With the European Championships only a few months away, and seemingly always expanding, the opportunities for ‘minnow’ nations to make an impact increases correspondingly.
In this series we will take a look back at the biggest unexpected overachievers of tournaments gone by, including some winners, some nearly-winners, a minnow nation in the true sense of the word and take a look at their journey and some of the players who made it possible.
Portugal – 2019
It is hard to call any team with Cristiano Ronaldo in an ‘underdog’ but Portugal would not have sprung into many people’s minds as a serious contender to win Euro 2016, especially when you consider the strength of European football in the current climate with the likes of France, Germany, Belgium and Spain all firing on full cylinders.
The bookmakers too underestimated Portugal’s chances, making them 7th favourites at 20/1.
Not on par with the miraculous achievements of Greece and Denmark, but still a momentous achievement for a side who, despite their prominence in European football, are still not part of that elite set of nations.
Their journey to Saint-Denis to face hosts and big favourites France in the final was perhaps the most underwhelming by any finalist in the history of the tournament.
Portugal won once in 90 minutes throughout the whole tournament, bearing in mind, the 2016 edition had been expanded to 24 teams, meaning there was extra knockout round to play.
Seven games, three group stage draws, an extra time win in the Last 16, a penalty success in the quarters, their only 90 minute win came in the semi-finals before another extra time win in the final, they certainly didn’t do it in an orthodox fashion.
Portugal also took full advantage of the new group stage format in which four 3rd placed teams made it through as they edged into the Last 16 behind Hungary and Iceland as they were then firmly written off as contenders after a very average group phase.
Once Ronaldo went off injured in the first half of the final, all hope seemed to diminish before they salvaged extra time and Eder extraordinarily won it for the Portuguese.
Best Player – Cristiano Ronaldo
He had a nightmare of a start to the tournament, blanking against Iceland despite having numerous chances and missing a penalty against Austria, but he firmly announced himself at Euro 2016 with a double against Hungary, scoring the Portuguese second and third equalisers in a 3-3 draw.
It was his shot that Danijel Subasic parried onto the head of Ricardo Quaresma in the 117th minute of the Last 16 tie with Croatia, he scored the first of five successful Portugal penalties in the shootout win over Poland in the quarters and notched the first in their 2-0 semi-final win over Wales.
Despite going off injured in the final, Ronaldo was still kicking every ball on the sidelines, acting almost as a joint-manager with Fernando Santos, encouraging his team mates right up until the final whistle before lifting the trophy himself at the end of it all.
Cult Hero – Eder
A man who flopped so badly at Swansea that he was shipped out after six months, going on to score the winning goal in a Euro final is a script that nobody could write or would even believe.
Amazingly so, that is what won Portugal the European Championship, 25-yards from goal, the most optimistic of efforts flew past Hugo Lloris, instantly becoming one of the most iconic goals in any Euro final.
Eder looked just as shocked as Martin Tyler did on the world feed commentary, the entire Portugal bench, and the millions watching around Europe. A goal for the ages for sure.
Breakthrough Stars – Renato Sanches and Raphael Guerreiro
It was extremely difficult to pick between the two players as who stood out the most, Sanches received the most acclaim of the two and the bigger money transfer, picking up the Young Player of the Tournament and winning the Golden Boy award later that year too; but Guerreiro was also very impressive and has been now in the four years since.
With just 12 caps between them pre-tournament, they now have over a half-century of appearances with Guerreiro picking up the most of the two.
Sanches’ performances earned him a move to Bayern, but he had already been impressing in the league for Benfica and had gained a lot of attention.
It was Guerreiro who really made a name for himself as he was still a hidden talent playing for Lorient in France before Dortmund came and sought his signature and made him into one of the best versatile players in Europe.
Leader – Pepe
Ronaldo played cheerleader from the touchline in the final, but Pepe really stood up and was counted in the game for his country.
Only two years earlier he exited the World Cup in disgrace after the often hot-headed centre back was sent off in a 4-0 defeat to Germany for headbutting Thomas Muller.
But the game in Saint-Denis proved to everyone why he had been a regular starter in the Real Madrid defence for a decade and his leadership of a stubborn Portugal defence was admirable.
Pepe being able to transfer the winning attitudes of being a Real Madrid player on to his national team was a key factor in what won them the battle against France.
Decisive Moment – Rui Patricio’s right hand post
Two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the Euro Final with the score still goalless, Andre-Pierre Gignac spun and found himself with space to shoot six yard out.
The whole of France were on the edge of their seat expecting the net to ripple, only for the ball to cannon off the inside of the post and roll away across the six yard area evading all incomers.
That could and probably should have won France the trophy, but instead Rui Patricio and all of Portugal had the woodwork to thank for getting them to extra time. Fine margins.