Less than 10 minutes into the final of the 2016 European Championship on Sunday, Portugal’s best player and captain went down clutching his knee. Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to be Portugal’s only hope of pulling off the upset gainst host nation France. Twenty-five minutes into a match that would last two hours, Ronaldo limped off.
Portugal scored in extra time. Shocking as it may be to consider, its upset 1-0 victory came because of Ronaldo’s injury, not in spite of it.
First of all, Eder would never have seen the pitch if Ronaldo hadn’t been unable to continue. The 28-year-old striker, who plays for French Ligue 1 club Lille, had only made two substitute appearances prior to the final – a seven-minute cameo in Portugal’s tournament opener against Iceland and a seven-minute outing against Austria in its second group game.
Ronaldo had been more of a stationary, predatory forward than an electric winger during the tournament. As the final progressed into extra time, the 31-year-old Ronaldo would have become even more stationary and Eder would not have been called upon. After all, the former Swansea City striker did not make a single appearance in the knockout rounds, despite two of those three matches going beyond 90 minutes.
However, Portugal manager Fernando Santos deserves credit for making the attack-minded, match-winning substitution in the 79th minute. Santos took out Renato Sanches, who played a deep-lying midfield role, and replaced him with a pure No. 9 striker.
About an hour before Santos made that crucial decision, he made a match-saving change. Ronaldo’s early exit made it evident that Portugal would need to dig in and defend deeper than ever before. For all of Ronaldo’s attacking talents, the team benefited from adding Ricardo Quaresma in a wider position. No, Quaresma is not a better player than Ronaldo, nor did he play especially well on Sunday, but the 32-year-old allowed Santos to adjust his tactics within the first half hour.
At that stage, Portugal had struggled to even string together two passes, let alone launch meaningful attacks. An adjustment was necessary, as France appeared to be a far superior side capable of winning the ball back early and pressuring Portugal’s back line.
Of course, the biggest adjustment in losing Ronaldo was a psychological one. Without the security blanket of one of the top five players of all time waiting to bail out the team, Portugal’s fighting spirit reached championship levels. Portugal, more than ever before, became a team that was greater than the sum of its parts. And as the game dragged on, Ronaldo would have surely resorted to gesturing in frustration and demeaning his teammates for their inability to get him the ball in the attacking half.
Instead, the injured, bandaged Ronaldo returned to the sidelines for the 30 minutes of extra time and encouraged his teammates. He limped on the sidelines and provided positive reinforcement to a Portugal side that desperately needed it.
“[Ronaldo] told me I would score the winning goal for the team,” Eder reportedly said after the game. “He gave me this strength, this energy and it was vital.”
Seemingly, Ronaldo’s injury made him a better teammate.
To be clear, Ronaldo is Portugal’s best player and arguably one of the greatest five players of all time. Sure, if he banged in a hat trick or even nodded home a single goal on Sunday, not a soul would have been surprised. He’s that great. But prior to his injury and prior to his substitution, Portugal looked like it was in for a long night with Ronaldo not the best suited man for the job.
His injury and tearful departure forced Portugal to make a substitution and reorganize its shape before conceding a goal. It also created a void that brought on the eventual goal scorer and match winner. Add all of that to Ronaldo becoming a cheerleader and pushing his team to victory from the sidelines, and during the Euro 2016 final, Portugal was better off without Ronaldo on the pitch.