Three years ago: Portugal are European champions
Three years on from the greatest day in Portuguese footballing history, here’s another chance to look back at that memorable night in Paris.
Twelve years on from heartbreak on home soil, Portugal had the chance to rewrite history and bring home a major international trophy - something Portugal had never experienced before.
The odds were stacked against them; facing hosts and overwhelming favourites France in the final, Portugal were not expected to have much of a chance against a very strong French side, who had the support of an expecting nation to drive them to the title.
Indeed, Portugal had yet to set the tournament alight and neutrals were less than impressed by Portugal and their pragmatism; having not won a single one of their group stage games, Portugal scraped out of their group in 3rd, behind Iceland and Hungary - which, in many ways, made their run to the final even more surprising.
Portugal also went into the final having had to play more football than their opponents, taken to extra time against Croatia - and to penalties against Poland. Nevertheless, they scraped their way through both fixtures, doing just enough to stay alive, before beating Wales in the semi-final to set up the ultimate clash with France.
And what a roller-coaster of emotions the encounter proved to be for the Selecao faithful. Neutrals may have a hard time remembering the details of the match - some may even say it was a pretty dull and forgettable clash - but for the Portuguese, that match remains etched in the minds for eternity.
With expectations low and optimism high, that feeling you get just before an international final, a feeling that Portugal hadn’t felt for over a decade, was back. Portugal fans were going to savour every moment.
France, unsurprisingly, dominated the early proceedings. While Nani had that chance that was blazed over the bar early on, France saw most of the ball and looked in control, and that looping header from Antoine Griezman that was clawed away by Rui Patricio was a warning sign for the Selecao.
The biggest moment in the first half from a Portugal perspective, though, came in the 8th minute, when a late challenge on Cristiano Ronaldo changed the complexion of the match entirely.
Despite his best efforts to continue playing, Ronaldo ultimately slumped to the floor for the third time in the game in the 25th minute - and pretty much the worst-case scenario was unravelling for Portugal - Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t continue.
Ronaldo’s tears as he was stretchered off in one of the biggest games of his career summed up the despair of a nation; having endured so much on this journey to the final, things were unravelling before the match had hardly begun. And Portugal’s improbable task of beating the French looked even more formidable.
On stepped the experienced Ricardo Quaresma - and the match went on, many Portugal fans beginning to feel resigned to defeat.
France continued to dominate, as would be expected, and they had a good chance to take a first half lead after a terrific turn from Moussa Sissoko created space, before he then lashed a shot on goal that was parried away by Rui Patricio. Portugal, however, managed to go into half time with the scores level - which most fans would have been more than content with.
France continued to dominate in the second half though, as chance after chance seemed to go the way of France, Griezman’s powerful header that grazed the top of the bar one of the most memorable openings, a real heart-in-mouth moment for the Portugal fans, in addition to Giroud’s shot that was lashed across goal that was yet again met by a very impressive Rui Patricio. Portugal survived scare after scare - and were actually growing into the game quite nicely, finally finding their stride and building confidence in the absence of their talisman.
Portugal fans were starting to believe again. The excitement was building.
However, while optimism was growing, Portugal’s chances really were few and far between, the only real second-half opportunity that fans will remember being that Nani cross that nearly caught out Hugo Lloris in the French goal, which was then followed up by a very decent Quaresma overhead kick. France, though, remained unscathed, and ultimately continued to again dominate proceedings from that point forth.
With the clock ticking down, Portugal fans across the globe were praying for extra time, with no sign that they were going to score and, if anything, looked at serious risk of conceding.
And deep into extra time, with the final whistle looming, one final monumental scare, one more heart-stopping moment for the pained Portugal fans to endure. With literally seconds left on the clock, France had engineered one final opportunity, and the ball found Gignac in the box. The powerful striker managed to turn, and Pepe was left stranded. Cue a moment that went in slow motion as the whole of Portugal held its breath….
With Patricio flying out to block Gignac’s shot on the edge of the 6-yard box, the bobbling effort bounded its way past the Portuguese shot-stopper and edged its way towards the goal. It was over, surely - France had broken Portuguese hearts, right at the death. But no! The ball, somehow, hit the inside of the post and ricocheted away from the goalmouth, evading the looming Griezman who was waiting, in space, for an easy tap in a metre away from the goal line. Portugal, by the slimmest of margins imaginable, were saved - and extra time awaited.
It’s difficult to describe the emotion felt in that split second, to do the sheer despair and suffering endured in that one second between the ball leaving Gignac’s foot and hitting the post justice. It’s even more inexplicable as to how vivid and memorable that feeling remains, and how long it seemed to last in that instant. Fear, anxiety, anguish, despair, agony, nausea, disbelief… That single second was one of the most painful the collective current Portuguese population had ever experienced.
But it didn’t go in. And Portugal seemed to find a second wind in extra time, while France seemed to be flagging.
For the first time, Portugal seemed the most likely to score, and they had by far the better chances in extra time. Pepe’s header that glanced past the post, followed by Eder’s that was only pushed away by Lloris. The first 15 minutes of extra time belonged to Portugal - and they were beginning to look like the favourites.
The second half continued in the same manner; if anyone was to win this, it was going to be Portugal, and the excitement was starting to build further as fans, for the first time on the night, could actually envisage a Portugal victory.
It was in the 107th minute that Portugal hit the woodwork themselves, when French-born Raphael Guerreiro’s brilliant free-kick thundered off the crossbar. So close, yet so far. Would Portugal get another moment like that?
And the answer was a resounding yes. Just two minutes later, in the 109th minute - a time Portugal fans will never forget - Eder picked up the ball well outside the area. Shrugging off Koscielny and being given space by a tiring Umtiti, Eder, with no other options, drilled in an audacious shot from distance, his low drive finding the bottom left corner, beating the outstretched hand of Hugo Lloris. Cue scenes of wild celebrations across the nation and on the pitch as Portugal’s unlikely hero fired them to the brink of glory.
The next 11 minutes were by far the most painful and gut-wrenching of all - and, in hindsight, that seems quite humorous. After all, in reality, Portugal weren’t really troubled at all after Eder had found the back of the net; bar a last-minute blocked effort on goal, France didn’t create a goalscoring opportunity of note and Portugal looked very much in control - yet it was by far the most nerve-wracking and tense period of the entire game from a Portuguese perspective.
Portugal, however, survived, and when Rui Patricio thundered the ball up the pitch, the final whistle was blown and Portugal’s eternal place in the record books was secured.
Portugal had to wait 86 years to see their country lift a major trophy - and the self-proclaimed “Ugly Ducklings” got the job done.
It was worth the wait. And it won’t be forgotten.