Ricardo told World Soccer. "I know there is an excellent spirit within the squad and the team has a very good coach. I think everything is in place for Portugal to have a good tournament."
Ah, the 20/20 vision...
"I think we're going to have a great Euro," added Paulo Futre. "Portugal can beat anybody if we're at the top of our game...Portugal are a great team when they are in good shape."
Tom Kundert in World Soccer talked up their chances as well:
"Portugal have an impressive European Championship record," he began. "They also have the outstanding player in the tournament, a core of experienced, solid performers and an exciting crop of young players."
Looking at the Euros with the benefit of hindsight, Portugal were clearly always in with a chance of winning the thing but nobody tipped them as far as I can recall, despite this abundance of evidence.
Why was this? Don't hundreds of men and now expensive computers spend hours analyzing football?
Yes, but the best so-called experts, paid analysts and algorithms clearly cannot pick the rabbit out a 24-team hat.
If they were able to, the football betting industry would die a death (no great loss perhaps) but football fandom would too, as everyone would know who was going to win.
It is reassuring therefore that football retains this unpredictability in the face of smug punditry and advanced technology, a chaos factor that makes it relentlessly watchable. But getting back to Portugal, the ingredients for success were clearly there but pre-match odds placed them joint-sixth favourites with Italy at best, behind France, Germany, Spain, England and Belgium...?!?
Most betting companies placed them seventh in fact!
How could so many highly-paid observers get it so spectacularly wrong and fire so amazingly wide of the mark?
I think the answer lies in gut instincts more than anything.
Despite its team's pedigree, Portugal is a small country with only 62% of the population of the Netherlands, the other obvious small nation which punches above its weight, albeit not since the last World Cup.
Portugal just did not have the F Factor of big names like Germany, Italy, France, Spain and England, national teams from the countries with the biggest domestic leagues coincidentally.
Ronaldo's gargantuan profile continued to cast the rest of the team in the shade as far as casual spectator recognition went.
His ongoing failure to win trophies in a Seleçao shirt having passed the landmark of 30 years of age also probably contributed to Portugal's under-valuation pre-tournament.
They were defensively rather than attacking-minded too, a boring yet winning approach not unlike Greece's surprise win in 2004.
A tight defence was clearly a big reason for their ultimate victory, grinding out wins in a functional fashion, a stark contrast to the flamboyant Portugal of Eusebio in 1966, or of the Geração de Ouro (Golden Generation) of the late 1990s and early noughties.
It is useful to remember Portugal drew their three group games against Iceland, Austria and Hungary, before an extra-time 1-0 win over Croatia and a penalty-win over Poland after a 1-1 draw.
So not only did they reach the last four having finished third in their group, in five games at the finals they failed to win within 90 minutes and only once within 120 minutes.
Such tactics never catch the eye of the fans or appeal to hacks, who would rather see such sides eliminated than tip them to go all the way and have to suffer more turgid defensive clashes settled by a late winner or penalties.
Quite clearly the heart still rules the head of the football fan or journalist.
Despite the evidence of Euro 2016, nobody really wants to advocate out loud a safety-first, keep-it-tight and squeeze all creativity out of the game approach.
As in their qualifiers, Portugal edged past all their finals opponents, until their stand-out 2-0 victory over Gareth Bale and friends.
But most people still thought the hosts would use their home advantage to beat Fernando Santos' men in the final.
Even when Ronaldo finally hobbled off the pélouse of the Stade de France for good, most watchers expected Portugal to lose, not win. Nine out of Santos' ten wins in charge of Portugal before the tournament began were by a single goal so the writing was on the wall.
If only we had analysed their narrow wins more, we might have seen they were cannily avoiding defeat in every game and only needed to wait until they found the opposition net, as they did after 109 minutes in the final through Eder.
If only we had listened to Fernando Santos and his single-minded vision:
"I believe we can win Euro 2016," he insisted beforehand. "If this team keeps its concentration, with the quality it has, it will be difficult to beat us."
We should also have noticed how strong their esprit du corps was before the tournament, so watertight in fact that the loss of their talisman in the final was no obstacle to victory but rather a fillip. If anything, they played better without Ronaldo, as if his teammates felt liberated without his ego around and his short tempered reactions to not being given the ball, like a spoilt child.
In retrospect we get it all now, as we always do, but Portugal's victory confirmed how the army of football ‘experts’ were once more anything but. Did anyone tip either South Korea or Turkey to make the World Cup semi-finals of 2002? No.
Enjoy the army of incompetents get their predictions for Russia 2018 hilariously wrong too.
As for the Euro 2016 champions, the manner of their win has been swiftly forgotten, with the plague of moths and Ronaldo’s agony the final’s abiding images.
But the glory is Portugal's, the nation’s first international trophy.
As Santos said of Eder's winner,
"The ugly duckling went and scored. Now he's a beautiful swan."