As qualification for Euro 2016 got underway, few would have earmarked Portugal –– a nation rarely short of footballing talent but with no major trophies to show for it — as the tournament’s eventual champion.
But before a ball had been kicked, coach Fernando Santos prophesied an unlikely victory.
“From the first moment, the first qualification game, he said, ‘We will win Euro 2016,'” Portuguese right-back Cédric Soares tells CNN Sport.
“He put it up on the board. In that time, no one really believed him. And during the qualification games he was already putting the same message on the board — ‘We will win Euro 2016.’ We hadn’t even qualified!”
Friday marks four years since Portugal’s 1-0 victory over France in the final of the Euros. The host nation had enjoyed a smoother passage to the final and was tipped to win, only for Eder’s long-range, extra-time strike to spoil France’s party in Paris’ Stade de France and grant Portugal its greatest moment in international football.
And it was largely achieved without the talismanic presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been helped off the field in tears after sustaining a knee injury in the first half after he was tackled by Dmitri Payet.
Ronaldo, who was denied European glory in 2004 with defeat in the final to Greece, would spend the remainder of the game restlessly hobbling along the sidelines, shouting orders to his team.
As for those on the pitch, the absence of their captain proved a galvanizing moment.
“It was tough to digest,” defender Jose Fonte tells CNN Sport as he reflects on the final.
“But once (Ronaldo) got off the pitch, we were looking at each other and I saw the resilience in my teammates. I saw they grinded their teeth and said, ‘Let’s go. It’s going to be without Ronaldo today. We’ve got to do it without him, so we’ve got to work even harder.’
“That was the attitude during the game and at halftime — we just kept believing. It made us even stronger, I think.”
‘Every player’s dream’
Paris’ Portuguese community had provided dedicated pockets of support in stadiums throughout the tournament, but back home fans eagerly awaited the team’s return.
Having seen the country’s golden generation of the early 2000s — which included the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Deco — fall short at major tournaments, victory in 2016 felt overdue.
“It was absolute madness, there were incredible scenes when we got out of the airplane,” says Fonte, who starred throughout the knockout rounds in 2016.
“Even in the air, we had two fighter jets coming alongside us when we got into Portuguese airspace. I remember seeing them with the Portugal scarf and flag in the airplane, that was incredible.
“Then we landed … I started seeing people waiting for us outside the airport. And then the bus parade, there were millions and millions of people in the streets celebrating with us. No one will ever forget that moment — it was just an unbelievable thing to just be part of, unbelievable.”
Red and green jets of water greeted the flight as the team touched down in Lisbon, while thousands lined the streets for the trophy parade through the capital.
“I felt like the happiest man in the world because wearing your national team’s shirt is unique and to win a trophy for your country is every player’s dream,” winger Nani, who won the Champions League and four Premier League titles with Manchester United, tells CNN Sport.
“It was the highest point of my career. It was so good to give this joy to our people.”
In the final against France, Portugal proved it was more than just a one-man team in Ronaldo.
His influence throughout the tournament was undeniable — providing two crucial goals to salvage a draw in the group stages against Hungary and breaking the deadlock in the semifinals with a leaping header against Wales.
But the confidence Santos — now aged 65 — had ingrained in his players ultimately shone through.
“Obviously (Ronaldo) is the best in the world,” says Fonte. “Having the best in the world in your team, you know you’re always going to be dangerous; you’re always going to create situations and you know you can win games.
“We just thought that we can beat anyone with him on the pitch. Portugal has a lot of good individual players, but we are stronger because of our team spirit, our organization, our manager.
“When Fernando Santos took over, I think that was a change in mentality. His belief in us, belief in the team, it really made us think that we could do it since the beginning.”
Learning to ‘suffer’
It was with that belief and unflinching determination that Portugal navigated its path to European success.
After scraping through to the knockout rounds by drawing every game in the group stages, Santos’ side then secured two extra-time victories — against Croatia in the round of 16 and France in the final — and came from behind to draw with Poland in the quarters before progressing on penalties.
To say Portugal had to fight and scrap for the title would be an understatement; no nation has ever been crowned European champion while winning just one game in regulation time.
“I think to be able to win you need to be able to suffer and our team was very good at that,” says Arsenal’s Soares, who, like his defensive partner Fonte, played throughout the knockout stages.
“Football is made of these moments. If you’re not willing to suffer you can’t win a football match. This tournament, we had difficult moments but in general what comes out of it is much bigger.
“The games were becoming more and more exciting. We were looking forward to the games and this I think made a huge difference. The way the team was together, not just the starting 11, it was everyone — you felt this huge push from everyone.”
Portugal’s title defence has been postponed until next year amid the coronavirus outbreak. Having claimed the inaugural Nations League title over Netherlands last year, winning is becoming something of a habit for Santos’ team.
Ronaldo will be 36 when next year’s tournament comes around; it would be a record fifth European championship were he to feature. Fonte, who plays for French club Lille, turns 37 in December, while his central devensive partner Pepe is also in his late 30s and yet to hang up his boots.
While a number of players enter the twilight of their careers, the emergence of young talent, such as 20-year-old Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix, ensures the squad maintains a blend of youth and experience.
“Football goes very quick,” says Soares. “Of course, nobody can delete what we did … but football is made of moments and it passes really quickly.
“I don’t think we should have more pressure because we won the Euros but obviously people look at us with a different respect.
“I think we own this, and we need to show it again.”