We are the champions

The 10th of July will be remembered as the day when the Portuguese national team won the European football championship. One might add – against all odds.

I don’t like football but I love a good story – and this one I find incredible.

I think it all began twelve years ago, when the European cup took place in Portugal and the coach then – Felipe Scolari, a Brazilian – asked every Portuguese to put a flag in his or her window, and the people responded in such a way that cities and villages alike were submerged in a sea of red, green and yellow flags. The Portuguese national anthem was heard everywhere, and many young people – among them my own boys – learned it by heart on that occasion. And the enthusiasm grew and grew, as Portugal – from a terrible first game with Greece, that we lost – started winning and, from victory to victory, came to the final…again, incredibly, with Greece. And, also incredibly, unbelievingly, we lost – and Greece got the cup. I remember how miserable we felt, how many of us cried disconsolately. On the following day I was flying to Brussels for a meeting and I positively hated the Greeks who were still celebrating victory on their return home – with the European cup!

On the fateful day of our defeat Cristiano Ronaldo, then eighteen, cried in desperation on the field, for all the lost illusions of 11 million Portuguese (those in the country and all the immigrants).

Years went by, and victory would not come our way. People would talk about the performance of the national team describing it as “poor”, and complaining that worldwide recognised players like Cristiano Ronaldo would not be as good in the national team as they were in the teams they played for.

And then there was this man, Fernando Santos, the new coach of the national team, who managed to have the team qualified for the European cup. From the beginning he was different from other coaches: discreet, serious-minded, a religious man, a mechanical engineer…

The first games of our team in the European cup were disappointing; say those who saw them – not my case. They all ended with draws and the criticism to the players was immediate. To those voices the coach serenely replied “I’m positive that I’ll only return to Portugal on the 11th July and I will be received with joy”. As the final game would be on the 10th, by this he clearly meant to be at the final game with his team fighting for the cup.

And the Portuguese team went on from one game to the other, not winning, not playing spectacularly, but still moving on. First to the quarter finals, then to the semi finals, played with Wales, where finally some brilliance showed, and two scores, within three minutes from one another, gave us the passport to the much desired final. By then all the people that said the coach was a dreamer were now swallowing their words, and some very arrogant teams, such as the French, started looking at ours in a different way. And then we knew the final would be played with the “home” team, France, the very team that had always criticised us and said we did not deserve to be in a final.

Last Sunday, the day of the final game, on TV they were showing a recent interview with the coach, and I watched it. If I already admired him, the things he said during the interview made him earn even more of my respect, and I now understood why our team had made it to the final: leadership. Undeniably, there are very talented players there, but this man was the leader they needed to turn them into a real team. Slowly, methodically, he developed a strategy and put it into place. And his players undoubtedly trusted him and followed him.

Behind the leader I also discovered the man, and a very sensitive one. He shared with the viewers an incredible story. He said he was very close to his father, who had passed away some years before. And, he said, when F.C. Porto, the club he trained at a certain time, won the Portuguese championship, he was very sad that his father was not there to see it. Being a religious man, he prayed and asked to be sent a sign that somehow his father, wherever he was, was aware of his son’s triumph. And, he continued, on the day after winning the championship, as he was going to Mass, at the church door there was this beggar he had known for some time, and whom he sometimes helped with some money. On that day the beggar had congratulated him and told him “Coach, I have something for you”. He had laughed and said “Why, I’m the one who should have something for you!”. But the beggar had given him something wrapped in paper. He went on into the church and as he unwrapped it, his heart had beaten faster: inside the paper was a Parker pen, with his name engraved on it, one of the two his father had given him for passing his primary school exams (something very important at the time) – exactly the one he had lost so many years ago! Of course, it was very clear this was the sign he had been waiting for and I could not help being impressed by this amazing, heartrending story.

All over Portugal and all over the world where there are Portuguese citizens, in the Portuguese speaking countries like Angola, Mozambique and even far away East-Timor, in Brazil and even in Spain (so my friend Rosario told me), there were many well-wishers for the Portuguese national team. But the game did not start well – after a few minutes Ronaldo was injured and had to leave.

But by this time the team was strong, united by one same purpose, and they were inspired. The coach was following his tactics – more on the defence side, waiting for the right moment to strike. The 90 minutes were gone and there was extra-time. The French, who had thought this would be an easy-ride, were now surprised at the resilience of that team they had so despised. And, suddenly, the coach changed players and Eder, the player who comes in – also one who had been the target of major criticism of late – suddenly breaks through the French defence and brilliantly scores!

As usual, I was not watching the game, but yes I was anxious to see Portugal win. At this point it was no longer a simple football match but a question of national spirit and pride! As I heard shouts of joy outside I turned the TV on and I could not believe my eyes: just a few minutes from the end of the game we were winning!

…and we won. Ronaldo, who had cried disconsolately when he had to leave the field due to his injury, now cried with joy; the players hugged the coach, they hugged each other, the laughed, they cried again…it was an incredible feeling! I, for one, was laughing and saying to myself “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it”. Outside the car horns were deafening – it was as if the country was being swept in a wave of joy!

Again I watched as the coach made the winning and thank you speech he had written almost a month before after one of the first disappointing games. His faith had never wavered, never faltered, and this he had passed on to his players and all of them with this unique team spirit one could easily feel, had made it to this unforgettable victory.

As for the French players, they were bewildered. They could not believe this was happening to them, one of the best national teams in the world – they had been beaten by the “ugly duckling”. As organisers, I found they had very little fair-play, as they did not “dress” the Eiffel tower with the colours of the winning team’s national flag, as they always had in previous matches. The tower went on displaying the colours of the French flag – to no avail, as they had lost. No display of colours in the Eiffel tower could change history.

The boys had gone out to watch the game with their friends – Afonso at a friend’s home and Pedro at Alameda, “the place” to watch the games, where many people gathered around a giant TV screen. When Portugal scored I saw the whole place going crazy on TV and I imagined Afonso shouting with happiness in the middle of the crowd. I fact, when he arrived home his voice was hoarse and he could hardly speak…

At around 3 am I woke up and I listened to the front door closing. I came to the kitchen and there was Afonso, looking dirty but happy…soon Pedro arrived, and there we were, exchanging information about the game and the celebrations, watching everything on TV and animatedly exchanging views on everything that was going on…and this went on until 5 am, when we decided to go to bed: I had to work and Afonso had a plane to catch. But no worries, this was an incredible moment we shared, a unique moment and it was worth the lack of sleep…

The following day the champions came home. They were all awarded the Order of Merit by the President of the Republic and then their bus slowly went through the streets of Lisbon to Alameda, where a huge crowd of thousands waited for them. I saw it later on TV but it must have been an incredible moment. They played songs like the one that, surprisingly, was played at the Stade de France after their victory: a song very much loved by our people, by the very well known Portuguese rock band Xutos e Pontapés called “A minha Casinha” (literally “My little home”), the song that will forever be related to this incredible victory. And they played others, such as Queen’s “We are the champions”…and the national anthem of course. There were thousands of persons everywhere: the whole city of Lisbon was out on the streets, singing, shouting, dancing. Everyone was talking about the great victory, smiling at strangers just because they were wearing the scarf with the colours of the national team…everywhere there was this amazing feeling of celebration of the team’s feat, the feeling of a proud nation.

Now all the emotion is over, but in some way it will never be, this will be unforgettable. As Afonso told me just the other day, when I was worrying that he was going to spend a lot of time watching the games and then – eventually- celebrating, instead of studying for his exams. He said “Mom, can’t you understand? This is something that happens once in a lifetime. If we become European champions this is something I will tell my children and my grandchildren…and I will be able to tell them I was there, living all the emotions firsthand!”. He also made a promise – in the beginning of the championship – that it may be difficult to keep: if we win the cup, he told me, I will not cut my hair until December! As his hair is already much longer than usual, I wonder if we will be wearing a ponytail soon…

Against his arguments, I had none left. He was right of course. He went back to his studies the following day, but meanwhile he has lived through one of the most unforgettable moments of his life. That he will never forget as long as he lives.

Because, on the 10th of July, our national team, the “ugly duckling” finally at last turned into a swan. They finally got rid of the bitter taste of defeat they felt twelve years before. I still picture Cristiano Ronaldo’s incredible expression of glory as he held the victory cup over his head – it was as if he were singing Queen’s unforgettable song:

“We are the champions/ my friends/ and we’ll keep on fighting/till the end/ for we are the champions/ we are the champions/ no time for losers/ ’cause we are the champions/ of the world”.

We all felt on top of the world. The team (coach included) kept on fighting – till the end. And, at long last – we are the champions.