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.
After giving Pepe the recognition he deserves, let’s now take a look at some other unsung Portuguese Heroes. From the ‘Academia’s wingers‘, the ‘sons’ of Luis Figo, to the sons of Portuguese emigrants, Adrien Silva, Cédric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro, who in good time returned to represent their parents’ homecountry.
2 – The “washed up” duo of Nani and Ricardo Quaresma
There are a lot of similarities between these two players. They both came from Sporting Lisbon’s “Academia” (as did 8 other players in this Final, in what was probably Academia’s biggest ever achievement) and followed in the footsteps of Portugal’s greatest ever winger, Luis Figo. Both were hyped as brilliant wingers with great flair and creativity. Both left for big clubs at a very young age (Quaresma for Barcelona and Nani for Manchester United). They have both played in Portugal and Turkey, hardly the most illustrious footballing locations. And both are viewed as never having reached their full potential.
Nani has spent a substantial part of his career in Ronaldo’s shadow (a pretty big shadow to escape from), and those somewhat unfair expectations ended up contributing to his demise. Quaresma could only find the right environment for his erratic form in Porto and in Istanbul (with Besiktas), where he is worshiped (and rightly so). At 29 and 32 years old respectively, Nani and Quaresma already have a lot of tournament experience, and the consensus prior to Euro 2016 was that little could be expected from the inconsistent wingers. They could be brilliant, but they rarely were, and the hope that they ever could be was rapidly fading.
In the last few weeks what we saw was two new players in Nani and Quaresma. Nani ended up being the striker the team needed, scoring three important goals, three goals that showed us that Nani can thrive in the forward role in the future. As for Quaresma his contribution as a sub was key, giving the attack a injection of energy, and ensuring that opposition defenders could never rest. Quaresma brought great one-on-one ability and great crossing every time he came on, and he even scored the goal that beat Croatia in the last minute of the extra time.
So for two people supposedly well past their prime, Nani and Quaresma were key parts in the team’s success and the final game was a perfect example of that importance. Ronaldo’s absence made them step up and they did not shy away from that responsibility. They were constantly on the move, switching flanks, always (!) with an aggressive style of play, and always (!) trying to engage in individual duels so that they could unbalance the opposing team.
3 – The “imports” Adrien, Cédric and Raphael
There’s a reason why I prefer to call these heroes “Champions of Europe” instead of “European Champions”. In a time when Europe, as a political concept, is under huge pressure, it is refreshing to see how many players in the team were not born in Portugal, but were “adopted” by a country that is always ready to embrace foreigners who arrive with good intentions. Pepe is the most flagrante case. But also Danilo and Éder (born in Guinae Bissau), as well as Adrien, Raphael and Cédric who are sons of Portuguese emigrants and were born in France and Germany. Cédric and Adrien returned to Portugal at a very young age and (also) developed at Sporting Lisbon’s ‘Academia’, and Raphael is, for all purposes, more French than Portuguese. Born in France, a French resident and French speaking.
Of course this is not unparalleled. Many other countries do the same, but this mix of origins (Africa, South America, Europe) is unique, and a great compliment not only to Portugal as a nation, but also to those countries in Europe who have embraced integration. The Champions of Europe are Portuguese, but what makes them Portuguese, is not so much the place where they were born, but their willingness to embrace a new culture as if it was their own. What makes them Portuguese is their love of being Portuguese even if this condition is an acquired one.
As for these three “imports” in particular, Cédric and Raphael were part of a great defensive structure who never lost a game, and both gave tremendous support to the wingers in front of them. But the one that made the difference was Adrien Silva, a true warrior in that midfield. I am Benfiquista, and I am not naturally inclined to applaud players from bitter rivals Sporting, but in the last season I have seen how valuable Adrien Silva is in midfield. He is a true monster whose biggest contribution to the team comes when it loses the ball. When trying to win the ball back Adrien Silva becomes a pit bull, who does not rest for a second. That intensity was key to the team. He was always the first to pressure the opposition midfield, and by now, Luka Modric must be still thinking “who the f*** was that guy from Portugal? I can still feel him breathing in my neck…”. That guy was Adrien Silva, Luka, and he sends his regards.