France v Portugal: Why The Euro 2016 Final Really Is All About Griezmann v Ronaldo


As Euro 2016 comes to a head, it might also bring a long-running theme to a head. It might finally see one individual define and decide an international tournament. Because, although the modern media globalisation of the game has led to an ever-increasing hyped focus on star players, the irony has been that none of them have in that time totally taken command of a competition in the way that used to truly make careers.

There’s been no equivalent of Ronaldo 2002, certainly no Diego Maradona 1986 and not even a Roberto Baggio 1994.

That might finally change, and we might well see something akin to the Italian’s story, because one of the two stars to have come into their own in this competition is going to have to fail. One of them, however, could also offer the most vindicating of victories to take the trophy.

Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann have already taken their teams to the final, and that alone marks a change from the last 14 years.

Not since Ronaldo scored against Turkey to put Brazil into the 2002 final have we seen one of the consistent stars carry form right the way through to the semi-final, or really rise to a crescendo in that way. Xavi might have scored the opening goal in 2008 against Russia, and Andres Iniesta that momentous late strike against the Dutch in 2010, but their true quality was actually how they made Spain more a high-functioning collective rather than about any one high-profile player.

Neither Portugal nor France have been able to get anywhere near the levels of the 2008-12 European champions, and that has made Ronaldo and Griezmann even more important. It is fortunate, then, that they have been in the form to make their country's campaigns their own. In that sense, some of the typical pre-tournament hype about stars has finally been justified.

Even if Ronaldo started Euro 2016 so badly and controversially, that has only added to the story of his campaign. He has come back from the rightly-criticised comments about Iceland and then the series of misses against Austria in the only positive way he possibly could: by scoring big goals. The flick against Hungary and doubt-free headers in that same match and against Wales reflected a player fully sure of himself again; ready to step-up. His sheer ability and aura have also allowed Portugal’s constrained defensive style to work more than anyone else. Ronaldo's very presence demands more attention from opposition players and his prolific scoring means the side don’t have to risk trying to create as many chances as others.

It does not feel a complete coincidence, either, that one big feature of Portugal’s run has been Ronaldo seeing off pretenders to his throne as the continent’s - if not necessarily the world’s - best player. All of Luka Modric, Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale were knocked out.

None of them were in the form of Griezmann, however, who has been much better than Ronaldo up to now. If it only adds to their duel that they already play on opposite sides of Madrid and faced off in inverted circumstances in the Champions League final, it adds to the symbolism that they have both matched Michel Platini in different ways.

The French great was not just the driver of an expanded 24-team tournament - with Uefa vice-president Villar Llona describing it as “his Euros” on Friday - but also the one player who has provided the history of the competition with its ‘Maradona 86’ moments. Two years before the Argentine dominated the World Cup, Platini devastated the European Championship, with his nine goals in five games winning the tournament for France and also establishing him as by far the event’s greatest ever player.

It layers the disgrace of his downfall with a sense of poignancy, then, that this European Championship he so lobbied for has seen two modern stars some way emulate him. Uefa might have wanted to airbrush Platini from Euro 2016, but it has been impossible not to mention him. Ronaldo has matched his record of nine goals in the competition, while Griezmann has become the first player to score more than five goals in one tournament since Platini.

The fact that the Portuguese’s tribute act comes over many more games and four different tournaments further emphasises that Griezmann is closer to doing what Platini did, right down to how he is firing a French campaign at home. The latter’s contribution really is the type of thing we haven’t seen at an international competition since Ronaldo 2002. All of Griezmann’s goals have either really meant something or really added something. The 25-year-old has: scored the key late opener against Albania in France’s second game; rose as the only player to keep his cool in a rattled French team to hit the equaliser and match-winner in what was a transformative match against Ireland; decorated their 5-2 victory over Iceland with one of the goals of the tournament; and then made real history with his two against Germany.

It was not just about Griezmann’s finishes in that semi-final, though, but how he seemed to really be flourishing. The authoritative manner he got on the ball and was so willing to rampage forward with it showcased a player on top form.

He deserves a crowning moment - but so too does Ronaldo.

Can one of them offer the most perfect finish of all?