The final of the Euro 2016 was about Cristiano Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and some more of Cristiano Ronaldo. The great Portuguese playmaker left his mark at the big stage as he has so often done, inspiring his country's to its first major title.
In the end, he was the one who made all the difference between Portugal, and its opponents, the hosts France, who were looking mighty confident and were well and truly the favourites to win the final.
But wait. Wasn't Ronaldo stretchered off after only about 20 minutes into the match, having taken a knock on the knee?
True. When a distraught Ronaldo collapsed on the pitch, with his teammates bending over to check on their talisman, his night seemed over. So seemed Portugal's. The team had not set the stage on fire in the tournament and if not for Ronaldo, Portugal would have been long gone.
|An injured and tearful Cristiano Ronaldo being comforted by Nani during the Euro 2016 final on July 10.
Who would have forgotten his two brilliant goals against Hungary in the group stages that gave Portugal a lifeline? Who would forget his assist against Croatia in the second round and his crucial goal against Wales in the semi-final?
Portugal is not even half as strong without its talisman Ronaldo. So when a tearful Ronaldo was being carried off the field there were tears in the eyes of the Portuguese fans. Was it going to be another case of so near yet so far?
Portugal had always remained the underachievers at major events. In the 1966 World Cup, the legendary Eusebio's heroics could take it no further than the semi-finals. It was a semi-final finish again in World Cup 2006. That golden generation of Portuguese football of the 2000s, which boasted of the likes of Luis Figo, Nuno Gomes and Manuel Rui Costa, could not take its country to a major trophy.
In Euro 2000, Figo's Portugal, which had been in sublime touch, fell to a Zinedine Zidane penalty in the semi-final under the most controversial of circumstances. Then in Euro 2004, Portugal blew away a golden opportunity when they lost the final to a dogged Greece in front of their own crowd.
If you were a Portugal fan last night, the bitter memories of all those failures suddenly came rushing back, as the stretcher carrying Ronaldo disappeared into the tunnel leading to the dressing room. Who would now win it for Portugal?
|Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after Portugal won the Euro 2016 title.
It was an emotional night. You didn't want Portugal to go down this way, tragically, without its star playing any major part. You wished it would win... at least this time. You prayed. It is the same prayer you would have made when Zidane played his last international at the World Cup final in 2006, or make every time Lionel Messi takes part in a final.
You would have made that prayer when Brazil's Ronaldo led his side to then field in the World Cup final in 1998 in spite of being terribly out of sorts.
Your heart wants these stars succeeding at the big stage. You had only just gotten over the haunting image of Messi bursting into tears after Argentina's disastrous tie-breaker against Chile in the Copa America final, and have hardly come to terms with Messi's international retirement.
It is easy to say success and failure are to be taken in the stride without getting perturbed. But perturbed you are. In a sport which runs high on raw passion, it is not easy to control one's emotions. Why on earth would you see grown-up men crying copiously?
But you didn't want to see Ronaldo cry.
Before handing over the captain's armband to Nani, Ronaldo whispered something in his ears. "Go and win it for me, win it for the country," Ronaldo must have said.
Whatever he said, it galvanised the entire team, and the Portuguese played like men possessed. They were repeatedly harried by Moussa Sissoko, who made powerful forays into the Portuguese half; Antoine Griezmann came close to scoring, and Andre-Pierre Gignac's shot in injury time in the second half ricocheted off the post. Had the French scored at that time, there would have surely been no way back for Portugal.
Perhaps it was the stroke of luck that Portugal needed and deserved. The match went into extra time, and Ronaldo was back on the touchline, cheering and egging his teammates on, and his passion you had to see to believe.
Then Eder turned an unlikely hero, scoring the goal that gave Portugal the biggest win in its history.
There was no bodily pain that could have stopped the celebrations now. As the final whistle blew, Ronaldo and the rest of Portuguese contingent burst on to the field, and their joy knew no bounds. Nani graciously gave back the captain's armband to Ronaldo, and it was he who fittingly led his team to the podium and lifted the coveted Henri Delaunay trophy aloft.
Unlike Messi, whom the Argentine public could never adopt as their own, Ronaldo's experience with the Portuguese fans has not been as bitter. He has always been the man whom his teammates and supporters looked up to and relied on, he perhaps was as big a talisman for Portugal as Zidane was for France. One remembers how a distraught France team crumbled in the 2002 World Cup, a tournament in which an injured Zidane hardly played a part.
Ronaldo's Portugal was stronger.
It is beyond doubt that Nani, Rui Patricio and company took themselves to a completely different level, following Ronaldo's emotional exit. Such events bind a nation, strengthen its resolve and make it realise it is a nation.
"(Ronaldo) told me I would score the winning goal for the team. He gave me this strength, this energy and it was vital. It was a goal I've been working for from the first minute of the Euros," said Eder, who scored the winning goal.
The role Ronaldo played in Portugal's victory couldn't be clearer.
Ronaldo may not have been on the pitch for long, but he was the undying symbol that rallied the Portuguese around him, and helped them scale a peak that they had never scaled.
Portugal's Euro 2016 triumph, therefore, can be attributed to Ronaldo. It was he who made it possible, even though he played only about 20 minutes of the match.
The series of events that led ultimately to Portugal's triumph made it a gripping, captivating finale. It was a fairy-tale that the Portuguese will remember forever, one which will be etched in the memory of the football romantic.