Say what you like about football – and last night’s Euro 2016 final was the subject of little acclaim. But it is never predictable.
We came to praise a footballing phenomenon in Cristiano Ronaldo but found a swarm of moths instead. They continued to flutter about while the game, bereft of the injured Portuguese striker, degenerated terribly.
But it still inspired a grim fascination while increasing the profile of the humble moth, known in France as “papillon de nuit” – or night butterfly.
The butterfly on the pitch had his wings clipped early on. Ronaldo, expected by many to have the final say in this tournament at France’s expense, was carted off after 26 minutes – with a moth perched on one of his immaculately manicured eyebrows.
He was replaced by Ricardo Quaresma, who happens to have a leaf motif shaved into his head. Nothing was making sense.
These details were as close as we got to interesting moments in a match that, even when deprived of Ronaldo’s presence, could not avoid being defined by the manner of his exit. The hit from Dimitri Payet came after only seven minutes. Ronaldo then spent the next 20 or so minutes seeking to shake off what looked, from the moment of impact, like a significant injury. There would be no opportunity for ripping off his shirt and flaunting his abs. He was understandably crestfallen.
An entire country in the shape of Iceland has already mocked Ronaldo for bawling about the audacity of a “little” team seeking to frustrate with their tactics. Bars in Reykjavik even began serving up a drink called “Ronaldo’s tears”. Here we got them for real. And it was a sight to sadden his harshest critics. Even the French fans applauded sympathetically as he was stretchered off the park. And credit to him, he remained an encouraging presence on the sidelines, urging his team-mates on.
This isn’t a field that tends to treat those called Ronaldo kindly. Eighteen years ago tomorrow the Brazilian version had a never adequately explained health scare at the Stade de France prior to the World Cup final, which France went on to win. Here again the man who it was felt would underline his status as one of the greatest players on the planet was cruelly cut down.
Although Ronaldo played the 90 minutes in 1998 he was a shadow of himself. But last night even the preening superstar that is the current version had to accept that his race was run after 26 minutes. At 31, it seemed Ronaldo’s last chance to secure a major international honour had gone – how wrong we were. Despite a heavily bandaged left knee, his gilded life continues and Eder’s extra-time winner meant he got to return to lift the trophy.
One wonders whether he might now do a Messi in the coming days and announce his international retirement. What such an unexpected success means for Portugal in the long term will become clear.
But what it meant for Ronaldo’s team-mates last night was a chance for them to prove they are not a one-man team. Although lacking their star man’s talent, they set about frustrating the opposition. Indeed, Ronaldo’s departure seemed to enervate France rather than Portugal. The hosts were the ones who lost their way.
It was almost as if they knew they now had no excuse to fail in their bid to become European champions. Portugal shorn of Ronaldo is like, well, British tennis without Andy Murray.
France faltered at the moment their path finally seemed so clear after weeks of expertly riding the wave of expectation. Antoine Griezmann, the other No 7 with the potential to win a match on his own, flunked his lines after 65 minutes when presented with a headed chance. His effort flew just over. Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, was denied by a flying save from Rui Patricio, one of the few performers to really shine last night, other than those damn moths of course.