Ronaldo, Portugal accept manager's challenge to reach Euro 2016 final
LYON, France -- On Oct. 11, 2014, Portugal coach Fernando Santos took charge of a battered side -- they had just lost a home European qualifier against Albania -- for the first time in a friendly against France. The game ended in a 2-1 defeat for the Portuguese, but far more important than the result was a challenge laid down by the new manager.
"I called my players together in the bowels of the Stade de France and told them that our goal was to be right back here two years later for the final of Euro 2016," he said after Wednesday's 2-0 semifinal win against Wales. "And now we have done it. Now we have a final to play. And I don't just want to play it. I want to win it."
With his dark eyes and often dark demanour, Fernando Santos doesn't often give way to emotion, beyond a certain melancholy orneriness. But after this win on Wednesday, he was positively beaming. His men had upheld the oath they made that day.
"We're not the best team in the world, but we know that we are not pushovers, either," he said. "We work hard. And above all, we are a team. A team of 23, plus all the fans too."
The gods of football protocol move in mysterious ways, which might explain how we ended up with both teams in their second strip and, in both cases, green: dark for the Welsh; minty fresh for Portugal.
Both sides also ended up without two projected starters. For Wales, it was the suspended Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, replaced by Andy King and James Collins. Portugal were without the banned William Carvalho, who was ably spelled by Danilo. And they also lost Pepe after he failed a late fitness test; in came Bruno Alves.
Portugal did not win because of the absentees, but they did serve as a reminder that the difference between medium-sized nations and smaller ones is often measured in depth beyond the first XI.
King, as natural a replacement for Ramsey as you're likely to find, did everything the Arsenal man normally does, but he simply didn't do it as well or with as much quality. Collins, a big, bruising center-half, was asked to play on the edge of a back three in a role usually filled by Davies, whose day job is left-back and an attacking one at that.
Contrast this with Portugal. There is a drop-off from Pepe to Bruno Alves, but we're still talking experienced, veteran and uncompromising center-backs. And Danilo, if anything, was a better match than Carvalho in a game like this.
More important was the fact that Fernando Santos was able to welcome back Raphael Guerreiro, perhaps the best left-back in the tournament when fit, and he also seemed to have found the right midfield balance ahead of Danilo, with Renato Sanches and Adrien Silva joining Joao Mario.
And yet the first half felt as if the contest could have gone either way. Ten minutes in, Ronaldo tumbled to the ground and complained energetically; replays showed Collins had him in something between a headlock and a sleeper hold when Cedric Soares' crossed into the Welsh box.
Meanwhile, a Hal Robson-Kanu cross found King cutting in ahead of Jose Fonte to head just over the bar. It was the kind of chance that left you wondering whether Ramsey might have had more luck.
As for the two marquee names, Ronaldo was often frustrated in the first 45 minutes, though just before the break, he did well to get on the end of an Adrien Silva cross. His timing, however, wasn't as good, and the chance went over the bar.
Bale was often driven wide by Danilo's presence, though he had a decent whack from 12 yards after a set-piece corner routine caught Portugal entirely unprepared. The Welsh star also unearthed at least one of his mighty gallops that wreaked havoc in the Portuguese lines and ended with a shot at Rui Patricio.
As the teams filed back out after half-time, you felt each had a path to victory. For Wales, it meant keeping Portugal in areas where they could not inflict damage and were waiting for either the moment of individual brilliance or an opposition mistake.
For Portugal, it was also about those two factors, but they had a third weapon on their side: Their passing and movement simply meant they had a wider range of solutions and, in football, that often equals creating more situations where you can make your individuals count AND force errors.
Both came together in minute 50. Portugal played a short corner and, from Raphael Guerreiro's subsequent cross, Ronaldo cleverly lost his marker. James Chester tried to pick him up as the ball came in, but he was no match as the man from Madeira rose into the sky and powered the ball under the bar.
When you see Ronaldo take to the air like that -- part kangaroo, part levitating holy man -- you're reminded that if the rest of his skill set was entirely mediocre, he could still make a living as a one-trick pony target man on a mid-table side.
"That first goal was going to be crucial," Wales manager Chris Coleman said later. "We lost our concentration for five minutes, and when you're up against the quality of a team like Portugal, then they'll capitalize on it."
Wales were still absorbing the shock and regrouping when Ronaldo struck again, pouncing on a short clearance and unleashing a shot from the edge of the box. He may or may not have mishit it but, either way, it flashed into the area where Nani, who had shaken off Collins, deflected it past Wayne Hennessey. (Renato Sanches appeared offside and that might have thrown the Welsh defense but, in any case, he was not interfering with play.)
It was a kick to the gut and a further swing of momentum, which was already going Portugal's way. Ronaldo sent a scary free kick -- perhaps the best one he's taken for a long time in a national team shirt -- whistling over Hennessey's bar.
Ronaldo's reaction -- mouth open, jaw locked, fists clenched, eyes wide -- told the whole story: He was close to berserk mode. A few minutes passed before Portugal were on the verge of the knockout blow again. A nasty Nani shot was parried away by Hennessy, and Joao Mario tucked the rebound just wide.
By this point, Coleman had called up whatever artillery he had left and on came Simon Church, Sam Vokes and Jonny Williams. But Portugal were unfazed. They could smell it. Bale stormed around the pitch, but all he could muster were two long-range efforts, with not quite enough Welsh mustard to beat Rui Patricio.
At the final whistle, both teams saluted their supporters. The Welsh put on red shirts, which they then threw into the stands. And their fans? They stood as one, as they've done throughout this tournament. And they sang what has become their Euro 2016 anthem: "Don't take me home ... Please don't take me ... I just don't want to go to work ..."
They'll have to now; it's over. At least in some ways. But not in others.
"I told my players that this tournament may have ended, but it's not the end for them," Coleman said. "They'll be here when I'm long gone. Tonight was simply a challenge too far."
Indeed it was. On the night when it all come together for Portugal, the Dragon was slain. Just as it was in 1958. Back then, it was a man named Pele who scored the winner as a Welsh legend named John Charles was forced to watch from the stands, injured. On Wednesday, it was a man named Ronaldo, perhaps on the way to legend status himself, and Ramsey was the forced absentee.
Portugal can look ahead to a match against Germany or France. Ronaldo, the only man to have been to the final before, back in 2004, was philosophical:
"I was just 18 back then; it was my first final," he said. "Now, we're one step away from being European champions. Dreaming is free, so let's keep dreaming."
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.