Twelve years after being left in tears as a 19-year-old suffering a devastating loss to Greece on home soil in the final of Euro 2004, Cristiano Ronaldo will get another shot to win silverware with Portugal. Ronaldo, now aged 31 and playing perhaps his last major tournament at, or close, to, his peak, scored a vital opening goal and assisted the other in a 2-0 semifinal win over Wales. And now, in a reversal of the scenario from 2004, he will lead Portugal into Sunday’s Euro 2016 final looking to be the team upsetting the host.
"It's something that I always dreamed of," Ronaldo told Uefa.com ahead of the final at the Stade de France. "It would be a huge achievement if I could win something with Portugal. My fingers are crossed because I believe, my colleagues believe, all of Portugal believes and the Portuguese community in France believe too.
"It's unique, a feeling of joy, because being in a final is something I wanted to achieve again. Now I will have the fortune, if everything goes well, to be playing on Sunday in a second final for Portugal.”
Ronaldo has not been at his best throughout the tournament, lacking the influence over 90 minutes that might be expected of a player who has been his country’s talisman for the past decade. However, he has come through in key moments. The Real Madrid forward scored twice in a 3-3 draw with Hungary in the final round of group fixtures, a result that was necessary to ensure qualification as one of the best third-place teams following three draws.
Portugal’s route through the knockout rounds has similarly been far from spectacular, with coach Fernando Santos focussing on being defensively solid and well organized. It took until three minutes from the end of extra time against Croatia in the Round of 16 for a first shot on target, supplied by Ronaldo before Ricardo Quaresma found the net from the rebound. In the quarterfinal, after 18-year-old Renato Sanches stepped up with an equalizer, Ronaldo led the way by successfully converting the first penalty in a shootout win against Poland.
And in the semifinals, it was his majestic, gravity-defying leap that proved decisive as he got the edge over his Real Madrid club mate Gareth Bale. Now he and Portugal must overcome the weight of history, both in the form of a series of near misses — losing three semifinals and one final this century as well as losing all three previously competitive meetings with France.
Current France coach Didier Deschamps was on the winning side in one of those matches, in the semifinals of Euro 2000, when France added European glory to its World Cup triumph on home soil two years earlier. But Deschamps is now keen for his squad to write their own chapter in France’s history.
“[My win as a player in 2000] belongs to the past,” he said. “This is their story. I'm a part of it, of course, because I'm the coach. I use it to my advantage, the fact I've won major competitions as a player; that helps me, but I never talk about the past. What matters now is the present and the future.
Since France again beat Portugal to reach the final of the 2006 World Cup it has been a decade of disappointment and controversy in major tournaments. But the current team has come together and found its form at just the right time under pressure in the knockout stages of Euro 2016.
Trailing at halftime to the Republic of Ireland in the Round of 16, Deschamps switched formations and crucially moved Antoine Griezmann into a central role. The Atletico Madrid forward has since starred, scoring twice to turn around the game against Ireland, getting one more in a 5-2 demolition of Ireland and then firing another brace in a 2-0 semifinal win over world champion Germany.
Griezmann now has six goals and looks set to claim the competition’s Golden Boot. With one goal in the final, though, Ronaldo will move ahead of Michel Platini, the man who led France to victory the only previous time it hosted the competition in 1984, as the all-time top scorer in the European Championship.
Ronaldo could be joined in the lineup for the final by Real Madrid teammate Pepe, after the defender trained on Saturday following a thigh injury that kept him out of the semifinal. France is expected to stick with the same XI that beat Germany, meaning there will be no place for midfielder N’Golo Kante.
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN