ST.-DENIS, France — With grit, determination and a remarkable spirit despite the loss of the team’s biggest star, Portugal upset France in the final of the European Championships here on Sunday to claim its first major soccer tournament trophy. The 1-0 victory at the Stade de France, on the strength of an extra-time goal by the substitute Éder, denied the French a dream finish to this monthlong event in a game many will believe they should have won with relative ease.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo was taken off on a stretcher with an injured left knee in the 24th minute; however, his absence did not have the impact that one might have expected. Instead of leaving the Portuguese team exposed, the players dug in and managed a strong defensive performance that left the French flummoxed.
Éder’s goal seemed to come out of nowhere. Holding the ball in the attacking half, he pivoted toward the middle and, finding himself with a rare bit of space, fired a low, right-footed shot from 25 yards out that seemed to momentarily freeze France’s goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris. Lloris dived to his right, but the ball eluded his reach and went inside the post.
At the final whistle, while the Portuguese celebrated, many of the French players looked stunned. For a country still recovering from the terrorist attacks last November which killed 130 people and scarred many more — as well as enduring flooding and constant worker strikes recently — the Euros were seen as a chance to celebrate an historic victory together. In the end, there was only the letdown of falling just short.
Ronaldo joined in the celebrations, albeit gingerly. He was injured in the eighth minute when Dimitri Payet clattered into him while poking away the ball (no foul was called). Ronaldo received treatment — both then and again a few minutes later — but was clearly hobbled. As he wrapped his captain’s armband around the arm of his teammate, Nani, Ronaldo wept.
It could have been the end of Portugal’s night, as Ronaldo is at the heart of so much of Portugal’s planning. Yet the Portuguese were not cowed. The goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, was stout; Jose Fonte was sturdy at the back; and Nani seemed to sense the need for him to fill Ronaldo’s void, running with vigor and purpose.
Portugal’s coach, Fernando Santos, took over the team in 2014, and his first match in charge was a loss to France at Stade de France in an exhibition. After that game, Santos said, he gathered his players together in the locker room and told them that the singular goal was to return to this stadium for the showpiece of this event in two years — a task which looked even more difficult after a slow start to the tournament.
But Portugal did just enough, drawing all three of its group-stage matches to advance as a third-place team, and getting a break when Iceland scored late in its final group match to push Portugal to the side of the draw away from France, England, Germany, Italy and Spain. With its path undeniably easier, Portugal then beat Croatia in extra time, Poland on penalty kicks and Wales in the semifinal to earn its date against the hosts.
Once in that situation, Santos said, anything could happen — and it did. France had plenty of chances, including one at the end of regulation, when Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post, but could never quite put together a full move. Antoine Griezmann, France’s star who scored a tournament-high six goals, struggled to make an impact and missed an open header from six yards out, his best chance of the game.
The final was the 51st match of this expanded Euros, the first with 24 teams. There was — and will continue to be — much debate over the relative value of the oversized field, particularly as the tournament was one of the lowest-scoring in recent history, a development many attributed to the devalued group stage, in which two weeks of matches were played to eliminate just eight teams.
Still, there was no denying the excitement provided by smaller nations, like Iceland and Wales, making deep runs through the tournament draw. Iceland, with its population of just 330,000, captivated soccer fans around the world by reaching the knockout rounds in its first major tournament and upsetting England in the round of 16. Its run was only halted by the French, who mercilessly blitzed Iceland in the quarterfinals.
After Portugal dispatched Wales, the final was set and Ronaldo, in particular, was thrust into a spotlight even bigger than his usual glow. Ronaldo was just 19 when Portugal was upset in the final of its own Euros at home — a crushing 1-0 defeat to Greece in Lisbon in 2004 — and he spoke emotionally last week about his dream of delivering Portugal its long-sought glory.
In the end, he did — even if it was certainly not the way he, or anyone, would have imagined it happening.