If you listened to the commentators on ESPN's post-game show after Portugal’s 1-0 victory over France in the final of the European Championship, you’d think that UEFA had collectively pissed on the beautiful game out of spite. Ian Darke declared this year’s Euros the "worst major tournament since Italia ’90," which is as salty a thing as you can say. The expansion to 24 teams, and the resulting negative football, put a stain on positive, beautiful football, or so many bitter fans would have you believe.
Portugal exemplifies all of this dreck in the minds of the pundits, since they made it to the knockout stage only via a third-place finish in their group. They had only one 90 minute win in seven matches. They were too reactive, too ugly, too anti-football. How dare they waste the fans’ time this way? How dare they win a tournament in the worst way since Greece in 2004?
Here’s the problem with all that: Portugal were actually really good.
It’s true that Fernando Santos’s squad drew their three group games and got to the knockouts only by the skin of their teeth. They scored four goals and gave up four, but their results didn’t reflect the performances.
Cristiano Ronaldo was legitimately cursed in those games against Iceland and Austria. He peppered the net and had to wait until the chaos of the Hungary match to score. They conceded only two big chances in the group phase, meanwhile, and only one found net. Portugal finished in third place in Group F, but they didn’t play that way.
Yes, they retreated into a more defensive shell in the knockout stage, starting with Croatia in the round of 16. It was indeed ugly; that was certainly the smart play when faced with a midfield consisting of Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, and Ivan Perišić. Portugal had the only big chance in the game when Croatia’s tactical plan broke down, and Ricardo Quaresma buried it at the death.
There was more of the same against Poland in the quarterfinals. This was rough. The rock-solid defense of Cedric, Pepe, José Fonte and Raphael Guerreiro neutralized Arkadiusz Milik and Robert Lewandowski. Portugal played defensive football. It still worked. Yeah, the game was decided on penalties, but once again, Poland didn’t outplay them.
This is what you have to do sometimes when titles are on the line. It’s what made Leicester City so effective down the stretch in the last Premier League season. It’s what won the World Cup for the US women in 2015. Defense often wins tournaments, and while Portugal only won one game in 90 minutes, they didn’t lose any, either.
Furthermore, they didn’t get outplayed in any match. They got unlucky in the group stage on both sides of the field, and then once they got to Wales, they turned on the lights again. People seem to forget that once the semifinal ticked over into the second half, Portugal attacked with flair, breaking down Wales’s defense and putting two nice goals in net. They were not only the better team on the night, they were the much better attacking team.
It is ironic, then, that the final might be the only match where Portugal’s opponents outplayed them. France had the better chances and looked threatening through Moussa Sissoko, but after the first 10 minutes, their midfield dropped deep and didn’t provide supporting runs for Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. They stopped pressing, and Portugal remained defensively stalwart in the center of the park. Éder’s goal was kind of a fluke, but the defense kept France to only two or three legitimate chances.
There’s no morality or injustice in either the tournament’s format or in Portugal being its champion. Cristiano Ronaldo and co. did what they had to do to win. They weren’t lucky; in fact, they were the opposite in the group stage. They went undefeated in the tournament, which no other team can claim. More than that, they outplayed their opponent in six of their seven matches. Doesn't this look like a deserving champion to you?