Portugal's team spirit after Cristiano Ronaldo's injury drives Euro 2016 win
SAINT-DENIS, France -- Ederzito Antonio Macedo Lopes, aka Eder, is a 28-year-old Portuguese forward. In his eight seasons as a topflight footballer, he has scored 48 league goals for four different clubs in three different countries. Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, aka Cristiano, is a 31-year-old Portuguese forward who scored 48 league goals in a single season, just two years ago.
On a muggy Sunday night in Paris, each was critical in helping Portugal win their first-ever major international trophy. And because football, like the bottomless coffee cup at your local diner, never runs out of surprises, it happened in the most unthinkable way.
Ronaldo left the game in tears after just 25 minutes, taking with him (in the eyes of most observers) whatever residual chances Portugal might yet have harbored. Eder came on with 11 minutes to go in regular time. He had never scored in a competitive game for his country. Sending him on smacked of desperation, the choice you make when you have no alternative -- a bit like Butch and Sundance deciding to burst out of their hut and take on the entire Bolivian Army.
And yet it was Eder, big and lanky and unloved by the purists, who harpooned a loose ball and drove from left to right with 11 minutes left in extra time.
You felt as if he was just going to run into somebody and maybe see if he could win a free kick. Laurent Koscielny approached but simply bounced off him, like the giant sponges at the drive-through car wash. Realizing he was in space, Eder then unspooled a low, nasty rocket that tucked inside Hugo Lloris' near post.
"He actually told me when I sent him on that he was going to score," manager Fernando Santos said after the match. "I smiled. But then the ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan."
As Eder turned to celebrate, he was mobbed as the entire Portugal bench cleared and streamed onto the pitch. All of them, bar one.
Ronaldo, who had re-emerged from the tunnel with his left leg heavily bandaged as the game wound into extra time. Spending the previous 20 minutes at the edge of the technical area -- serving as part-cheerleader, part-assistant coach, part-uberfan but mostly big brother -- he took a moment for himself. He wandered down the touchline, head in hands, sobbing with emotion, and then he celebrated with his brothers.
On this night, he and Eder were equals, as were the other 21 Portugal players. So too were the staff, kit men, physios and everybody else in Santos' village. Because that's what it took.
The Portugal boss would say as much in the wake of their win. "Cristiano was the definition of teamwork. They all were." It was a stark contrast on Sunday night between a team that was far greater than the sum of its parts and dealt with misfortune, versus a collection of individuals that added up to less than the sum total.
Didier Deschamps' decision to keep the same setup we'd seen against Germany (and, before that, against Iceland) came back to haunt him. It was a statement by the manager, forcing Paul Pogba to reinvent himself as some kind of next-gen Claude Makelele, and it would come to impact the whole match.
Just as they had done against Germany, France came out of the gates very quickly, buoyed by a ferociously partisan crowd. Eight minutes in gave us the early turning point, perhaps a result of France's furious tempo. Dimitri Payet went in hard on Renato Sanches, with referee Mark Clattenburg waving play on. The Frenchman then zeroed in on Ronaldo, who was receiving the ball by the touchline. Payet's left boot nicked the ball away but his right knee caught Ronaldo's planted leg and the Real Madrid star crumpled to the ground. Clattenburg again waved play on. Ronaldo struggled to get up, tears welling in his eyes, face contorted in a grimace.
France had an excellent chance minutes later but Antoine Griezmann's flicked header was pawed away by the immense Rui Patricio. Another clash and Ronaldo was back on the ground, this time sobbing. Something landed on his face, first on his eyebrow, then on the arch of his nose. Maybe it was a butterfly, maybe a moth, one of the many that infested the Stade de France on the night. He did nothing to shoo it away, seemingly not feeling it at all. Maybe it was the pain or the adrenaline. Maybe it was the sorrow. Maybe it was all of the above. He left the pitch for treatment and, in his absence, a powerful run from Moussa Sissoko resulted in a venomous finish that Patricio tipped over his bar.
Ronaldo returned but could go no further. He gave the captain's armband to Nani and limped off the pitch, applause from both sets of fans raining down around him. On came Ricardo Quaresma and at that stage, Portugal were very much on the back foot, particularly when Sissoko, operating somewhere between a runaway locomotive and an Ironhead Harley, roared through the Portuguese lines. The half ended with Cedric catching Payet with a knee to the back. It smacked of a classic revenge foul, but fortunately for both teams, things did not escalate.
Without Ronaldo, Portugal switched to a 4-5-1 and tightened up in central midfield and here you realized just how Deschamps' scheme wasn't helping. Stuck deep in midfield, Pogba struggled to contribute offensively. With Griezmann swallowed up in traffic and Payet's contribution waning, France became predictable. Deschamps sent on the fresh wheels of Kingsley Coman and his cross found Griezmann, whose header was just high. Coman again set up a great chance when he played in Olivier Giroud (a rare appearance on an otherwise anonymous night) but again, Patricio was heroic in palming it away.
With extra time (and maybe penalties) looming, both managers turned to their bench. Santos turned to Eder for Renato Sanches, while Deschamps called upon Andre-Pierre Gignac (for Giroud). As it would happen, both replacements would get a chance to win the game. Only one would take it.
Ten minutes from time, a Portugal counter saw Nani's cross/shot force Lloris to punch away straight to Quaresma, whose overhead kick was saved again by the Tottenham keeper. It would have been a Hollywood ending, but instead, we saw two more gilt-edged French opportunities. Sissoko, in full-on beast mode, unleashed a frightening strike that Patricio somehow deflected. And then, deep into injury time, Gignac received the ball with his back to goal, turned Pepe inside and out with an agility you just don't expect from a man his size and fired a shot that clipped Patricio's post.
With Eder on the pitch, Portugal switched to a more linear 4-3-3 to mimic France and the game seemed destined for penalties. Raphael Guerreiro sent a free kick (awarded for an incorrect handball when Clattenburg appeared to get Eder and Koscielny confused) thundering off Lloris' woodwork. You thought it was the highlight of the game; little did you know what would come next.
The final minutes saw Ronaldo and Santos stalking the edge of the technical area, Master and Commander. "Cristiano was crucial," Santos said. "He was so important to us, he didn't think of his misfortune. He talked to everyone, he incentivized them, he made them believe that tonight was our night."
Man of the match honors went to Pepe, but they could have easily gone to Patricio or Guerreiro. Or heck, the entire 23, because this was all about them and the man who molded them.
"We were innocent as doves but also wise as serpents," Santos said. And he meant it.
"Right now, I want to go home and kiss my mother, my wife, my children, I'd like to hug everyone, every last one," Santos added, before turning to his faith. "But I want to thank above all my best friend and his mother for making me so humble, for having allowed me to illuminate his name, because all that I do is for his glory."
Pepe dedicated the victory to the Portuguese diaspora around the world, a set of emigrants that included Santos in his three separate stints in Greek football. But the last word went to Ronaldo who, like Ricardo Carvalho, was there in 2004, the only other time Portugal played in a final and an occasion that ended in heartbreak.
"Since 2004 I've asked God for another chance, another opportunity to win something for my people," Ronaldo said. "Today I was unlucky personally, but it turned out as one of the happiest days of my career. I always believed we could do it as a team. I just wasn't sure it would happen this way."
The fact that it did might make it all the sweeter.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.