In a team always accused of lacking a supporting cast for Ronaldo, it was poignant that the same supporting cast sealed the deal in Paris. Almighty Pepe, the real MVP. The “washed up” duo of Nani and Quaresma. The “imports” Adrien, Cédric and Raphael and the white gloved hero Éder, there’s a lot of unsung heroes to choose from.
Ronaldo was magnificent, as always. He had some average moments, but he was there when it mattered most. In the semi finals he flew, and proceeded to levitate for a few seconds, to score the opener. In the group stage he kept the team in the competition scoring two goals against Hungary. And, of course, in the final, he was inspirational in the way he dealt with his injury. So let’s not waste too much time with the great Ronaldo, soon to be “Ballon D’or” winner for the fourth time.
The same goes for Renato Sances, whose importance I have reiterated frequently, and which has been validated by his contribution on the field, as well as the decision to give him the best young player award. He proved himself worthy of all that has been said about him.
But before praising Portugal’s most important player, let me have a small “I told you so” moment. On the 15th June, after drawing the first game against Iceland, I wrote here, what I believed would be the best course of action for Fernando Santos to take. It included playing Renato of course, but it also included playing Cedric, Adrien and William instead of Vieirinha, Danilo and Gomes. Well, surprise surprise, Mr. Santos did exactly what I instructed him to and, lo and behold, Portugal won its first big competition ever. Coincidence? I think not. (Sorry for this narcissistic moment but I had to do it).
So, for all of you who still think Portugal has Ronaldo and a bunch of nobodies: 1) Wake up! 2) I give you, The Portuguese Unsung Champions.
Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira. The real MVP. The best player in the competition by a mile. His football name is Pepe, he is a beloved adopted Portuguese citizen (he first moved to Portugal 15 years ago), and he is (still!!) the best centre back in the world, a title he keeps alongside the most hated football player in the planet. We know his name can never be considered when it comes to performance awards. It is not very popular to say that Pepe is great, even though he clearly is. Twice at Euro 2016 he was robbed of the Player of the Match award (both given to Renato, who was second best on both occasions) and only in the final match did we see his contribution even slightly acknowledged.
The best player of the competition went to Antoine Griezmann (oh the French and their predictability), but to say that the small, and brilliant, French forward played better than Pepe during the tournament is wrong. Pepe is not the type of player that wins these kinds of awards (he doesn’t have Canavarro’s blue eyes, he gives blue eyes to the opponents), but lets be clear: he was the only one deserving of the award. He was not only the best in his position, but the best at the tournament. Period.
For me Pepe did not make a single mistake during the competition. I am sure there were some small instances in which he wasn’t perfect, but I honestly didn’t see them. The intensity and certainty with which he played were an example to the whole team, and its effect on his defensive partners (especially José Fonte) and on the team in general (no losses in seven games, eight if we count the three extra-times), were palpable.
There was one time I thought to myself “oh shit….Pepe is in trouble. We’re in trouble!”. It was in the 91st minute of the final, when Gignac got the ball inside the area and managed to brilliantly make Pepe end up face down on the turf. It was less a mistake by Pepe, and more a piece of brilliance from Gignac, so let’s not crucify our dear Képler.
At that precise moment I thought we had reached the end of our journey. Thankfully the post saved us, but at that moment I realised Pepe was the most important man on the team. Because when he failed to do what he always does, I thought it was over. It says a lot of a player to believe that his success is synonymous with our success. That was Pepe in this Euro 2016. Our life insurance. Our adopted son. The unofficial MVP.