The popular misconception about how Portugal became European champion

Henry Bushnell
FC Yahoo
Portugal’s Pepe holds off Poland’s Robert Lewandowski. (AP Photo)
Portugal’s Pepe holds off Poland’s Robert Lewandowski. (AP Photo)

 

One of the prevailing sentiments following Portugal’s 1-0 victory over France in Sunday’s Euro 2016 final was that the Portuguese were undeserving champions. What turned into a slog of a game led many to claim that the wrong team had lifted the trophy at the Stade de France.

And that’s extremely unfair.

Sure, France was probably the better team on the day. Les Bleus had more chances, and Andre-Pierre Gignac came inches away from winning the game just before the end of the 90 minutes. But soccer is a game in which the better team often doesn’t win. To diminish an accomplishment because one of a team’s seven matches featured some good fortune is foolish.

That’s not even the criticism, though. Rather, the criticism of Portugal seems to revolve around its approach to the game. Words like “negative” and “boring” were thrown out to label the Portuguese, who were accused of playing “anti-football” for their lack of adventure and attacking intent.

But the condemnation of Portugal for being “negative” and “boring” and subsequently “undeserving” is a dubious one.

“Negative” and “boring” concern Portugal’s tactical plan. “Undeserving” denigrates the team’s ability to carry out that tactical plan. Just because the former is, in one’s subjective opinion, bad doesn’t mean the performance is, and it certainly doesn’t mean any wins that come as a result aren’t deserved.

Arguments to the contrary underestimate the nuance of what Portugal did on the field. Playing defensive isn’t as simple as a manager saying, “All right lads, let’s go out there, sit back behind the ball, take no risks and keep a clean sheet.” Executing a defensive game plan takes skill, focus and a lot of other things that would fall under the umbrella of “playing well.”

Portugal played well at Euro 2016 — perhaps as well as any of the other 23 teams. So how did the wrong team win?

Of course, Portugal wasn’t the most talented team. As has been noted time and time again, this wasn’t 2004 or 2006 Portugal, with Luis Figo and Deco in their primes. This wasn’t even some of the earlier Cristiano Ronaldo-led teams.

But that just underlines the absurdity of some of the criticism. Why are we denouncing the approach in the first place?

At the 2014 World Cup, Portugal tried to play expansive soccer. It all but crashed out after two games against Germany and the United States, having scored two goals but having conceded six.

That approach clearly didn’t work. This year’s Euros team had less talent. So what was Fernando Santos supposed to do?

We laud other underdogs like Iceland, Wales and Hungary for devising schemes to beat favorites and performing well within those schemes. Oftentimes those schemes are defensive in nature, but they’re necessarily defensive. The entertainment is in the upset itself, not the process that led to the upset.

Some might argue that Iceland and Wales, Euro 2016’s two best stories, weren’t actually defensive. To some extent that’s true, especially with the Welsh. But Wales averaged 11.33 shots per game in its six matches. Iceland averaged 8 per game in its five. Portugal, meanwhile, averaged exactly double that, 16 shots per game.

The story of Portugal’s tournament was a deceiving one. It actually led the tournament in shots through the group stage but was given the defensive tag because it couldn’t convert chances. It played conservatively throughout the knockout stages, but it didn’t really “park the bus” until it lost its best player — a top-two player in the world — in the final.

The Portuguese also earned the designation of underachievers because they far under-performed their expected goals numbers early on. Draws against Iceland and Austria on most days would have been wins. Portugal actually won the expected goals battle in each of its six games prior to the final. The margins in the Iceland and Austria games were both greater than 1.0.

So the idea that Portugal was “defensive” has been a bit overstated, as has been the narrative that it was lucky to survive the group. If anything, the Portuguese were unlucky not to have won at least one of the three games and topped the group. And the argument that they were saved by the new 24-team tournament format is misguided, because all three group games, and certainly the finale against Hungary, were played with the knowledge that third place would be enough.

Those narratives have marred what really should be an underdog story. Look past the glitz and glamor of Ronaldo, and you see a nation that ranks 86th globally in population, 46th in GDP and outside of the elite in soccer infrastructure.

You also see a roster of players with heartwarming, inspiring stories. You see Ricardo Quaresma, who made it out of a dangerous Lisbon slum. You see Jose Fonte, who at age 27 was toiling away in England’s third division and was three years away from receiving his first national team call-up. You see Eder, Sunday’s hero, who emigrated from Guinea-Bissau at age 3, only to end up in a foster home because his poverty-stricken parents couldn’t support him.

You see a team that, all things considered, is ever so deserving of its European title.

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