But before a ball was kicked, coach Fernando Santos prophesied of an unlikely victory.
“From the first moment, the first qualifying match, he said:” We are going to win Euro 2016, “” Portuguese right-back Cédric Soares told CNN Sport.
“He put him on the board. At that time, nobody really believed him. And during the qualification matches, he had already put the same message on the board:” We are going to win Euro 2016 “. We weren’t even qualified! “
Friday marks four years since Portugal’s 1-0 victory over France in the Euro final. The host country had experienced a smoother passage to the final and had been tipped to win, only for Eder’s long-distance strike to spoil the French holiday at the Stade de France in Paris and give Portugal its greatest moment in the international football.
Ronaldo, who was denied European glory in 2004 with a defeat in the final against Greece, would spend the rest of the match waving relentlessly along the sidelines, shouting orders to his team.
As for those on the ground, the absence of their captain was a moment of dynamism.
“It was difficult to digest,” defender Jose Fonte told CNN Sport as he pondered the final.
“But once (Ronaldo) got off the field, we looked at each other and saw the resilience of my teammates. I saw that they cringed and said,” Let’s go. It’s going to be without Ronaldo today. We have to do it without him, so we have to work even harder.
“It was the attitude during the match and at half time – we just kept believing. It made us even stronger, I think.”
“The dream of every player”
The Portuguese community in Paris had provided dedicated pockets of support in the stadiums throughout the tournament, but country fans were eagerly awaiting the team’s return.
After seeing the country’s golden generation of the early 2000s – which included characters like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Joao Pinto and Deco – fail in major tournaments, the victory in 2016 seemed late.
“It was absolute madness, there were incredible scenes when we got off the plane,” said Fonte, who played throughout the knockout stages in 2016.
“Even in the air, we had two fighter planes by our side when we entered Portuguese airspace. I remember seeing them with the scarf and the flag of Portugal on the plane, it was unbelievable.
“Then we landed … I started to see people waiting outside the airport for us. And then the bus parade, there were millions and millions of people on the streets to celebrate with us. No one will ever forget that moment – it was just an incredible thing to just be a part of, incredible. “
Red and green jets of water greeted the flight as the team landed in Lisbon, while thousands of people lined the streets for the trophy parade in the capital.
“I felt like the happiest man in the world because wearing your national team jersey is unique and winning a trophy for your country is a dream for all players,” said winger Nani, who won the Champions League and four Premier League titles with Manchester United. CNN Sport.
“It was the highlight of my career. It was so good to give this joy to our people.”
In the final against France, Portugal proved that it was more than a one-man team at Ronaldo.
His influence throughout the tournament was undeniable – providing two crucial goals to save a group stage draw against Hungary and breaking the deadlock in the semifinals with a leaping head against Wales.
But the confidence that Santos – now 65 years old – had anchored in his players finally shone.
“Obviously (Ronaldo) is the best in the world,” said Fonte. “Having the best in the world on your team, you know you’re always going to be dangerous; you’re always going to create situations and you know you can win games.
“We thought we could beat anyone with him on the pitch. Portugal have a lot of good individual players, but we are stronger because of our team spirit, our organization, our manager.
“When Fernando Santos took over, I think it was a change of mentality. His belief in us, his belief in the team, really made us think that we could do it from the start.”
Learn to “suffer”
It is with this unwavering conviction and determination that Portugal has traced its path to European success.
After reaching the knockout stages by eliminating all group stage matches, the Santos team then won two overtime victories – against Croatia in the knockout stages and France in the final – and came back to draw with Poland. in the quarters before progressing on the penalties.
To say that Portugal had to fight and fight for the title would be an understatement; no nation has ever been crowned European champion by winning a single match in regular time.
“I think that to be able to win, you have to be able to suffer and our team was very good in this area,” said Soares d’Arsenal, who, like his defensive partner Fonte, played throughout the knockout stages.
“Football is made of these moments. If you are not ready to suffer, you cannot win a football match. This tournament we have had difficult moments but in general what comes out is much more important.
“The games were getting more and more exciting. We were looking forward to the games and that, I think, made a huge difference. The way the team was together, not just the starting 11, it was everyone – you felt this huge push from all people. “
Portugal’s title defense has been postponed until next year amid the coronavirus epidemic. After winning the first Nations League title against the Netherlands last year, victory becomes a habit for the Santos team.
Ronaldo will be 36 years old at next year’s tournament; it would be a fifth record European championship if it appeared. Fonte, who plays for the French club Lille, will be 37 years old in December, while his deviant central partner Pepe is also in his thirties and has not yet hung up.
As a number of players enter the twilight of their careers, the emergence of young talents, such as 20-year-old Atletico Madrid forward Joao Felix, ensures that the team retains a mix of youth and experience.
“Football goes very fast,” says Soares. “Of course, no one can take away what we have done … but football is made of moments and it passes very quickly.
“I don’t think we should be putting more pressure on us because we won the euros but obviously people look at us with different respect.
“I think we have that, and we have to show it again.”