Portugal struggled to win games in normal time, kept clean sheets in their knockout games, beat the hosts 1-0 in the final thanks to an unlikely goalscorer and were led by a manager who knows Greek football inside out. Sound familiar?
By Martin Laurence for WhoScored?, part of the Guardian Sport Network
It was inevitable that the underdogs would win the final to cap off a tournament that was somehow as predictable as it was surprising. Portugal not only beat the favourites but they also found redemption after their own defeat as hosts 12 years ago. Back in 2004, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side were strong favourites against a Greece side who attacked little but defended resolutely under Otto Rehhagel. Fernando Santos, who replaced Rehhagel in the Greece job in 2010, clearly learned from his predecessor.
Rehhagel knew that his team had a phenomenal chance of upsetting the odds at Euro 2004 if they didn’t concede. Greece worked on exactly that, keeping clean sheets in the quarter-final, semi-final and final – Portugal also kept three clean sheets in the knockout stages, only conceding one goal in 450 minutes of football.
Greece famously had just one shot on target in the final, coming via the head of Angelos Charisteas and resulting in the only goal of the game. The striker had scored just four goals for Werder Bremen the season before, and just once for his club in the league in the calendar year before the tournament, but he scored three times at Euro 2004 to earn cult status. Few would have predicted his ability to fire Greece to glory, just as few Swansea City fans would have expected Éder to be in the Portugal squad, never mind the matchwinner in the final.
On Sunday night Portugal too had just one shot on target in 90 minutes. Of the three shots they mustered over 120 minutes, none were taken by players who started the game. Whereas Greece won just three of their six matches in normal time at Euro 2004 – with two of them against Portugal in the tournament’s curtain raiser and final – Portugal could only manage one victory without the need for extra time or penalties in seven matches. The comparisons are understandable, and 2004 was rightly seen as a blueprint for the unfancied teams at future international tournaments – the “ugly ducklings”, as Fernando Santos would put it.
The Portugal boss knows more than most about Greek football, and his links to the Superleague add another interesting sub-plot to the connection between the current European champions and the winners 12 years ago. His management career follows an interesting pattern in that regard. He has tended to follow a tough period in his homeland with a welcoming embrace from the Greek Superleague, where he is held in incredibly high regard.
Between stints with Porto (where he won the only the league title of his career), Sporting and Benfica, Santos managed three clubs in Greece: AEK Athens, Panathinaikos (twice) and PAOK. He won the Greek Cup in 2002 and impressed to such a degree that he was named the Superleague manager of the decade for 2000 to 2010, having spent six seasons in the country in that time.
When he was appointed as manager of Greece in 2010 there was a sense that he had been adopted by the 2004 champions as their own. He had enjoyed success there while failing to really convince in his homeland and could have been forgiven for wanting to stay in the comfort zone of a country that had shaped his managerial career.
In 2014, however, having led Greece to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 and the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in their history, Santos left after the tournament in Brazil. Months later, as Portugal fell to a shock opening defeat at home to Albania in qualifying for Euro 2016 – who incidentally also picked up a shock win against the Euro 2004 in the opening match of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup – Santos replaced Paulo Bento, unable to resist one last chance to prove himself to the Portuguese fans.
It’s proven to be an inspired decision, with the national side unbeaten in competitive action since. Santos has once again proven his ability to set up sides that are incredibly difficult to break down, just as he did with Greece – and Rehhagel had before him to such remarkable effect in 2004.
When assessing Santos’ record, over his last eight jobs he has only suffered defeat on 10 or more occasions with one club (PAOK – 26 over three seasons), which highlights not only that he has clocked up plenty of air miles between Portugal and Greece over more than a decade, but also that he knows how to avoid defeat. In international management that much is a pre-requisite and all but guarantees success major tournaments.
Portugal may have drawn six of their seven matches in 90 minutes this summer, finishing third in a group behind Hungary and Iceland, but their fans couldn’t care less given the eventual outcome in France. Santos’ pragmatic approach had been the reason he was given short shrift in Portugal before, leading to too many draws that ultimately saw the three big clubs all finish third under his stewardship, but that matters little at this level when you have drilled a team to be so organised that it is more than capable of keeping its shape into extra time. That they conceded just once in 450 minutes of knockout football is testament to that management.
To draw too many comparisons to Greece in 2004 would be churlish. This Portugal side is packed with talent compared to the champions of 12 years ago. Nevertheless, that he took over a team at a low ebb suited Santos – he had previously excelled with very little weight of expectation in the past only to struggle when lured back to the prospect of silverware. Portugal’s 2-0 victory over Wales in the semi-final, after all, was their first in a competitive game by more than a single goal since beating Luxembourg almost three years ago.
Santos knew that this was too reliant on one star player and that the talents of its support cast were being undermined. However, that they secured their best ever sporting achievement in the absence of a Eusébio, a Luís Figo or a Ronaldo promises to be hugely important to this team. They should no longer be considered as Cristiano and co. The captain remains their greatest player and one they will want to cling on to for some time, but Raphaël Guerreiro, William Carvalho and Renato Sanches – who are all below 25 – offer great hope for the future.
While Éder was the matchwinner on Sunday, his goal is evidence to the entire group that there is still room for heroes in this team beyond Ronaldo. After all, they’ve all secured that status already in the eyes of the fans and a manager who had his fair share of critics in his homeland before accepting the national team job.