The closing rounds of Euro 2016 have been highlighted by new chapters in long, storied and previously one-sided rivalries. And the final, while it may not have quite the glitzy appeal of Germany against Italy or Germany against France, will be no different.
France and Portugal have clashed in three semifinals in major tournaments dating back to 1984, on each occasion with France coming out on top by an agonizingly narrow margin from the point of view of the Portuguese.
In Euro 1984, the last time France hosted the tournament, Les Bleus emerged victorious after a thrilling contest, coming back from 2-1 down with seven minutes remaining in extra time to win 3-2. Fast forward 16 years, and the story was eerily similar. Three minutes remained in extra time when the ball struck the arm of Portugal defender Abel Xavier in the box and, to the absolute fury of the Portuguese players, a penalty was awarded. Zinedine Zidane, the man who assumed Platini’s mantle, converted from 12 yards to net the Golden Goal.
Six years later old wounds were reopened once more. Zidane again proved the difference maker from the penalty spot after a challenge between Ricardo Carvalho and Thierry henry and a decision that again left the Portuguese feeling aggrieved.
Those defeats mean Portugal has never beaten France in a major tournament and, indeed, it has now lost the last 10 matches between the teams, dating right up to a 1-0 defeat in Lisbon last September.
As if that weren’t enough to make Portugal significant underdogs going into Sunday’s final at the Stade de France then there is the performance of the two teams on their route through the tournament to consider.
France has hit form at just the right time. After stumbling through the group phase, a half-time formation switch when 1-0 down in the Round of 16 against the Republic of Ireland spurred Didier Deschamps’ team into life. Moving Antoine Griezmann into a central role proved the catalyst and the Atletico Madrid forward has since scored five goals, including a brace to beat Germany 2-0 in the semifinals. The 25-year-old, who developed in Spain after being considered too small to make it in his home country, is now the toast of France and, with six goals for the tournament, has a commanding lead in the race for the Golden Boot.
Portugal, meanwhile, has managed one of the least impressive runs to a major final in recent memory. After scraping through the group stage with three draws, beating Croatia in extra time and then Poland on penalties, it wasn’t until the semifinals that it won a game inside 90 minutes. And that was only after a desperately drab affair with underdog Wales, decided by an awe-inspiring leap and header from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Thus far Ronaldo, Portugal’s talisman and Europe’s outstanding player for much of the past decade, has only shown up in moments. So far that has been enough. There is no doubting, however, that a meeting with France presents a huge leap in quality, and given the countries’ history, a massive psychological hurdle as well.
Yet for all the pieces that point toward a France win, there is also much from which Portugal can draw encouragement.
Firstly, there is the fact that the storyline of this tournament thus far has been of country’s turning the table on history. Germany got past Italy for the first time in a major tournament and France then beat Germany in a competitive match for the first time since 1958. History need not be a predictor for the future.
Portugal can even draw inspiration from its darkest hour. The closest Portugal has come to a senior title came when hosting the European Championship in Euro 2004. The Seleção was expected to take home the trophy when it lined up against massive underdog Greece only to suffer a painful 1-0 loss.
Now Portugal finds itself in the reverse position. While it may be an established force, as its record of reaching four European Championship semifinals in the last five tournaments shows, it is very much the underdog going up against an expectant host.
And the similarities do not end there. Portugal has made it to the final playing in a style very much like the cautious, defensively focused and expertly organized Greeks. It is no coincidence that the man in charge of the tactics, Fernando Santos, coached Greece for four years, taking over from the mastermind of its Euro 2004 glory, Otto Rehhagel, before assuming control of Portugal in 2014.
For Portugal, it is easy to foresee what a scriptwriter’s final act would be. Ronaldo, Portugal’s greatest ever player, sits tied with Platini for the record of most goals in European Championship history, with nine. One more and he would eclipse the player who broke Portuguese hearts 32 years ago and just perhaps give Portugal its first major trophy.
Prediction: Both coaches have major selection decisions to make. For Portugal, it is whether to bring back the available again William Carvalho in midfield or stick with the more composed Danilo, who impressed against Wales. And then there is the matter of whether Pepe can regain fitness in time. The dilemma that could have the biggest impact on the final, though, rests with Deschamps. In the semifinal, he stuck with the 4-4-2 that worked so well against Iceland, but it left France completely dominated for much of the first half against Germany. If he goes with the same system and personnel again then Portugal could get some joy with its three attacking midfielders.
There is little doubt that France will be the team on the offensive at the Stade de France, and, with significantly more talent than a Portugal side that has lacked creativity throughout the tournament, an early goal is likely to make it a comfortable win for the host nation. But the longer the match remains goalless the more it favors Portugal, with France likely to become increasingly tense. One moment from Ronaldo could be decisive in an upset win, but it may still be wise to back France to just about get the job done.
Predicted Score: France 1-0 Portugal
France win: 21/20
Portugal win: 7/2