Portugal rewrote their history as a footballing nation on Sunday night. A Selecaohad not beaten France since 1975 and had never claimed an international trophy, so many Portuguese people expected a similar story this time. But instead, they saw a different ending.
By losing the Euro 2004 final at home to Greece, Portugal looked to have blown their best opportunity of success in a major tournament. Even with 2002 World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari in charge, the team was unable to win the trophy in Lisbon and the tragedy of that loss was, in many ways, so typically Portuguese.
Once one of the world’s most powerful countries due to its great explorers and discoveries at sea, Portugal built an empire but fell into decadence as a nation and is struggling economically nowadays ts culture is very much marked by elements of fatalism and lament, nostalgia and loss.
Its traditional music, fado (which means fate), sums up this trend. All about loves lost and reminiscing over an era of a great Portugal, it looks back with tristesse to better times. The songs are bathed in ruefulness and regret. And in bars and taverns across the country, many Portuguese watch the shows and cry.
And prior to the Euro 2016 final, something similar had happened with their football team. Despite the talent of a “golden generation” including Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and a young Cristiano Ronaldo in 2004, it all ended in tears once again at the Estadio Da Luz.
But eight years on, that has changed. On the day of the match against France, Portuguese paper A Bola led with a front cover which announced: “We will win”. On the back page, meanwhile, there was a cartoon in which a man told a barber how the team had been playing poorly during Euro 2016. “Be quiet,” he replied. “The Portugal of fado has been asleep until now. We don’t want to wake them up.”
On Monday, the Portuguese people will wake to positive news. This time, their was no tragic outcome, no fatalistic finale. This time, pessimism was replaced by optimism and Portugal prevailed – even surviving the loss of their finest footballer early on. This time, they are champions of Europe.
It is a significant shift in fortunes and Ronaldo has been at the forefront. Although the Real Madrid forward limped off the Stade de France pitch following a blow to the knee that left him in tears and unable to continue despite twice trying to play on, his part in the advancement of this team is important.
Brought up in humble surroundings on the island of Madeira, Cristiano travelled to the mainland as an 11-year-old with a sign around his neck to meet scouts from Sporting in Lisbon. And 20 years on from that, his ambition, commitment and dedication have seen him win three Ballons d’Or, three Champions League crowns and much more. As much as anyone else, he has shown his compatriots that it can be done – and his team-mates even did it without him.
Ronaldo was still there on the sidelines, barking instructions to his team-mates, demanding more noise from the Portuguese supporters and kicking every ball in the unorthodox role of assistant coach alongside coach Fernando Santos. And right-back Cedric Soares revealed afterwards he had given a rousing speech to the players during the interval.
“At half-time, Cristiano had fantastic words for us,” he said. “He gave us a lot of confidence and said ‘listen people, I’m sure we will win, so stay together and fight for it.’ “It was really unbelievable. I think all the team had a fantastic attitude. And we showed tonight when you fight as one you are much much stronger.
“He was fantastic. His attitude was unbelievable. He always had a lot of motivational words and all the team of course reacted to them, so it was very good. He had fantastic words for each player in each moment of the game.”
One of those players was goalscorer Eder, whose superb strike to win the match in extra time surprised many who had written him off as one of the poorest forwards at Euro 2016. Afterwards, the player himself said: “Ronaldo told me I would score the winning goal for the team. He gave me this strength, this energy, and it was vital.”
For Ronaldo, only winning is enough. At his museum in Madeira the 31-year-old proudly displays his Ballons d’Or, yet there is no sign of the silver balls he has won for finishing second in the annual individual award. Those mean very little to him.
But this will mean everything. “I’m so happy – very happy,” he said afterwards. “This was something I’ve wanted for a long time now, ever since 2004. I asked God to give me another chance.
“This is one of the happiest moments in my career. The Portuguese people deserve this; our players deserved this.”
Many have been critical of Portugal’s pragmatic play at Euro 2016 after Santos’ side emerged from their group without a single win and ended the competition with only one victory in the 90 minutes (having beaten Croatia and France in extra time and Poland on penalties).
But Santos created a bond and a spirit that few other teams in this tournament could match. He also used every outfield player at his disposal to get the most he possibly could out of his 23-man squad. They all played a part.
And his substitutions were key as well. Ricardo Quaresma came on to score the winner against Croatia, while it was Eder who emerged as the hero against France with his impressive long-range strike.
Santos and Ronaldo briefly worked together at Sporting back in 2004 and 12 years on, they have helped their nation erase the painful memories of losing to Greece in the final of the continental competition that year. Now, they are champions of Europe.
So no more fatalism, nostalgia, loss or lament; like Ronaldo, the Portuguese people can cry with tears of joy this time around.