“Soldiers trust each other. That’s what makes us an army.”
Steve Rogers’ words in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are arguably most relevant for sports, other than their actual purpose.
The ongoing European championship can illustrate this really well. From the teams that have qualified for the semi-finals, what has stood out is how not one has achieved this courtesy one brilliant individual performance. They have reached the end of the tournament due to the work of the entire team.
It cannot be refuted that each side has one or two fantastic players; surprise package Wales have Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive signing; Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players of our generation. And yet, while these players have helped their sides massively, it would be erroneous to credit them entirely for where they find themselves right now.
Host nation France, embroiled in bigger issues off the filed, have ensured team performances like the one against Iceland have lifted the mood of the nation. If Dimitri Payet was a notch above the rest in the opening games, after that, Les Bleus have truly become a unit and performed like one. Their performance against everyone’s favourite team, Iceland, was absolutely fantastic and demonstrated class, creativity and togetherness. The win was convincing, the 5-2 scoreline and the fact that as many as four Frenchman got on the scorecard showed how well they did as a team.
World champions Germany boast a number of sensational players within their ranks, but they have almost never relied on the brilliance of one individual. With Thomas Müller, the most important goalscorer for the team enduring a drought at the moment, any other team could have collapsed and crashed out already. But Germany have still managed to reach one step closer to the final. Low’s team is strong enough to win two more games without Müller getting on the scoresheet.
Importantly, Portugal have always held a “one-man team” status. In the ongoing competition, Cristiano Ronaldo, while producing key moments and goals, hasn’t been the side’s focal man. A number of individuals have shone for Portugal.
Ricardo Quaresma is playing like a footballer reborn, his winner against Croatia and his penalty against Poland showed how he has managed to master the art of overcoming pressure. The 32-year-old was deemed an explosive talent when he broke out at Sporting but things didn’t work out for him as he made his way to Barcelona, Inter and Chelsea. Only an enigma, and a flashy one at that, Portugal had to always depend on Cristiano Ronaldo to be their main man. After returning to Besiktas, Quaresma seems to be in the form of his life as he helped the Super Lig side to their first league title since 2009, and is now stealing the headlines from Ronaldo for the performances he is putting on at Euro 2016. Younger players like Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches have equally shone at the biggest platform. Gomes performed consistently well in the group stage but got injured during the knockout games. This was a blessing in disguise for Renato Sanches whose performances have been particularly highlighted as he excelled against Croatia and Poland, and was the man-of-the-match for both the ties.
It would probably be wrong to say Portugal’s cohesive football has got them as far as where they are. However, teamwork doesn’t always mean that there have to be beautiful team goals, Portugal’s cohesion and solidarity can be mostly seen through the heart and commitment that has been on display against Hungary, Croatia and Poland. The side found a way to get back into the game when they were on the verge of elimination.
With Iceland out, most of the football watching world is rooting for Wales to overcome the rest of the teams. Chris Coleman’s side has revelled in the “underdog” status. As mentioned before, Gareth Bale is their foremost player and hasn’t failed to deliver, scoring three times to lift them out of the group. But performances from the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen can absolutely not be overlooked. Ben Davies, who will also be absent along with Ramsey for the tie against Portugal, has performed in equal measure and the Tottenham defender has been one of Wales’ most consistent players in France. Sam Vokes, Hal Robson-Kanu got on the scoresheet against Belgium, a favourite for the tournament. A nation with little tournament experience, one that is significantly smaller in size and one that hardly anyone would have thought could contest a final has only reached as far as it has because everyone has come together and stepped up.
It takes a team to win matches and the four teams that have come to the semi-final stage of the tournament have shown that. If the success of Leicester City in the Premier League last season taught us anything, desire, mental toughness, teamwork, character and heart will always trump star quality and individual brilliance. Euro 2016 is only reiterating the same. Talented individuals will always be looked up to and adored, but a balanced unit is what is needed to go all the way.