So it turned out that a better France didn’t win after all. And neither has a better Ronaldo; he won his first tournament trophy for Portugal by not playing, and crying a little about it.
A great thing about soccer is that the game does not follow historical necessities; no national narrative played a role in Sunday’s game. Not even a personal narrative—say, the combination of Ronaldo’s phenomenal skill and great competitive desire—influenced the outcome, unless you think (as I do) that Portugal became considerably better without Ronaldo, who doesn’t like to defend or share the ball. Portugal is the 2016 European champion simply because they scored a goal and France didn’t, even if everyone thought they would, myself included. So many fans here in Paris believed they could will them to a victory, but the best, and the hardest thing about soccer is that it always comes down to the people on the pitch.
I watched the game again at Le Bistrot on rue de Bretagne, packed with French supporters with little flags on their cheeks. The crowd was enthusiastic, excited, eager to win. When Ronaldo left the field, people applauded in respect of his greatness, and with a certain amount of glee. But around the 60th minute one could sense the beginning of deflation, as it became clear that if France didn’t score soon, the game would be up for grabs. In extra time, as Portugal was getting more confident, the crowd quieted down, sensing that it might not turn out that well for a better, or any, France.
The whole evening I was watching a guy standing at the bar watching the game in a sleeveless shirt with “Chicago 68” across the chest. He seemed to be the only Portuguese fan there, because he sang the Portuguese anthem as well as Le Marseillaise. For much of the game, as France poured forward, he seemed unaffected by the drama, even unconcerned, rubbing his teeth with his index finger as though polishing them. But when Eder scored, he exploded and was joined by his friend, who had the worst seat in the house so he was hard to see, particularly since he was very small, the size of a grown-up preemie. At the end of the game, people congratulated the Portuguese, shook their hand, high-fived the Chicago 68 guy as their joy filled up the space—he was the victor of the evening, along with his preemie sidekick.
I love soccer for people like that, its beauty reflected in their joy. The Portuguese man will now always be part of my Euro 2016 experience—and the best one at that.
Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016.