Cristiano Ronaldo spent the biggest moment of his international career in the Portuguese dugout with a sore left knee. Injured nearly two hours earlier, there was nothing he could do in the Euro 2016 final except pace around like a manager wearing shorts.
But in those nervous closing stages of Sunday night’s game, perhaps for the first time in a decade, Portugal didn’t need Ronaldo, its brightest star. With a goal from nowhere in extra time, it defeated host nation France 1-0 to win its first major championship.
“We lost our main man, the man who could score a goal at any moment,” Portugal defender Pepe said of Ronaldo, who left the game in the 25th minute. “But we were warriors on the pitch. We said that we’d win it for him.”
For France, the defeat bordered on unthinkable. Les Bleus had convinced themselves that history was within their grasp at the Stade de France. On the same field where they won the 1998 World Cup, on the home soil where they hadn’t lost any of their previous 18 major-tournament matches, they felt the trophy was theirs for the taking.
But, in a fitting end to a tournament lifted by underdogs, Portugal spoiled the party. It was the country’s first win over France at a major tournament.
Les Bleus’ sudden return to reality came when Eder cold-cocked the French defense in the 109th minute, swooping through the middle to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. The Stade de France fell silent, save for the red-and-green corner of Portugal fans. The disappointment of Ronaldo’s early exit felt like it had come weeks before.
When it was over, Ronaldo hobbled back onto the field, knee heavily bandaged, to close a season that saw him lift two of the most prestigious trophies in soccer.
He now has a first international title to add to the Champions League he won with Real Madrid in May. But his contribution to both finals remains tinged with weirdness. In the Champions League, he was largely invisible until taking the clinching penalty in a shootout. On Sunday, he wasn’t on the field for 95 minutes of play.
“He still gave us all his strength and bravery, and we got this important victory, both for him and all of Portugal,” Eder said.Portugal snuck up on this tournament after drawing all three games in the group stage and finishing third. It didn’t beat any of its opponents in regulation until the semifinal win over Wales. But over the course of those games, Santos’s men grew into a mean defensive unit. He freely admitted that it wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done.
“Portugal isn’t just Ronaldo,” said France forward Antoine Griezmann. “We saw that.”