France, Portugal head for Euro 2016 final showdown
Football tensions mounted and patriotic hopes rose Sunday ahead of the Euro 2016 final between hosts France and Portugal that will unleash a clash between one of the world’s greatest ever players Cristiano Ronaldo and would-be pretender Antoine Griezmann.
After 50 matches over a month of football that has seen stunning shocks by Iceland and Wales, Ronaldo is counting on his side to produce one more upset so he can finally win an international trophy.
Portugal will have to beat a French side who have found new inspiration from Griezmann — the tournament’s leading scorer with six goals — and will be willed on by a nation longing to rediscover the feelgood factor.
With the country still on terrorist alert after the November 13 attacks in which 130 people died, more than 3,400 police will be on the Champs Elysees in Paris alone when the match starts at the Stade de France at 1900 GMT.
National flags hung from apartment blocks and homes in cities across France and Portugal as football fever mounted.
The buildup to Euro 2016 was clouded by fears that the tournament would be targeted by jihadists after 130 people were killed in terror attacks on Paris in November.
“The French people needed to find their way again,” President Francois Hollande said in a commentary on the wave of support for the national team that has been in disgrace in recent years.
“We saw it at the time of the attacks. We came together in the dramas, we had to find ourselves in the happiness, to come together.”
– Deschamps wants to play –
Rival coaches Didier Deschamps of France and Fernando Santos of Portugal have been desperately trying to shield their teams from the sky-high hopes of their nations.
Deschamps, who captained the French side that won the 1998 World Cup and the Euro title in 2000, said he could feel the adrenaline pumping.
“It’s an exceptional moment, a privilege, a unique chance because there is a title at the end,” Deschamps said of the final.
“What you need to do is approach it as relaxed as possible while being at the same time totally focused on the match,” he added.
“On the bench, there is a frustration in not taking part, but I can’t do that anyway. But I’m fine, I don’t feel any pressure, no stress, just adrenaline and that’s positive.”
France have put in some stylish performances, including their 5-2 win over Iceland to end the giant-killing run of the team that dumped England out of the contest.
France captain Hugo Lloris said the team wants to put their name in the history books to redeem themselves for a player revolt at the 2010 World Cup that made them a national disgrace.
The troubles were worsened by the exclusion of star striker Karim Benzema over an alleged sextape blackmail attempt.
“We have come through a crisis in French football,” the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper said. “We have climbed back up the slope, we have done it step by step.”
Lloris said Sunday’s final is “the chance to go into French football history.”
France, with home advantage in the 85,000-capacity stadium, and with Griezmann, star midfielder Paul Pogba and the calming influence of Lloris, start as favourites.
But they acknowledge the omnipresent danger of Ronaldo on the pitch.
Santos has succeeded by building a team around the superstar striker and winning “ugly” when necessary to get to the next round.
Portugal’s 2-0 win over Wales in the semi-final was their first in the tournament achieved within 90 minutes.
Veterans such as defender Pepe and Ricardo Quaresma have played lynchpin roles on days when Ronaldo has failed to fire.
– Ronaldo wants tears of joy –
Portugal have been criticised for some of their European Championship performances but Santos said he does not care.
He also says France are the favourites but believes Portugal can win.
“Let them carry on saying that Portugal won without deserving it,” he said.
“I will be very happy if they say that again tomorrow. I will go home very happy.”
Portugal have never fully recovered from losing the 2004 Euro final to Greece when they hosted the tournament.
Ronaldo, who shed tears as a 19-year-old at that match, said this week he wants to be “crying with joy” on Sunday.
Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Pepe is fully fit again after missing the semi-final through injury. Pepe said Portugal were strong because they want to win.
“I’ve been at a very demanding club for 10 years and I’ve been playing for Portugal since 2008,” he said when asked about his own ambition to win at the age of 33.
“I have three European Championship and two World Cup campaigns to my name.
“I have always been very demanding of myself. I don’t like to lose, I want to help my team. That makes me play at the highest level and to be recognised at the highest level.”