PARIS – At the end, Cristiano Ronaldo was in tears, just as he had been after the Euro 2004 final. But these ones were tears of joy. He had fulfilled the vow he had made after defeat to Greece in Lisbon 12 years ago and helped Portugal to its first international trophy. That he wasn’t actually on the pitch for the final 95 minutes of the 1-0 extra-time triumph over France didn’t seem to lessen his delight or detract from his impact at all. After the final whistle had gone, he was stalking around the pitch, bare-chested, hugging those who had done the job. His role as a leader was clear.
He had spent most of extra time prowling the technical area, limping on his knee, anxiety on his face. Whatever his supposed selfishness or egotism, he wanted this for Portugal. As the players queued to collect their medals, Ronaldo was last, his arms over the shoulders of the man in front of him, Eder, whose 109th-minute goal won the game.
“Cristiano told me that I would score when I came on,” Eder said, “and I just took that energy into my game.”
Ronaldo had reattached his captain’s armband by then and hobbled up, hugged by Portuguese officials before raising the Henri Delaunay trophy.
Only then, perhaps, was a wrong note struck: protocol dictates that the captain on the field at the end should be the one to receive the cup. Yet even that, perhaps, wasn’t egregious. If anybody deserved the acclaim, it was Ronaldo, not for what he has done in this tournament but for what he has done since making his Portugal debut in 2003.
Portugal is a country of 10.5 million people and as such has never enjoyed sustained success. But of the seven major tournament semifinals it has reached, four have been with Ronaldo in the team.
Over the past decade, he has dragged Portugal forward.
“I’ve been looking for this for a long time,” Ronaldo said. "Since 2004, I’ve asked God for a second chance at this. I always believed for these players, together with the manager’s strategy would be strong enough to beat France.”
So there’s a certain irony in the fact that success should come just as Ronaldo had ceased to be the dominant figure. To avenge the defeat inflicted by Greece in 2004, Portugal had to become more like Greece: the one-man team had to forget the one man and become a team. That the victory had to happen with Ronaldo off the field only emphasized that.
“Portugal isn't just Ronaldo,” said France forward Antoine Griezmann. "They were strong in defense. We were faced with a great team, a great group and they proved it.”
Before the jovial tears, there were ones of agony, as Ronaldo was stretchered off 25 minutes into the game. At that point, victory had seemed implausible. The challenge that caused it provoked a predictably furious reaction on social media, although in truth it seemed at worst clumsy. Dimitri Payet won the ball with his left foot but his right knee thumped into Ronaldo’s left leg, placing strain on the knee.
Mark Clattenburg, the referee, didn’t even consider it a foul. In obvious pain, Ronaldo struggled on before going down again. He had his leg strapped, but that wasn’t sufficient. The third intervention of the physio was the final one. Off Ronaldo went and with him, it seemed, Portugal’s hopes.
“We lost our main man, the man who could score a goal at any moment,” said Portugal defender Pepe, who earned man-of-the-match honors in the final. "But we were warriors on the pitch. We said that we’d win it for him.”
Perhaps France became complacent. Perhaps the interruptions disrupted Les Bleus' rhythm. But perhaps, too, the injury focused Portuguese minds. Suddenly the task was even clearer than it had been before: Keep France out and see what happened. There was no thought of trying to release Ronaldo, no danger of getting caught upfield. The focus was simple–keep the shape, keep France out.
Portugal did that, and did it superbly, and then it got the bonus of the goal Ronaldo had predicted. It's little wonder Ronaldo has reportedly decided to keep playing for Portugal for at least another two years. With a midfield that talented, many key figures 24 or under (Renato Sanches is 18, Joao Mario 23, William Carvalho 24), he may think yet greater glories await in Russia.
Even a little after 1 a.m. local time when he got to the mixed zone, Ronaldo was beaming. This wasn’t about vindication, this wasn’t about making a point.
He was just delighted.