The abiding image of a long and hot summer (to westerners) is of the two greatest stars in global football weeping on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Lionel Messi’s tears in New York were for his nation after he declared that he no longer wished to play for Argentina.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s tears in Paris were for himself. He was a physically broken man after damaging knee ligaments, and he could not in those moments of despair see his team winning without him.
As it transpired, Portugal did win the European title, with a goal scored in extra time by a substitute whom his national coach Fernando Santos had called an ugly duckling turned into a swan. Éder is a good story because he was born in Guinea-Bissau, a west African country that some years ago was under Portuguese rule.
And, continuing the tale of the unexpected this year, started by the 5,000-1 shot Leicester City running away with the English Premier League, it was like water on a parched tongue when Éder stepped up to win the final deep into extra time against France. It was also a salutary moment because Éder, as fresh and fit as a scarcely used substitute ought to be, simply shrugged off a clearly tired Laurent Koscielny. And, Éder did what a striker should do—he belted the ball with his right foot from 27 yards out, taking the goalkeeper by surprise with the velocity and low trajectory of the shot.
Portugal thus won the first major international trophy of its 102-year obsession with the game. Alas, this was not the Portugal of old, not the Beautiful Game as espoused in former times by the magnificent Eusebio and by Luis Figo, the idol before Ronaldo.
Each of the players already mentioned has been bought and sold on the open market that is dominated by the richest clubs in England, Spain, Germany and once Italy. Many people will have watched with open mouth as Paul Pogba, the target for a £100 million bid from Manchester United, faded anonymously away in Éder’s final.
So, too, did Antoine Griezmann, who seem to have nothing left for the big occasion. And, maybe in the coming days and weeks, we will find that his mind is also being compromised by the big clubs trying to find the price for Atletico Madrid to sell him.
This, after all, is the buying season. It does not stop merely because UEFA holds a massive 24-nation, 51-game championship right after the exhausting 10-month European season which includes the multimillion dollar prize of the Champions League. Very likely Ronaldo’s injury, and Griezmann’s fatigue, date back to that hard-fought battle in the San Siro Stadium on May 28. So little time for the weary to rest, so little respite for the millionaires who all said and done are flesh and blood and cry when they are hurting either mentally or physically. But for me, the last night of the European Championship is summed up in one word: Relief.
Relief that no bomb went off. Relief that 2.4 million spectators who bought tickets to the stadiums, and 3.6 million fans who crowded into fan zones at the foot of the Eiffel Tower or in designated venues of the 10 places went home safely. It was a monumental effort for France to secure all these sites.
Maybe I am cowardly because I was never sure in my own mind that it was a good idea to go ahead with the tournament so soon after the atrocities. I confess that I had the same fear after the Black September murderers shot and killed Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Yet we cannot give in to terrorism. It is never a good thing to abandon sports or music or any other fraternisation to the horror of warped men and women of violence. Enough of that, because nothing much happened to spoil the party in France.
Sadly, however, too many nights of the Euro 2016 were the dullest bore of any major tournament we might remember. It was designed that way. Twenty-four nations out of Europe’s 54 is too many. Having group phase games that allow third placed teams out of four to progress in each group ludicrously invites teams to just ease their way into the second round.
You know who did try to win, and to surprise people, with their approach? The minnows of Iceland and their Viking Thunder Clap supporters. And Wales, driven on by their supporters who are truly from the Land of Song.
And of course, the host nation was roused to try to win, not the least when the crowd in Marseille willed Les Bleus to beat the world champions, Germany. Marseille is more of a true football city than Paris, and the German players admit they found it daunting against this wall of sound during the semi-final. Nevertheless, Germany dominated, but they just didn’t score. France, with a Griezmann penalty and then a fine Griezmann goal, did so twice.
Thinking I knew something about football and forgetting the Leicester City lesson, I didn’t foresee the final story, either. Portugal, not France, found a way to win. Éder, not Cristiano R. or anybody else, delivered. They will never forget him in Paris, or in Lisbon. And whatever was on the mind of, say Paul Pogba, whether he was reined in by defensive orders from his coach, or whether he was thinking about his agent at the negotiating table with Manchester United, we can only ask.
Pogba is capable of being a colossus on the field. But at 23, he remains unpredictable and his virtues of huge physical power, and of adventure in trying to get forward and take people on or get the ball to people who can score, are not worth one-tenth of 100 million pounds if he is restrained.
Pogba’s final reflected the tournament of negativity largely suppressing the thrill of going for goal. The pragmatists won this Euro, and won the Copa in America. It was a Beautiful Game only in so far as hundreds of thousands of decent, ordinary fans achieved their aim to go to France, to defy terrorist threat, and to enjoy their side of the bargain, even if most teams let them down.