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11th Jul 2016

Euro 2016 became a Hollywood rom-com with Ronaldo in the lead role as the man who learns to love again

Dion Fanning

Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about Didier Deschamps in the European Championships is that during the final on Sunday, he appeared to be outmanoeuvred by his counterpart in the Portuguese dug-out, Cristiano Ronaldo.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Fernando Santos gestures on the touchline during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Ronaldo’s metamorphosis from narcissist to leader of men was the most extraordinary development during Sunday’s game which seemed weighed down with subplots, even if the match itself could never really find an actual plot.

While Antoine Griezmann was the player of the tournament, a competition that depended on sentimental back stories for its sense of purpose will be shaped around Ronaldo, who drove Portugal to the final and, once there, engaged in the kind of mawkish transformation expected of a boilerplate rom-com.

This was the story of how a hardened cynic learned to love again. Ronaldo was Hugh Grant in About a Boy, an unappealing character who is content serving his own interests until life takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn and what looked like a trial becomes the making of him as a man.

From the moment Ronaldo went down after Dimitri Payet’s tackle, the scenes played out as if they had been designed for maximum emotional impact. The laboured desire to play on; the summoning of a stretcher and then his brief disappearance to the dressing-room as some wondered if Ronaldo would even bother to come back out to watch the game.

Then, to the sound of a James Horner soundtrack, he appears! Ronaldo is there and he will lead the team as best he can, hobbling on the sidelines, dragging himself and others through the test that awaits them.

Only the churlish – although there are plenty of them – begrudged Ronaldo his moment and if the scenes in the final were not the rite of passage beloved of filmmakers, it was in its own way, deeply revealing.

Ronaldo, it turned out, cared and wasn’t the cartoon villain some believed him to be. Of course, he wanted to succeed for the greater glory of himself as well as Portugal, but his presence on the sideline seemed to represent the values his country brought to the final.

Fernando Santos was there too, of course, shaping a Portugal side which was greater than the sum of its parts or, at least, able to overcome the deficiencies in some of its parts in a way that France under Deschamps could not.

While Ronaldo prowled on the sideline, encouraging his team-mates in a manner which seemed to run contrary to everything we have been led to believe about him, Deschamps’s failures of selection extended to the final minutes of extra time.

Only in the last ten minutes was Anthony Martial sent on after Eder’s goal had brought France face to face with a reality they hadn’t contemplated. Martial managed 69 minutes in the tournament, while the lumbering Andre-Pierre Gignac, sent on 12 minutes from the end on Sunday, played a more significant part in the tournament while never demonstrating that he could make any impact.

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JULY 07: Antoine Griezmann (2nd L) of France celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA EURO semi final match between Germany and France at Stade Velodrome on July 7, 2016 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

But the damage had been done by then, the damage may well have been done in a semi-final victory against Germany which might have persuaded Deschamps that he could get away with anything.

In the aftermath of France’s first tournament victory over Germany since 1958, it may have been tempting to believe all the problems had been solved.

France’s midfield was overrun by Germany in the first half which, thanks to Bastian Schweinsteiger’s handball and the absence of a striker in Jogi Low’s side, didn’t appear to matter.

Paul Pogba’s performances in midfield once again underlined his similarities with Steven Gerrard. The first half against Germany resembled the first 45 minutes in Istanbul in 2005, with one key difference: France somehow had the lead.

So Deschamps had no need to send for his equivalent to Didi Hamann, but this victory may have contributed to the defeat in the final. Deschamps struggled to work out how to get his attacking talent in their best positions and compromised by moving Pogba back and relegating Martial to the bench.

While France became more captivated by its team as the tournament went on – especially after the victory over Germany – this was not 1998 when the country came to believe, probably wrongly, that victory for their multi-cultural side could have a profound impact on the country.

Things are too real now to believe that sport can do anything except take our minds off things, but the triumph of this tournament was that a month that began with much fear and anticipation turned into a story about fans and, for the most part, the happiness they were bringing.

2016 UEFA European Championship Group E, Grand Stade Lille Métropole, Villeneuve d'Ascq, Lille, France 22/6/2016 Republic of Ireland vs Italy Ireland fans celebrate Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

The European Championships may well have been diminished by their expansion, as some suggest, but few people are looking back on, say, the 2012 tournament as an all-time classic.

There was a great team in that competition and an entertaining final, but most tournaments end in disappointment these days which would suggest we expect too much from them or are looking for the wrong things.

They are not about the pursuit of excellence, instead they are essentially a talent contest, a chance for the unsung and the forgotten to shine. In a month, football will return to being football, but tournaments are now about something else.

Like a TV variety show, they crave the backstory, perhaps not surprising when the appeal goes beyond the normal football constituency. Iceland beating England and Eder winning the European Championships for Portugal are the stories that shape the competition. They are moments to remember which can sometimes stray close to hokum.

Portugal might not have been the most talented side in France, but their story played well. The movie ended, as these films often do, with the father figure, who had always believed in this difficult character, wrapping him in an embrace which signified that the boy, through the wisdom gleaned from his struggles, had become a man.