At the end of France’s bumpy yet wonderful Euro campaign, only misery remained as the overarching sentiment, wiping out all the boundless joy that preceded it.
Such is the cruelty of playing a final in any sport – it is a gamble of emotions with no middle ground. You can only fall on one of the two extremes: unconfined happiness or gut-wrenching despair.
France, after an extra-time defeat to Portugal on Sunday night, fell firmly on the latter. If you ask any French player today, he would probably tell you that losing badly in any of the previous rounds would’ve been far better than falling marginally short at the final hurdle on home soil.
On another day, a number of things would’ve fallen France’s way. Antoine Griezmann, the tournament’s top scorer and the country’s hero of the summer, would have buried a simple header from a few yards out – which was a sitter by his standards.
Substitute André-Pierre Gignac’s stoppage-time effort would have sneaked in off the post or even fallen back out to a French shirt.
The absence of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who went of injured midway through the first half, would have deflated Portugal instead of galvanising the team to greater heights.
However, the night did not go according to script. It wouldn’t be football if it did. Home advantage, superior players, better form and predictable as well as depleted opponents – all of these should have combined to produce a French win. They did not. For this, France can only blame themselves.
Coach Didier Deschamps’ men gave their opponents, the tournament’s biggest opportunists, an inch and they made full use of it. Indeed, if there was a team that had mastered the art of succeeding on small margins, it was coach Fernando Santos’ group of grafters.
Portugal had no right to be in the knockout rounds, let alone in the final. They had finished third in their group and failed to win a game in regulation time prior to the semi-final. In any other European championship, Portugal would have headed home. But this 24-team tournament, a change from the usual 16-team one, gave mediocrity a second chance. And so Portugal lived to fight another day.
Santos’ side failed to beat Iceland, Hungary and Austria in the group stage. Thrice they returned from behind against Hungary to keep themselves in contention for the knockout stages. A smash-and-grab in extra time against Croatia in the Round of 16 was followed by a penalty shootout win over Poland in the quarters. Both were below-par performances and a study in attrition.
The champions had led all of 22 minutes in the tournament prior to a 2-0 win over Wales in the semis. On Sunday, in their typically compact, boring and largely unattractive manner, Portugal once again hung on to a goalless draw after 90 minutes and then struck the winner in extra time through Eder – the unlikeliest of heroes.
It was mission well and truly accomplished. Santos’ defensive-minded system was designed to frustrate opponents and win ugly if necessary. His pre-match comments had suggested he couldn’t care less about playing expansive football. He had a well-drilled team to realise his philosophy. Even after Ronaldo was forced off, Santos seamlessly tweaked his system twice in the game.
In contrast, Deschamps had struggled to get his tactics right throughout the tournament but the quality of his players had ensured he got away with it time and again. Against Germany too, for instance, Les Bleus were thoroughly dominated but eked out a win to reach the final.
In the final, though, France were short on ideas and Deschamps finally ran out of saviours. Portugal’s compactness forced the French out wide. France sent in 44 crosses on the night. They had only attempted a combined 35 in the knockout stages prior to that. It was both a sign of desperation and a lack of ideas. Portugal’s game plan to suffocate the opposition had worked and a number of French players did not perform as expected.
Griezmann, who had been the team’s talisman, was largely kept away from areas where he could genuinely influence the outcome of the game. He still managed to pop up at the end of a couple of good chances but could not convert. Paul Pogba, a massive disappointment all summer, struggled to make an impact in the deep-lying playmaker role. Same was the case with Blaise Matuidi playing alongside him.
Dimitri Payet, whose form has been on the wane since the group stages, disappointed again and had to be substituted. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud was marshalled well by the opposition defenders and was denied the opportunity to link up with Griezmann – which had served France well in the past. Although Gignac, Giroud’s replacement, came close to scoring, he did not prove to be an upgrade.
Moussa Sissoko, who frequently burst through the centre and troubled Portugal with his direct running, was France’s best player on the night. He attempted the most number of shots (five) and dribbles (seven) of any player on the pitch. Not far behind was 19-year-old Kingsley Coman, who came on in the second half and still created more chances (4) than any other player on the pitch.
France will look back at the final with great regret. Deschamps called it a “big chance” that had been missed by the team to be crowned champions. They had reached a final of a major tournament after a decade – a period which had been a turbulent one for French football.
The national team had set out to ease the worries of the French public and give them “an escape” in the aftermath of last year’s Paris attacks. For the majority of the summer, it had done well. Unlike the Brazilian team in 2014, the home side was indeed celebrated with great gusto. It had lit up the tournament in a way only a home team can.
But on the final night, one of small margins, Portugal and Ronaldo prevailed to lift their first ever major trophy while France were left ruing their missed opportunities.
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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2016 10:18:06 IST