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Cristiano Ronaldo - GETTY IMAGES

Cristiano Ronaldo – GETTY IMAGES

Portugal’s reign of error as European champions is over.

The team which ground their way to the title five years ago in France, the ‘problem with a 24-team tournament’ incarnate given their three draws in the group stage, has left this tournament after defeat in Sevilla on Sunday night.

They leave only bad-tempered memories and a pile of injured Belgians in their wake.

They offered more this time than in 2016, with the ominous late-scoring win against Hungary in their opening game and admirable spirit to rally from 4-1 down against Germany and equalise against France.

But their performance against Belgium was, to put it politely, gritty.

With the game slipping away things began to become feisty.

Cynical fouls

A tackle from behind (albeit with ball played) by Joao Palinha on Kevin de Bruyne towards the end of the first half injured Belgium’s midfielder:

Joao Palinha tackles Kevin de Bruyne - SHUTTERSTOCKJoao Palinha tackles Kevin de Bruyne - SHUTTERSTOCK

Joao Palinha tackles Kevin de Bruyne – SHUTTERSTOCK

The temperature began to rise again on 50 minutes when Diogo Dalot was booked for kicking the ball away shortly after a soft foul on Eden Hazard.

Eighteen minutes later Bruno Fernandes kicked Hazard on the ankle:

Fernandes kicks Hazard - AFPFernandes kicks Hazard - AFP

Fernandes kicks Hazard – AFP

Some low-level handbags ensued. Pepe, inevitably was at the centre of them.

These sorts of minor fouls came into the game more as Portugal sent the message to Belgium that they weren’t going down without a fight. Literally, ideally.

Tantrum tactics

It was the 75th minute when the tone of the game really changed, briefly turning the match into a PG remake of the 2006 Battle of Nuremberg.

Romelu Lukaku tangled with Palinha, collecting a (presumably accidental) backheel on the head. Renato Sanches bundled him to the ground for good measure.

Belgium wanted the ball to be put out for a head injury but Portugal played on. The referee blew to stop the game but Thorgan Hazard ran towards goal.

Enter Pepe.

Pepe with fists up as Hazard falls to the ground - SHUTTERSTOCKPepe with fists up as Hazard falls to the ground - SHUTTERSTOCK

Pepe with fists up as Hazard falls to the ground – SHUTTERSTOCK

Few players in world football find themselves photographed like this during a game:



Hazard eliminated, Pepe began the meaningless apology protocol.

Pepe apologises for foul - SHUTTERSTOCKPepe apologises for foul - SHUTTERSTOCK

Pepe apologises for foul – SHUTTERSTOCK

Belgium understandably piled in, having witnessed a borderline assault on their team-mate. The referee’s assistant arrived on the scene with only his flag as protection:

Row after Pepe foul - SHUTTERSTOCKRow after Pepe foul - SHUTTERSTOCK

Row after Pepe foul – SHUTTERSTOCK

A booking is Pepe’s punishment, but the real impact is in managing to attract most of the Belgium team to the incident. Thibaut Courtois has covered half the pitch to bear witness. This stirred emotions and unsettled the previously serene mentality of the team holding the lead.

Row after Pepe booking - AFPRow after Pepe booking - AFP

Row after Pepe booking – AFP

The intensity was retained, visible in everything from extra physicality in challenges to Fernandes screaming at the referee’s assistant for allowing Lukaku back onto the field at an inopportune moment.

The temptation with such niggly play is to assume it betrays a loss of discipline. On the contrary, Portugal’s approach seemed deliberate.

If Pepe were truly operating on the edge of a full-blown loss of temper would he have let Thorgan Hazard breeze past him in the closing minutes, performatively raising his hands as if indicating surrender? The defender was on a booking so couldn’t risk another nibble. He might occasionally behave like a maniac, but he knows exactly what he’s doing.

This is all highly cynical, on the edge of the rules, against the spirit of the thing. But it nearly worked! Belgium were rattled, making defensive errors, shanking clearances out for corners which nearly led to a goals.

Portugal could have taken the game into extra time, if only they weren’t so reliant on the Hail Mary of their captain taking direct free kicks.

The Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick myth

Ronaldo free kick - AFPRonaldo free kick - AFP

Ronaldo free kick – AFP

Every Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick follows the same routine:

  • Farcical suggestion someone else might take it

  • Ronaldo placing ball down and standing well back, positioned so perfectly for maximum camera attention that it cannot be accidental

  • Deep, meaningful exhalation

  • Enormous run-up

  • Ball struck with fury of 1,000 suns

  • Ball hits wall, goes well over or is parried by goalkeeper

This bit of footballing theatre has become event TV. Viewers expect fireworks. Aside from the stunning equaliser against Spain in the first group game of the 2018 World Cup, they rarely arrive for Ronaldo in Portugal colours.

His record with direct free-kicks is not just poor but awful. Here are the stats for every player to take five or more direct free-kicks in international tournaments since 2004, when Ronaldo made his Euros debut.

That puts Ronaldo direct free-kicks for Portugal below even corners (around 3 per cent of which lead to a goal) in the list of things that excite football fans which really shouldn’t.

Looking at the shot map of where Ronaldo has taken his free-kicks for Portugal in tournaments reveals the true folly of his approach:

Some of those are from distances that would get you laughed out of an online Fifa match.

By contrast, and with apologies for re-awakening football’s most tedious debate, here are Lionel Messi’s direct free-kicks at World Cups and Copas America:

One glaring question for Ronaldo: Why not, just once, hasn’t he tried laying the ball off to a well-positioned runner?

The opposition and entire world is expecting a shot, so why not add an element of surprise? Not even a draught excluder could prevent an unmarked team-mate ghosting behind an enormous wall, to be teed up by an artful chip putting him through on ball.

But no. Ronaldo wants to do things like this instead:

Ronaldo throws down captain's armband - AFPRonaldo throws down captain's armband - AFP

Ronaldo throws down captain’s armband – AFP

Alas there will be no more armband-throwing fits of pique this summer. Team Ronaldo are gone and, despite it all, I will miss Portugal for the rest of Euro 2021.

Football needs its villains, they offered some angry contrast in an era of polite son-in-laws, and the away kit they wore on Sunday night really is excellent.

How about you?

Will you miss Fernandes and co.? Are cynical fouls ever acceptable? Will you ever be excited about a Ronaldo free kick again? Let us know in the comments section below.