Monday 11 July 2016, 09:09

Portugal find belief in adversity

It was past two in the morning, and still there was no sign of the Portugal players leaving the pitch at the Stade de France, the scene of the greatest night in their country’s footballing history. They wanted the moment to last forever, for it to be etched in their minds for the rest of their lives.

When they finally retired to the dressing room, they did so in celebratory mood, filing into the tunnel singing and dancing, soaking up the joy of an occasion that only a fortunate few ever get to experience.

And when the newly crowned champions of Europe broke off to speak to, they did so with a smile on their lips, each of them revealing that their victory began to take shape when they suffered the huge blow of losing their star player.

The mark of champions Portugal’s meaningful win was unexpected to say the least. Hosts France went into Sunday’s final as firm favourites, having eliminated world champions Germany in the semi-finals. The French looked even more likely to take the title when, on 25 minutes, Portugal talisman Cristiano Ronaldo was stretchered off after damaging his knee ligaments.

Great teams rise in the face of adversity, however, and Portugal were able to overcome that setback and kick on to win the title. As their players explained, their captain’s injury only spurred them on to make history.

“What happened to Cris was a shame,” said Andre Gomes. “Obviously we wanted him to stay on the pitch, but I think his injury brought us even closer together, made us focus even more on our work. That was how we managed to stay in the game in normal time and then go on and win it. We needed him, but we were able to recover from his absence.”

That they did so was in part down to the Real Madrid star himself. “It was a psychological blow for us,” said right-back Cedric before revealing what happened after the No7 went off. “At half-time he gave us a fantastic speech in the dressing room. He told us we were going to win the game, that we had to stick together and not give up hope. That really boosted our morale, and in the end he was right.”

Celebrate good times Ronaldo’s influence could even be felt in the decisive moment of the match. Striker Eder had come on with 11 minutes of normal time remaining, his brief being to break the deadlock. Though the No9 had struck just six goals in a season spent with Swansea in the Premier League and then Lille in Ligue 1, there was one person who did not doubt his goalscoring ability, showing a faith in the player that was rewarded with the 30-yard shot that secured Portugal’s win with 11 minutes of extra-time left.

“Things got very tough for us when Cristiano got injured,” explained the matchwinner, a broad smile on his lips. “He’s the best player in the world, after all. But before I came on, he told me I’d be the one to score the winner. He transmitted his strength and energy to me and we got the victory for him and the whole of Portugal.”

“For the whole of Portugal,” were words repeated by the rest of his team-mates, the most effusive member of which was goalkeeper Rui Patricio, who made a number of key saves: “It’s a day that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. We’re delighted to have brought so much happiness to our fans. Their support in the stadium was incredible, and so were the messages we got from Portugal. We knew we had the whole country behind us because they made sure we felt it. That was so important for us.”

As important as those words of encouragement from home was the unshakeable faith of their star player, whose tears of rage and helplessness were later replaced by ones of joy and gratitude.

Who better, then, than Cristiano himself to have the final say on an unforgettable night? “I’d like to thank everyone: my team-mates, the coach, the people back home in Portugal and those who supported us in the stadium,” he said. “It’s a very special moment for me and for all Portuguese people. I will remember it forever.”