SINGAPORE: When the final whistle blows in the Euro 2020 final on Jul 12, could the Portuguese be lifting the tournament trophy after defeating the French?
Such a scenario would be reminiscent of the previous edition of the competition when Portugal beat hosts France in the final.
If we do see a repeat, a marked difference we would hopefully see is that this time round, Portugal’s talismanic forward Cristiano Ronaldo will be on the pitch when the match ends, instead of cheering them on from the sidelines.
After leading his national team to the final at Euro 2016, Ronaldo suffered heartbreak in the final after getting injured by a bad tackle less than 30 minutes into the game. The usually composed Ronaldo burst into tears as he was stretchered off the pitch.
"The start of the UEFA European Football Championship 2016 was going well for me but then I was sad because I got injured [in the Final vs France]. By the end of the match, I was crying with happiness!”, the forward said in an interview with media earlier this month.
RONALDO’S LAST DANCE
Five years later, Euro 2020 is likely to be the 36-year-old’s last major international tournament and he will be keen to end it on a high.
Where many footballers his age would have already hung up their boots or past their prime, Ronaldo is still a major force to reckon with.
Currently plying his club football trade for Italian side Juventus, Ronaldo just finished the season as the league’s top scorer with 29 goals – the second consecutive season he won the accolade. In his last three seasons in the league, Ronaldo was also crowned the best player in Italy twice.
Despite his age, which means that he may soon look to wrap up his international career, Ronaldo clearly still has the firepower and motivation to set Euro 2020 alight as he has done in previous editions of the tournament.
Helping Portugal defend the trophy would be a great cap to a sterling football career and provide the perfect opportunity to announce his international retirement.
Surely, the player widely regarded as the best of his generation, would want to leave on a high.
Reiterating how winning the trophy in 2016 was “an important moment” of pride and emotion for his nation, Ronaldo confirmed those sentiments have not dulled his ambitions. “To win it again would be incredible,” he recently told media.
Arguably, the Portuguese side has an even better team than in 2016 as they shrug off a previous label of being a one-man team.
The likes of Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Dias and Danilo Pereira all ply their trade at top European clubs and will join Ronaldo in being important parts in this line-up.
ENDING ON A HIGH
Besides the collective national aim, Ronaldo also has some personal accolades to chase when Euro 2020 kicks-off on Saturday (Jun 12).
With the last edition in 2016, Ronaldo became the tournament’s overall all-time top-scorer with nine goals.
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His nearest competitor who is playing at Euro 2020 and could equal or beat Ronaldo’s record is French forward Antoine Griezmann with six goals. Ronaldo will want to ensure he extends his lead and does all to make this record untouchable.
In 2016, Ronaldo also became the first player to score in four successive Euro tournaments, showing what a happy hunting ground the competition has been for him.
With no one else close to matching that record yet, Ronaldo will be eager to make it five competitions in a row that he found the net. Barring any injuries, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t do so.
Ronaldo also holds the record for the most matches played at Euro tournaments with 21 games and will therefore be eager to help his side go far in the tournament.
With so much personal and national glory at stake, it seems almost pre-destined that Ronaldo will be grabbing the headlines at Euro 2020 – perhaps his last dance in a Portuguese jersey.
Ultimately, Ronaldo may rue the World Cup that has eluded him till now – the only big accolade he hasn’t won - and may stick around another year to win that for Portugal next year in Qatar.
But after being dumped out in the second round of World Cup 2018 by Uruguay, even Ronaldo, for all his self-confidence and ambition, will recognise that the World Cup is a long-shot for the Portuguese.
The highest position the country has ever achieved in the World Cup is third and that was in 1966. In contrast, its track record at the Euros is much more promising – in the five tournaments since 2000, Portugal has won once, reached the final twice and been semi-finalists four times. Realistically, Ronaldo will know which tournament he has a better shot at.
THE FRENCH COULD RUIN IT FOR RONALDO
There is arguably one obstacle in Ronaldo’s path to glory though – France.
Since being beaten in the Euro 2016 final, the French have reorganised and rejuvenated themselves.
The team has since been built around a disciplined defensive unit marshalled by the experienced Raphael Varane, a creative and dynamic midfield made up of the likes of Paul Pogba, N’golo Kante and Corentin Tolisso, and a lightning-quick and clinical attack with the world-class Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele.
Even a second-string French side has enough quality to be a key contender for the competition. No wonder they are favourites to win Euro 2020.
The French have already stormed their way to winning the World Cup in 2018, lost only one of their 10 qualifying matches for Euro 2020 and have been undefeated in their last 18 matches overall. They will be coming to Euro 2020 in majestic form and eager to avenge the loss of the previous final.
And they will get their chance to get even with Ronaldo’s side early on in the tournament when France takes on Portugal in a group stage match on Jun 24. That Portugal and France are pitted in the same group alongside Germany and Hungary in Group F at Euro 2020 – the most difficult group in the tournament – could unhinge the plans of both sides.
Traditionally a power house of international football, Germany could be a party-pooper for those expecting a repeat of 2016’s final. But with coach Joachim Löw deferring a complete rejuvenation of an ageing side, it is perhaps too premature for Germany to make a big impact in this tournament.
If Portugal and France end the group stages in the top two spots of their group, they could meet again in the final to set-up a mouth-watering showdown.
However, with Euro 2020 adopting a novel approach of matches being hosted across the continent for the first time and coming on the back of a pandemic-forced hectic footballing calendar, fatigue could set in and upsets shouldn’t be unexpected.
Some teams may emerge as dark-horses and surprise many. With more than 1,300 national caps among them, Belgium is the most experienced team at Euro 2020 and one that some may fancy to go all the way.
But with this “golden generation” of Belgian football - Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel - already well into their 30s, it is unlikely that this group can deliver a trophy now when they weren’t able to live up to their collective potential during the peak of their careers.
Croatia, finalists at the previous World Cup, may go far in the competition as could Italy, although Roberto Mancini’s transformation of the national team is still underway. Including Holland, none of these teams are likely to make it to the final.
Many die-hard English and Spanish fans have heralded their sides as favourites to win the tournament but with the youngest teams at the tournament, such calls may be premature as well.
With Euro 2020 not coming at the right moment for many top teams still in their transformation journeys, Ronaldo could have one final laugh at the continent’s biggest sporting stage.
It seems the only thing standing between him and a perfectly pitched swan song then, are the French.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.